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Thursday, June 16, 2011



The other day, somebody showed me a bad book*. They thought it would interest me to see how bad it was, so I started the first page not expecting very much in the way of quality. What I encountered, though, was not just shoddy work, but really startling levels of badness: active disasters rather than passive failures. The first sentence got me laughing in astonishment, and it just went on from there. It was really, impressively awful. It was ghastly.

And here's what elevated it to ghastly rather than just mediocre: the writer was trying to be lyrical. I could see what they were aiming for: there were metaphors and images and attempts at implication, all the things you'd find in the work of a poetic stylist. But they just couldn't do it. They didn't have a good enough ear, and kept creating sentences that, by narrowly missing their mark, ended up not just boring but silly, full of unfortunate overtones or bizarre oddities. Rather than sounding poetic, it made the narrative voice sound rather thick, as if the images arose not from a sense of visionary connection but from a certain confusion about what was what. The author was trying to pull off a trick that they didn't have a fine enough sense of language to manage.

Reading this disaster area, a word occurred to me. The word was 'tessitura.'

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, tessitura, when applied to a singer, means the range where the voice feels most comfortable and sounds the best. Above and below the tessitura are notes the singer can reach, but they're more of a stretch, more inclined to rumble or squeak, less suited to show the singer's voice to its best advantage. It only struck me when reading this bad prose, but it's actually an incredibly useful term to consider in the context of writing.

I used to work in a shop in Covent Garden, a hub of tourism where, partly because the Royal Opera House is situated there, a lot of buskers perform their sets in the street. Tourists think it must be nice to be serenaded while you work, but the workers quickly get sick of it, because you hear the same bloody things over and over again. Singers perform several sets a day but have only a single back-up tape to accompany them, so it's the same set, the same songs in the same order, and to make it worse, many of them choose the same songs as each other. Most of them are performing light classics, the kind of thing that fit in with the operatic background but don't put too much strain on an amateur voice, and that are, for bonus points, recognisable to tourists who may tip more if they hear something familiar. There are only so many arias that fit the bill. Extracts from Carmen featured heavily, but the one that everybody, everybody, everybody seemed unable to resist (or so it felt) was 'Summertime - a very nice song that I never, ever want to hear again.

And there was one woman who sang it in particular. If you're reading this, Ms Singer, I'm sorry, but every time I heard your voice, I fantasised about throwing water balloons at you.

It was the rendition of 'Summertime' that did it. Near the end, she'd take a vocal swoop up a sudden octave, showcasing a soprano ability that - I'm sorry - she really didn't have. She could get up to the note, just about, but it a way that sounded far more shrieking than soaring, and wasn't always in tune either. It was within her range, but it was outside her tessitura. The song didn't call for it; it was her own addition - but she would have sounded much better if she hadn't taken that unnecessary leap.

There are writers who are not particularly elaborate stylists. Some people just write plain, lucid, sturdy prose that calls little attention to itself either through memorable beauty or noticeable missteps and just allows the reader to concentrate on the story. Nothing wrong with that; not a thing. Good plain prose is like good plain cooking: more skilled than it looks and very satisfying to curl up with on a cold evening.

A writer of that kind is staying within their tessitura. They're not trying to jump the octave: they're sticking to what they can do and doing it well. On the other hand, there's also such a thing as a writer with a high tessitura, someone who works best with a poetic style and suffers if they try to render it plainer. I've seen someone with an intensely lyrical writing style take the advice of people who doubted she could sustain it and end up wasting a lot of time trying to flatten out her beauties. She didn't produce good plain prose: she produced shackled poetic prose, and what she needed to do was go back to her tessitura and write more poetry. A coloratura doesn't do well trying to be a mezzo. If your tessitura is for highly elaborate writing, it's just as bad an idea to try to be plain as it is for a plain writer to try to be elaborate.

I can't say for sure; my tessitura tends towards the rhythmical and the imageful, so I can't really write about good plain writing from the inside. But what I am sure of that you shouldn't try to strain for poetry. If a comparison occurs to you, by all means put it in, but effortful images show. You wind up less tessitura than Tessie Tura from Gypsy, struggling to impose 'finesse' on a bump-and-grind act and singing about how you gotta get a gimmick.

We speak of writers having 'voices', particularly of them finding their voices. I've always found the former to be true but the latter to be alienating: it implies your voice is something you have to go looking for, an external, disconnecting process. If one hasn't found one's voice, how can one use it? But it's only through using our voice that we find out how to use it best. I think instead it makes sense to say that one needs to feel out one's tessitura: to start speaking or singing until you settle on what's most comfortable - because it's almost certainly in the comfortable range where it'll sound best.

*No, I'm not going to say what the book was. I'll review works of art or analyse their implications critically, but with really bad books there's not much to do except take cheap laughs at their expense, and that's neither nice nor professional. It was just a bad book.

And yet it was published. This is what really depresses me - I've read plenty of novels that didn't appeal to me personally, but I could see their merit, but I've also read plenty where I completely fail to see how they made it from an author to an agent to an editor and out into bookshops.
Well, I think I could see why this one got published, but as I'm refusing to identify it I probably can't go into why.
Lovely post, though. I really think that's a much better way to put things than the "find your voice" advice, which has always struck me as vague and unhelpful.

I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn that there's an equivalent within the martial arts as well - though again, I hadn't really thought of it that way until I read this.
I suspect the same is true of all arts in a way. It's why The Room is so hilariously bad as a film. The writer/ director / star tries so hard and so sincerely to make deep High Art that is so completely out of his range and fails so spectacularly.

I myself am a much plainer writer. I was always jealous of my best friend's more lyrical style when I was a kid. But I grew into my style, especially when I realized it was particularly well-suited for journalism and science writing.
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