Monday, June 16, 2008

Ventriloquists and Exhibitionists

More years ago than I care to remember, I made the grand generalisation in an A-level economics essay: "Economies of scale come in three kinds". The essay was returned with the wry aside: "like shirts?", and ever since I have been wary of generalisations, and particularly of that airy way of expressing them. (And, twenty years later, I've no idea what kinds of economy of scale there are, or whether there are three kinds).

Nonetheless, today I am going to inflict another on the unsuspecting world another such observation: writers come in two kinds. (No, not "poor" and "destitute"). I'm thinking today about writers' voices and, as the title of the post suggests, I've characterised them as "ventriloquists" and "exhibitionists". The ventriloquist occupies the characters so completely that the voice on the page is that of the viewpoint character, even in a third-person narrative: the writer is obscured behind the characters. On the other hand, we have the exhibitionist. However vigorous the characterisation, it is subordinate to the authorial voice. In practice, this is a continuum rather than two polar opposites: most writers will fall somewhere in the middle rather than at either extreme.

Conventional creative writing teaching would have us believe that the ventriloquist is a more fully evolved lifeform than the exhibitionist. The former creates a fully immersive fictional world, while the latter fails to subdue their ego, and creates a less varied experience for the reader. Like a salad smothered with too much vinaigrette, the taste and texture of the individual ingredients is overpowered by what lies on top of it.

I don't hold to this view at all. There are some writers of whom, presented with a single page of their prose, the reader must think "no-one else could have written this". Such a writer is likely to be an exhibitionist. This sort of writing need not be exuberant or extravagant (indeed, if their voice is so dominant, their writing probably won't be overstated, for the danger here is that they cloy the reader's palate). Many exhibitionist writers--who are often lauded as stylists--write spare, understated prose. Writers we have discussed on ::Acquired Taste who fit into the exhibitionist category must include Jack Vance (the apotheosis of the exhibitionist writer), Dickens (whose varied characterisation is always subordinate to the authorial voice), Raymond Chandler, James Ellroy, Muriel Spark and Cordwainer Smith. A case could also be made for Patrick O'Brian and Jane Austen, whose rich characterisation in both cases is held together by prose of a lucid and distinctive intelligence. Lest I be accused of failing to declare an interest, I'd put my own writing strongly at the exhibitionist end of the spectrum (the distinction between exhibitionist and ventriloquist does not make a judgement about the quality of the work, simply the method which is employed).

None of the above should be taken as a denigration of the ventriloquist's approach. Indeed, fellow writers are most likely to admire this kind of approach when it's well executed. The ventriloquist may use several different voices within a book to differentiate viewpoint characters (Joe Abercrombie and Kate Mosse are good examples); or they may write each book with voices which are consistent within the story but contrasting from novel to novel (Jim Crace and Mark Haddon spring to mind (this approach is often but not always associated with first person narratives). The best recent example of a voice tailored specifically to the story I can think of is Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders: it's an approach which is well-suited to historical fiction.

I don't think that either approach is necessarily 'better'. Each writer will have different aims and aptitudes, and these will determine their position on the spectrum. Reading a ventriloquist creates a more complete immersion, because there is no sense of mediation between author and audience: the reader is 'in the story'. The exhibitionist, by contrast, sits between the reader and the story, and this has all the advantages and disadvantages of company in general. A garrulous or banal mediator will swiftly bore or irritate the reader, but a distinctive and engaging voice will add an extra dimension to the reader's journey.

Many of my visitors at ::Acquired Taste are writers themselves. Are you ventriloquists? Or exhibitionists? How many kinds of economy of scale do you think there are?


David Isaak said...

I've never really thought of it like this before. I suppose I'm prone to write the bulk of any novel in deep POV, which means ventriloquism; but I can't keep it up forever, which is why I tend to write a few expository passages with the camera pulled way back.

In my last novel, Earthly Vessels, I have a possibly omniscient narrator who keeps intruding into chapters that are otherwise in reasonably tight character POV. This gives me a chance to riff and generally fool around, and one could argue that this narrator is the voice of the book, and extremely exhibitionistic. But, then, I stick to the voice of that unknown narrator, and he/she definitely isn't me, so maybe that's really ventriloquism...?

Now I'm confused.

And I think there's three kinds of people: those who call them "economies OF scale" and those who insist on "economies TO scale," and those who don't care.

Tim Stretton said...

I think that having an intrusive authorial voice, specific to the book, is ventriloquism. It would only be exhibitionism if you used the same voice in every book.

From what I've seen of your writing I'd put you firmly in the ventriloquism school. Expository prose is entirely consistent with that approach.

Must admit to never having heard the term "economies to scale"--but I was always crap at economics and only took it to avoid having to do a hard science subject...

Anonymous said...

Hmm. I would say that if you're not writing in First Person, then you're automatically inserting a filter -- no matter how thin -- between the reader and the character. Just my 2 cents.

Alis said...

Fascinating post, Tim. I think I'm more exhibitionist than ventriloquist but I have noticed that when writing in the POV or voice of characters other than the central character I tend more towards ventriloquism. Ventriloquism is infinitely easier in first person.
BTW, the book I just blogged about, Engleby, is a brilliant example of ventriloquism.

Tim Stretton said...

Thanks for your comment, Sam. You're right, of course, that third person by definition must be more distancing than first, no matter how limited the third-person POV.

But I can imagine a tight third-person POV--the sort where all the "he's" could as easily be replaced by "I"--which is less tied into the authorial voice than the kind of highly stylised first-person narratives we find, say, in Chandler.

But as you suggest, any narrative is an artificial construct, and in a third-person narrative that's more obvious. It's the flipside of that--the fact the reader can't see the filter--that makes the unreliable narrator device so effective when working in first person.