Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When I talk about voice, this is what I mean

I subscribe to several book club email lists through the Brooklyn Public Library.  (Your library probably has these too-click on "join book clubs" to find out.)

The emails from Suzanne at DearReader.com are a treasure trove of books I don't hear about in other places: not front-list books that are getting a big push from publishers near pub date.

Today's email was not only about an interesting book, it provides an excellent example of voice in non-fiction.  It's by Amy Stewart.

Fighting over Food Scraps: Worms vs. Chickens

Before we got chickens, the worms had a very easy life. They lived in a nice comfortable bin on the porch outside my kitchen door, and tasty food rained down upon them a couple times a day.

In the morning, they'd get spent coffee grounds and maybe an eggshell or the crusts of a piece of toast. Later in the afternoon, they might get a banana peel or an apple core. And at night, there were usually some vegetable trimmings or a little leftover pasta or rice.

It's no wonder worms follow humans wherever we go: we are their personal chefs.

I know a woman who started eating more mangoes and melons just because I told her that worms were partial to the rinds. I made her promise that she was actually eating the fruit and only giving them the scraps. "They eat trash," I said. "You understand that,right? You don't have to actually buy food for them!"

But this is the kind of affection that earthworms inspire. They are clean, quiet, hardworking pets, eager to please and happy to produce something of value--rich earthworm castings, the ultimate plant food--in exchange for a good meal. And I was happy to provide for them--until I got chickens. Suddenly, the worms had competition.

Backyard hens do take a little more care than worms--I can't leave them unattended when I go away on vacation, and their shelter is a little more complicated than the worms'--but I must admit that they are infinitely more rewarding.

My Buff Orpington, Ladybird, is as pleasant and affectionate as a cat, happy to settle down in my lap when I sit outside. And, like the worms, they produce something useful: eggs. The manure is a welcome addition to the compost pile, too.

But now I have this dilemma. Who gets the kitchen scraps? The chickens go crazy for crusts of bread, bits of strawberry, and apple cores. Their delight is so much more obvious than that of the worms, too. They rush up to me, hopping around and squawking in hopes of getting the first bite. The worms might be happy to have a treat, but they certainly don't know how to show it.

So the compromise--if it could be called that--is to give the chickens whatever they want and to let the worms have the rest. The birds don't care about coffee grounds and they are strangely uninterested in lettuce. They don't know what to do with a banana peel. So the worms continue to enjoy those treats, while the chickens get the rest. And they each continue to return the favor by turning those scraps into food for the soil, and food for me. If only my cat would do the same!

This is a stellar example of voice: it's distinctive, and fun. It makes you want to read more. It makes you think of the author as a friend. It's got energy and zest.

This is fun without being flippant, informative without being pedantic, humorous without being silly.  It makes me want to read all Amy Stewart's books (and it's no surprise they're published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill; their catalog will have you clicking "order order order" till your finger -- or your bank -- breaks.)

Compelling voice is tricky in a novel; it's VERY tricky in non-fiction where you must color within the lines of creativity.

What non-fiction books would you use as examples of voice?


Ali Trotta said...

Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD made me laugh a lot. She has a great voice. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion left me in tears; she wrote about her experiences in such raw, beautiful detail. I had to read it in snatches and bits, so I didn't end up a totally useless heap.

steeleweed said...

To me, voice is the part of the writing which is flavored by the author's personality. If the voice is right, you feel you'd like to meet the author; like you already know something about him/her. An author's personality shows up in subtle ways, and it must be kept subtle to avoid interfering with the story.
I think voice in non-fiction is automatic and unavoidable - you're not trying to be someone for the sake of the story and can thus let your self be evident. In fiction, on the other hand, you want the voice to be that of the characters and you have to get into their minds and make the writing express that. In fiction, good voice makes the reader want to meet the character.

Janet Reid said...

Steel, I like your point about voice in novels, and I agree. I disagree about voice in NF. My experience is that a lot of non-fiction writers try to minimize voice: to write as objectively as possible. They strip out the zest, so to speak.

Jessa Russo (Stadtler) said...

In truth, I don't read a lot of non-fiction. I can count on one hand the NF books I've read. I can't think of any of them that were as fun as that one sounds .... Or any that made me want to run out and buy worms and chickens!

Side note: My neighbor just brought home chickens, and as baby chicks they followed her in a little line like she was the Mama Hen. It was so much sweeter than I ever would have imagined chickens could be!

MittensMorgul said...

One of the best examples of voice in non-fiction is from a book my mom got me as a gift. The Sex Lives of Cannibals, by J. Maarten Troost. I laughed through the entire book. The log line from the back cover says it all: "The laugh-out-loud true story of a harrowing and hilarious two-year odyssey in the distant South Pacific island nation of Kiribati--possibly the Worst Place on Earth.

Funny thing is, I heard on the news a few weeks ago that Kiribati is slowly sinking beneath the waves, and their president has a plan to evacuate the entire population to Fiji over the next two years. Read the book before the nation it's about is gone forever. You won't regret it. If you want, you can bubuti my copy. Bubuti being the I-Kiribati way of "permanently borrowing" something from a friend.

Richard Gibson said...

I read a lot of non-fiction, and much of it is indeed, as Janet says, an apparent attempt to be objective. I like objective (I'm a scientist and historian) but I love great flow, great choice of words, and humor -- i.e., voice.

I find a lot of non-fiction that has flashes of great voice, and generally that's enough for me - I'm happy to go through the "objective" stuff (think of it as "dry," if you like, but it's the info I am seeking) with an occasional injection of something that says, "This was written by a person - an interesting person with feelings and opinions."

The example from Janet sounds like something I would very much like to read, but I don't need a whole book to be like that to enjoy it thoroughly. It's fun when that happens, though.

Jamie Wyman said...

Best non-fiction voice I can think of off the top of my head was Stephanie Wilder-Taylor's "Sippy Cups are Not For Chardonnay". Witty, clever and just demented enough to convey the edge of a new mother.

Dana said...

I found Ben Goldacre's BAD SCIENCE to be equal parts engaging and informative. He has no problem balancing his voice as a human being with his 'doctor's voice' in his quest to help the lay public fortify their personal bullshit-o-meters.

He covers topics including the fallacy of the homeopathic medicine, the role of the media in the vaccine/autism scare, the placebo affect, and how to interpret/understand clinical trials, and inherent conflicts of interest/unconscious bias in Big Pharma sponsored studies - all properly references, but presented in a way that will not only keep you awake - it will make you want to read more!

He'll make you laugh, he'll make you mad, and he'll make you think. He'll also make you want to fly to the UK and take him out for a pint while you pick his brain. I certainly did.

*Disclaimer - I was totally geeking out at the time (I'm a professional lab rat, um, I mean biomedical researcher by day). I picked up my copy while vacationing in Stockholm, from a museum all about the Nobel Prize, which is probably as close as I'll ever get to one. But, I still think it's a fabulous read.

The Frisbie said...

As usual I was rewarded with a take away from my morning visit to this comment page. The creative writing academics at college often speak of voice, and I remained puzzled about just what they were trying to convey. Try, as they did, no conversation has as yet given me an adequate understanding of the term voice with regards to written words. Thank you, Janet, and others. I am a wiser student today.

The Writer Librarian said...

David Sedaris is a great nonfiction voice--perfect descriptions with a unique sense of humor. He also has some great stories published in the New Yorker. One of my favorites involves his experience at an airport.

sam said...

@mittens. I'd love to bubuti your copy of the Cannibals book! Sounds like a good one. Now I'm wondering why we don't have a word for permanently borrow in English... It'd be better to disclose upfront whether you want to bubuti or borrow.

Brent Stratford said...

This is going to sound really silly but the best non-fiction voice I have read recently was the manual for a Mackie sound board. I have no idea who wrote the manual but I found myself reading more than I needed just because the voice was excellent.

Following is the opening paragraph for the most boring part of any electrical device -- the power switch:

"Press the top of this rocker switch inwards to turn on the mixer. The front panel power LED will glow with happiness...or at least it will if you have the mixer plugged into a suitable live AC mains supply."

Kay Camden said...

Sam, we do have a word for that in English. It's "have" :)

Angelica R. Jackson said...

Gary Paulsen is well known for his kids books, but my favorite book of his is for adults: Winterdance. An excellent example of voice, as he takes you along for sled dog training and the Iditarod.

NotaWarriorPrincess said...

Bill Bryson, Anne Lamott, John McPhee, Robert Orsi...right now for research I'm reading Ian Hancock and he's pretty amazing. I think a lot depends on genre, too; obviously Lamott and Bryson doing personal essay are going to be more entertaining than anyone doing straight-up reportage, but even in allegedly "dry" genres--like technical instructions!--there are writers who shine. Love to find them! I still remember a passage from a college psychology textbook talking about operant conditioning: "Hypothetically, if you continue to reward more and more specific behaviors, e.g. for approaching the piano, for touching the piano, for touching the keys of the piano, for touching them in a specific order, etc., you can move your pig ever closer to Mozart, and according to the old adage, Carnegie Hall itself." That's a good psych textbook!

Phil Hall said...

To me, "voice," is equal to "the reader isn't bored to tears and continues to read because they're interested, or made interested, by what is written." I could not care less about a particular author, all I want is that the characters (fiction) come to life before me; and in non-fiction, the truth--no matter how crazy--is revealed and I look at the page going "Huh!? I didn't know that about so-and-so."

In the end it's the level of entertainment that is produced, and each book and every writer has differences...which is why I get a bit peeved when someone tries to correct something written to give it "voice."

Either the writer's voice comes through for you or it doesn't, you can't edit it in because...and this is the big point...you are not the writer.

Every voice is different; and all have their stories to tell, but not all tales told hold my attention. (Even if someone else says "You gotta read this!") I can't tell you how many times I have been told "Read this!" and it was about as dull as a plate of bland pudding.

John Lucas Hargis said...

My vote for best non-fiction voice has to go to Mary Roach (Packing for Mars, Boink, Spook). Of course she starts out with the intriquing subjects of space travel, sex and the afterlife, so she has an advantage from the start. She emerges herself in the experiences she's writing about, so she gets to add that flavor to the mix.

MittensMorgul said...

Writer Librarian: I agree! David Sedaris is a riot! I recently read "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" and loved it. When I get a spare $10, I'm getting "Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk."

Tonya Kuper said...

I'm a YA junkie and don't read a lot of nonfiction, but an adult novel that's an excellent example of voice is DOMESTIC VIOLETS by Matthew Norman.

sbjames said...

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress is a laugh-out-loud memoir that tells a rather sad personal tale without being one bit whiny.

Eats Shoots and Leaves- a book about grammar that had me cracking up.

sbjames said...

Oh, I forgot to add that while I loved the post,having had two pet chickens in my childhood, I am stunned that hers haven't scratched up that bin and eaten every last one of her worms. My only guess is that the bin has a lid- our compost pile was more of the in a far corner, open, red-neck style. Or perhaps her chickens are contained.

Sheila JG said...

I just read Bossypants, and I could hear Tina Fey's voice as I read.

This is the third time in as many days that I've heard about someone's backyard hens. It sounds like a fun trend, but I see it for what it really is - One more thing to make me feel guilty about my lifestyle. "You have backyard hens, right? Don't you know they produce eggs without stress? WIth half the cholesterol?"

Judith Gonda said...

I agree with Writer Librarian and Mittens about David Sedaris. I can't read his short stories without laughing so hard tears stream down my face. I love puns and Youth in Asia is one of his best. I was so thoroughly sucked into his short stories I thought they were fiction and was surprised when I discovered they were listed under non-fiction. Fine line. I guess my favorite books are fiction that informs like non-fiction and non-fiction that entertains like fiction. I've tried to do that in my novel.

Purple Houses said...

Michael Perry’s POPULATION: 485 about returning to his rural Wisconsin hometown. He’s honest without being disparaging and doesn’t “lose his voice” when he diverges from humor into tragedy. Also TRUCK: A LOVE STORY.

The Frisbie said...

The early bird gets the worm is what I was told. I too had yard chickens, had a compost—out there-- and went fishing as well. Things just have a rhythm when you live in the country, and a voice as well.

Sara said...

My favorite NF voices are Kathleen Flinn's THE SHARPER YOUR KNIFE, THE LESS YOU CRY and Elizabeth Gilbert's EAT, PRAY, LOVE.
I love them for the same reasons that Steeleweed mentions above--the author shines through and I feel like I know them. What's more, I really, really like them.
It's the flavor and the zest that I want. Screw objectivity ;)

Marissa Doyle said...

Redmond O'Hanlon has an amazing voice--a veneer of befuddled British naturalist overlying a sharp, uncompromising, but compassionate intelligence. Sort of Bill Bryson on steroids.

Janet Reid said...

Purple, I too love TRUCK!

Lisa Gomley said...

This is a great post. I have never read a lot of NF but I do want to change that. There are some great suggestions here.

Sara...I also loved Eat,Pray,Love! By then end of the book, I felt like I wanted to call Elizabeth to meet me for a drink.

Rick Anderson said...

For non-fiction Voice--actually they tend to scream--I like Jeremy Rifkin and Johnathon Kozel.

I would also include Mailer, Capote, Michener, in some ways Kerouac and my all time favorite--Hunter S.

Fear and Loathing might not be non-fiction in the strictest sense of the word but when considering the topic of Voice, Gonzo rocks!

Yvonne Osborne said...

I disagree. Our chickens love lettuce. But they really go nuts over worms.

Cara M. said...

The Kid by Dan Savage is a great memoir.

Oddly, I'm taking a class on Judith Butler this semester, and shockingly, after spending two years reading Linguistics articles, I've realized that Butler is actually a beautiful writer. We read Antigone's Claim for this week though, which is a series of lectures. Lectures always seem to be much more full of voice than academic writing, but Butler-simplified read as amateurish in comparison. A too chummy, too snarky voice in non-fiction can undermine the reader's confidence. Voice in non-fiction has to walk a fine line.

MOV said...


Just found your blog and will definitely be back to read more!

I love the example of writing that you gave-- that author is very talented, and the way she writes makes you want to gobble up her story's final words like the last bit of ice-cream in the bowl, the last melty bit that you want to savor on your tongue and remember. Mmmmmmmm.

My goal is to write JUST LIKE THAT.


Mister Furkles said...

Martin Gilbert is the official biographer of Winston Churchill. Along with a 24 volume official biography, Gilbert wrote a one volume version: Churchill a Life. It’s about half a million words. After reading it, you will know the names of those who knew Churchill, the events that shaped his life, his many accomplishments and his few failures.

Martin Gilbert is a historian.

William Manchester also wrote a biography of Winston Churchill: The Last Lion. Manchester puts Churchill into you den. Winston leans back in an easy chair with a cigar in one hand and a brandy snifter in the other. He tells you stories of his life. You laugh with him when he tells humorous episodes and when he tells sad ones, you get tears in your eyes.

William Manchester was a writer.

And the difference is voice.

SueJ said...

I read a whole lot of non-fiction, probably more than fiction, but its a close call. I can think of quite a few, Population 485 and Tractor I agree were great. There is a similar series of books called the Northwoods Readers about living in UP Michigan that are hysterical. One I highly reccommend for humor is Situation in Flushing for anyone over 50, those under won't appreciate it fully.

The most informative one I read that was absorbing is Superpower. It contained actually mechanical drawings of one of the largest steam locomotives and used the voice from the viewpoint of an employee who started working at Lima Locomotive Works as a kid then became an engineer. Anyone could have understood the concept of steam locomotives after that. What a great way of communicating a complicated concept.

Robin Ruinsky said...

Devil in the White City by Erik Larson