Mark Terry

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A Fresh, Original Voice

February 21, 2008
I wasn't sure what to write about, so I googled "weird photographs" and came up with the one just to the right, which struck me as being of special interest to me where it concerns writing.

How many times over the last couple years have I heard some agent or editor say, "I'm looking for a fresh, original voice."

And here's the thing.


I mean, really, how original do they want you to be? Should my next novel be written all in sentence fragments with an unnamed narrator, possibly in a made-up phonetic language, starting at the ending and running to the beginning? Or should I just smear excrement on the pages and send it in? Which one would have a better chance of being published?

Anybody remember the novel "Vox"? Anybody remember who wrote it? Anybody know if he's still writing? For all I know he is. But for one brief flameout in literary history, publishers got all ga-ga about a guy who wrote a novel entirely in dialogue that was essentially phone sex for a couple hundred pages. 




Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. I read an awful lot in one or two genres and I understand that agents and editors are looking for something "fresh and original." Because, frankly, they're reading a lot of the same old stuff. And some of that same old stuff is pretty damned good, but it's still the same old stuff. What often strikes me in any area of artistic endeavor when someone starts ranting about how fresh and original someone is, is that perhaps the critic needs to get out more.

Here's an example, for those of you old enough. David Byrne, former lead singer of The Talking Heads, made a movie (starring, interestingly enough, an unknown actor named John Goodman). I'm not sure I remember the title correctly, but it might have been "Real People," and I can't google it without losing my space here. This widely forgotten film even made the cover of Time Magazine, with David Byrne and the title "Rock's Renaissance Man." [For those of you too young, the '80s was NOT all about big hair, okay?]

I remember a letter to the editor a week or so later that said (I'm paraphrasing), "With all due respect to Mr. Byrne's considerable talents both as a composer, singer and film director, the original Renaissance Man was Leonard da Vinci, who made significant contributions to culture in the areas of art, architecture and science. In our history, there have been very few true 'Renaissance Men.' Theodore Roosevelt, who made a significant impact on history in several categories, including politics, is perhaps--perhaps--a Renaissance Man. Thomas Jefferson--yes; Benjamin Franklin--yes. David Byrne? I don't think so."

Which is a longwinded way of saying, beware this "fresh, original" label. There's undoubtedly as many people saying that JK Rowling was fresh and original. So fresh and original, I suppose, that her first publisher gave her a whopping $500 advance. Take your "fresh and original" voice to the bank, Ms. R. Frankly, I enjoy her books a hell of a lot, but I'm not sure I would use either "fresh" or "original" to describe Harry Potter. Enjoyable. A nicely detailed fictional universe. An Everyman main character that can appeal to everyone who has ever felt neglected, ignored or badly treated and wishes they could be heroic in some fashion. Immersive. Enjoyably immersive.

Which I suppose is another way of saying, we don't know what the hell "fresh and original" is, but we know it when we see it. Or smell it. Or whatever.

And I wonder if "fresh and original" is some sort of code phrase for: "really great marketing hook we can hang a 7-figure advance on."

What do you think?

Mark Terry 


Blogger spyscribbler said...

This is my unscientific, unknowledgeable, and unresearched opinion (so of course I'm convinced it's correct), but I think "fresh and original" means: 1) Not grammatically-perfect, dry, textbook-style writing; 2) Clarity; 3) Vividness; 4) and some sort of style that's all of the above.

Maybe, a voice you don't have to work hard to read?

3:54 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

PS: I think (again, I have no idea, really) that agents and editors read so much stuff that's not clear and not vivid, that when they come across it, it is "fresh and original" to them.

I don't really think it's all that fresh, or all that original, if you're comparing to the published books rather than the other submissions.

3:56 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I think the term "fresh and original" is what they say when they don't know what to call that thing that will catch their eye. Maybe something they don't even know they are looking for.

I wrote a story about a woman reincarnated as a chihuahua. I don't know what to do with it. It was one of those things that spilled out as I was trying to clear my head. Its not fresh or anything but >gag< cute.
I found an agent who put his dog's picture on his website under agents. I think I'll send it to the dog with a note to ask one of the agents to read it to her.
I think only another dog might appreciate it.
Original enough? Anyone ever queried the dog?

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Or should I just smear excrement on the pages and send it in?"

Well, there's a lot of crap published....

"Anybody remember the novel "Vox"? Anybody remember who wrote it?"

Yes. Nicholson Baker. He was born in Rochester, NY, where I lived for years, so I was aware of his rise to fame. He wrote a "novel" called The Mezzanine, which takes place entirely during the protagonist's ride up an escaltor, in fact the very escalator at Mid-Town Plaza that I used almost every day. But I never thought to write a book about it. Actually, the "novel" was really a bunch of quirky essays, which were not bad judged as such.

Now I am not against idiosyncratic writing -- see Alain Robbe_Grillet, whom I just wrote about, a favorite of mine. But these days, when publishers start yapping about "fresh" and "original" they seem to mean, "gimmicky," "so bizarre as to be laughable." -- something or some character that most of us would never have thought of because the idea is just too damn moronic!

How about characters we can identify with? Characters who aren't totally unbelievable.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Melanie Avila said...

Mark, I think you're right about the hook that will earn a big advance.

Spyscribbler, I agree with your point about agents reading so much crap that the good writing shines through as fresh.

Aimless, you made me snort. Are you really querying the dog? ;)

7:29 PM  

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