Problems of the Uni-Voice

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 7th, 2013

This past week, I’ve been to three concerts: Elvis Costello, a local singer/songwriter competition, and David Cook. Loved all three for different reasons. What bound them together was the pleasure of watching people do what they’re passionate about, and do it well. I think I’ve written here before about losing it at Eric Carle’s studio, so moved by his deep, gentle joy in creating a simple bird for a small audience of booksellers that my eyes leaked until I needed to slip downstairs and get a grip. I don’t think there is anything more inspiring than being among passionate, creative, talented people sharing their love of what they do.

The singer/songwriter competition was especially inspiring, perhaps because the performers were, for the most part, younger and more raw and courageously finding their voices. There were nine contestants — the top three finalists from each of three first rounds. They were judged on a variety of criteria: singing, songwriting, stage presence, instrumental skill, etc. All nine, more or less, were at least enjoyable to listen to. Four of them (in my opinion) had notably interesting voices that rose a cut above the others, and two of them (again, my opinion) wrote lyrics that stood head and shoulders above the rest;* their writing had poetry in it, something magical that can’t be faked. Their songs transcended the simplistic “me, me, me” of many contemporary songs. Think of songwriters, master lyricists like Paul Simon or Leonard Cohen: they’ve got Voice with a capital V. Distinctive, individual, recognizable at 1000 paces.

Which is my problem, I think, with first person present tense. Bear with me; this may make sense in a second. I know I’m a lone voice in the wilderness here; first person present tense (FPPT for short) is what so many writers are using these days. Heck, I’m using it now. And there absolutely are FPPT novels with a beautifully distinct voice. But. Sometimes I’ll read a spate of YA novels and feel as though the narrator of all of them could be the same person (what I think of as the uni-voice), and I blame that on first person present with its limited close-up lens and necessarily internal focus. I don’t want every smart, observant, wry, misfit teen narrator to sound the same.

Even in the face of first person present, I want writers to knock my socks off, the way, for example, Franny Billingsley does in Chime.

I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged.
Now, if you please.
I don’t mean to be difficult, but I can’t bear to tell my story. I can’t relive those memories—the touch of the Dead Hand, the smell of eel, the gulp and swallow of the swamp.
How can you possibly think me innocent? Don’t let my face fool you; it tells the worst lies. A girl can have the face of an angel but have a horrid sort of heart.

Somehow Billingsley makes FPPT serve her purposes and ends up with gorgeous language and rhythm and — most welcome — strangeness in her writing.

Julie Berry’s recent extraordinary All the Truth That’s in Me has that kind of magic, as well. She plays with tense, mixing limited third past tense and first person present so masterfully it’s not noticeable unless you’re taking apart what it is she’s doing and how she does it so well. It’s almost impossible to isolate moments in this book to post here when so much depends upon what has gone before, and when sharing the most powerful, beautiful sections would be giving away too much; it’s unfair to share those with people who haven’t read the book. But here’s a little snippet. (It’s not really a spoiler to tell you that the narrator is talking about a horse.)

I hear a rustle behind me. I creep back to see, plying my way through willow branches like a swimmer. 

I can’t see her but I feel her there. The sweet dusty scent of her hide, the whoosh of her breath. It’s a wonder she didn’t flee at the explosions.

I don’t know her name, neither could I use it if I did. She is more shadow and fancy than flesh and bone. I christen her Phantom.

It’s inspiring to come upon books that make something fresh of the same old words we all use. Both the reader and the writer in me thrill to the magic of strangeness and beauty, to deep creativity.

Does anyone else encounter and feel frustrated by the uni-voice in contemporary FPPT novels? What advice do you have for avoiding it? And what first person present tense novels knock YOUR socks off?

* It must be disclosed that one of the two lyricists whose work so impressed me at the contest is Flying Pig bookseller Laura Heaberlin. She and her close friend, the other gifted songwriter with magic in her lyrics, took second and first, respectively, in the contest. Congratulations, Laura!

7 thoughts on “Problems of the Uni-Voice

  1. Donna C

    I’m not a big fan of FPPT, mainly because I can’t suspend my disbelief long enough to read it, especially in YA. You’ll have a hard time convincing me that, regardless of the teen’s intelligence, that they’re thinking that prosaically. It’s just not realistic and I can’t help but think it’s more author than character on the page when I see it. I don’t read very much of it and I can’t think of any titles off the top of my head that blew my socks off with FPPT but it’s just not a style I enjoy reading.

  2. Elizabeth Bluemle

    E. Lockhart is another master of first person present tense. I remember some years ago reading one of her books and trying to figure out why and how the writing was just SO GOOD, so much better than most other FPPT novels I was reading at the time. I guess it all boils down to that elusively wonderful quality, voice, and freshness. And maybe a little bit of genius on the parts of the ones who do it so well.

  3. Patrick Samphire

    I agree completely. It think it’s mainly down to mediocre writing, though, rather than the particular choice. You’ve illustrated very well how a good author can make the FPPT work beautifully. There are simply too many YA authors churning out unthinking copies of what they’ve read (this is true for all genres, of course, not just YA), and what they’ve read it FPPT.

    (As an aside, that extract from Julie Berry’s book was absolutely gorgeous.)

  4. Sondy

    I get really annoyed with present tense novels. You can’t fool me; I know you’re not writing it this moment. If I can manage to not notice that it was present tense — then I know it was excellently done. But I will most often decide not to read a book if it’s written in present tense.

  5. James S.

    As a writer I can also tell you that sometimes the editor is to blame as well. I’m with you on FPPT but sometimes It does work and is the best choice to make for a certain work. I had just finished a short story and the editor ripped it up and took out the character’s distinct manner of speaking (which was not grammatically correct)… resulting in the uni-voice.

    As a writer wanting to be paid, sometimes you have to just smile and make the changes.

  6. Carol Chittenden

    A distinctive voice is almost always an asset, for sure, and management of tenses has a lot to do with it. I care less about writers who choose the present tense — presumably they have their reasons — but when I encounter paragraph after paragraph after paragraph of the past perfect, I almost always set the book aside. A capable storyteller would either start the story earlier, or work in the back story with other tools. And WHERE was the EDITOR??? Oh, never mind. There are other books waiting to be read and ordered, even by cranky old readers like me.

  7. Michelle

    I’m not a writer, so I have no idea if this is actually true, but as a reader, I’ve always felt that first-person writing is a lazier form of writing. It makes me not want to read a book, though I will usually try to read a couple of pages to see if the writing draws me in.

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