That voice I don’t like


Today while reading a novel I finally figured it out.

There’s a certain kind of voice I do not like in fiction. I’d sort of define it as the sarcastic voice. Or the hip voice. It’s the voice that talks in shorthand, says cynical things and acts like it’s unimpressed with everything. Sure, everyone uses this sometimes, in some scenes, but what I’m talking about is the whole novel in the voice of someone who’s seem it all, and knows it.

Thing is, I could never figure out why this bothered me before. But as I was reading this novel, by a San Francisco author I’ll leave nameless unless I start to get more impressed, I began to realize writers generally use this voice, at least in my opinion, as a desperate bid for credibility. If they’re cynical and hard, we’ll believe them more, and grant them “authorial authority.”

And I think that’s weak.

To give an example of what I’m talking about I’ll make up something random in that style: The bar consisted of losers, users and schmoozers. To the left, kids who’d never get laid if they paid with a Gold Card. To the right, redneck nose-breathers who needed help signing their names. At the end of the bar, Little Leena, needing her hit of particulate matter, fired up another cancer stick and blew smoke through her nostrils like a raging dragon on steroids. 

If you have to come across as a smart-assed know-all to be taken seriously as the narrator, maybe your story is weak. Or your words are weak. Maybe you’re fooling yourself.

You’ll fool a lot of other people too. Many readers don’t know what’s good, but they want to seem like they’re in the know, so they heap praise. Who doesn’t want to rally behind a “smart person,” after all? It reminds me of a number of experiments where researchers poured four-dollar wine into fancy bottles or served microwaved supermarket entrees on fancy china and told people it was expensive and exclusive. They rated it extremely high.

I found the premise of Walter Kirn’s Up In the Air intriguing and enjoyable, but I noted that when Jason Reitman adapted it as a movie he made many changes, and the snarky been-there-done-that tone was among the things that were removed. The character played by George Clooney was much more human and open. I think that gives the story more credibility than peopling your world with self-satisfied jerks.

I wish novels came with a label, sort of like this one…


…to warn of a novel with a cynical narrator. I’d heed it. How about you?


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