Thursday, 7 March 2013

Authenticity, dialect and voice in fiction

How do we frame a world to make it authentic?


Authenticity has been a concept riding high in the zeitgeist of late, touching upon aspects of life from food to the self. Authenticity in fiction may seem like an awkward idea. If it’s all made up, or is even – as some people like to put it – just lies, surely authenticity is irrelevant?

I think it is relevant in various ways. I once debated long with David Constantine on the right of an author to write about places, events or people. He took the view that unless an individual was sufficiently close to, say, experiencing world war two, either through personal experience or absorbing enough report from someone who did experience, it, they had no right to fictionalise it. This causes problems for any writer hoping to transport readers to places they have not been themselves, not to mention the implications for anyone writing fantasy or fiction with elements of the impossible.

Another type of authenticity in fiction is that of voice, or dialect. Can a born and bred southerner effectively create, for example, Northumbrian voices on the page? Should they even try, according to Constantine’s stance? Whatever the answers to those questions, there is something powerful about a voice in fiction that feels authentic to the reader, and sustains that feeling. One of my favourite examples is the act of ventriloquism achieved by Peter Carey in True History of the Kelly Gang (see John Kinsella’s commentary on it here). I was gripped by Ned Kelly’s voice throughout, and when I found Kelly’s original letters online, which Carey had used to create the style of the novel, it sent shivers through me.

Original and authentic voices can be conjured by rhythm as much as dialect. Examples abound amongst Irish writers; my mother, a keen observer of narrative techniques, is fascinated by the cadences of Sebastian Barry’s The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, which, even for a reader who cannot do a passable Irish accent, magic up a voice that colours one’s reading of the whole book. These touches can be subtle. I read the story ‘Shovel Kings’ from Edna O’Brien’s collection Saints and Sinners this week, and even the addition of a definite article here and there where we would not use one in English speech kept me alongside the immigrant Irish labourer as he reminisced with the narrator.

The story that got me thinking about all this was another I read this week: ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ from Sarah Hall’s insanely good collection The Beautiful Indifference. The writing and the subjects in this book are so wonderful you should read it anyway, but that story seduced me in particular because of the flecks of language throughout that I could never produce myself.

Sarah Hall was born in Cumbria, which perhaps provides her with the vocabulary (as well as the right to use it), but the way she uses it is in itself a wonder, adding an extra dimension to the sinister feel of the story. Threatening another girl, the terrifying teenage Manda says, “You’re a lajful little tuss.” Manda’s eyes ‘were what my granddad would have called ower glisky – bright after the rain;’ her father calls his son a ‘goodfernobbut twat,’ a ‘runty mutt.’ These terms evoke otherness, perhaps enhancing the sinister but also adding a strange kind of glamour to the violent gypsy family to whom the narrator is in thrall. But most of all, they evoke a real world, even as we know we are reading fiction, grounding characters in a world we feel is being given to us whole, rather than created piecemeal in our own heads.

In my own stories at the moment I am trying to create a world that is not our own, nor anybody’s, but that will have a ring of authenticity in it; much of this relies on building up a consistent rhythm and vocabulary in my characters’ speech, and in their cultural references and expressions. Margo Lanagan is one writer who achieves this in fictional fantasy worlds, through language and names, but I wonder about how much the creator of completely ‘made-up’ communities and places can learn from writers who have a direct line to unique dialects and isolated cultures. My hunch for now is: a lot.

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