In a response to a blog on my personal site a while ago about the writing voice, a commenter who goes by the avatar Joplingirl noted that, “Finding a voice is inherently about bringing to the page a silenced story.” I love that idea, and the thought has occurred to me occasionally since, no doubt because of the hundreds of short stories and flash fictions I read for Tahoma Literary Review.
Submissions for the journal bring in all manner of tales from around the world, and from all perspectives, and it’s both exciting and daunting to be a curator of the art that ultimately appears in TLR. And as my literary aesthetic develops they’ve also made me think a lot about the silenced story, what it means, and why it is so much more effective than a more didactic form.
My first thought brought to mind the idea of the unobtrusive author, the writer who is able to remove him/herself from the text so that the characters and events tell the story. Decades ago it was common for writers to play God, to address readers directly and lecture them about the narrative. Readers then, I imagine, felt secure in the hands of an author who acted not so much as guide, but as pastor, interpreting the text for the uninitiated. We have changed much since then—readers (at least readers of literary writing) prefer to interpret works for themselves. But even now many submitters who aspire to be literary authors have trouble getting past the “Look at me, look at the words I’ve used. See how creative my writing is! Let me tell you what it means” type of prose that draws attention to itself and pushes the reader away from knowing the characters. It’s a form of grandiosity that persists in other areas of life as well.
But it also occurs that a silenced story is one that has been thought through, not only to a surprising and satisfying conclusion, but has had its “noisy” aspects quieted. By this I mean those passages that are never resolved to the story, that provide information we don’t need, or take us on unnecessary tangents. I suspect this happens because the writer didn’t spend enough time in the revision process, which includes letting it sit for weeks or months before re-approaching it fresh. In fact, a comment I make often while reading the submissions is that the story isn’t quite ready, that the author needs more time to develop its theme and flow, to distill the work down to its essentials and nothing more, to eliminate its gimmicks and clichés.
How like movies in some respects—our choices seemingly relegated to an in-your-face, blowup everything “blockbuster” designed to appeal to a 12-year-old’s taste, and something that actually requires a little thought on the viewer’s part. I mention this because of a recent article in The Atlantic magazine, titled, “The Hollywood List Everyone Wants to Be On,” about Franklin Leonard’s Black List, in which an anonymous survey of movie executives is used to identify quality screenplays that otherwise would be ignored. The Black List, according to the article, has “recognized four of the past eight Best Picture winners, and pushed movie studios to think beyond sequels and action flicks.” Apparently even Hollywood knows that its best work is silenced too.
I can’t help seeing an inverse relationship between the loudness of the voice and the substance of the message. I’m reminded of the statements one occasionally sees in an election ballot guide, or on Twitter, the ones in which the speaker has nothing to say, and so says it all in CAPITAL LETTERS, as though shouting at the reader, trying to drown out opposing ideas. Do we even listen to such bombast? Your answer says a lot about who you are as a reader, a viewer, and a person. And as a writer. In my feedback I often advise submitters to tone down the voice, and give the reader credit for being able to figure things out. The people who ignore a shout are the ones who will listen to a whisper.