Please Be Less Fabulous, George Saunders.
In a recent two-week period, I inhaled the entire, tantalisingly small (but only in volume) body of work of the American short story writer George Saunders. In those two weeks, during the times that I wasn’t incapacitated with envy, I found that everything I wrote came out like George Saunders – or to be more precise, it came out like someone trying to write like George Saunders, but tragically unable to succeed, due to not being George Saunders. I consoled myself by reading George Saunders again. You might think that’s a little masochistic, but the writing is so brilliant that joy overwhelms jealousy in a proportion of about 10-1.
The problem was and is that George Saunders captures speech patterns in such a faultless way that once you’ve read it, you can’t hear anything else. You can hear him reading a couple of his stories at the Lannan Foundation website. They’re not my favourites, but if you listen to the voice of the driving school instructor in ‘A Barber’s Unhappiness’ (a story about an odious man), you’ll get an idea of what I mean.
An additional problem is that the voices in his stories are American. And I’m not. And now the speech patterns and idioms that were appearing when I tried to write conversation were American. And my characters are (in the main) not. It says something about the printed word – or at least, the really good printed word – that it can become so rooted in one’s internal ear after just a few hours reading it, that even after days and weeks of listening to the different voices around you, it remains louder than all of them.
For me, at least, the voices in comic writing tend to stick particularly firmly. As with Mr Saunders, if you are trying to write I advise that you steer clear of the utterly fabulous Lucy Ellmann*. Her books may have you laughing until the snot dribbles elegantly from your nostrils, but for a while afterwards, nothing you write will seem REMOTELY EFFECTIVE, relying as it does on STUPID FLIMSY LOWER CASE LETTERS. And no, you can’t write brilliant snatches of your deathless prose in all caps, because it is so distinctive that anyone reading it will sigh and think, OH DEAR, LUCY ELLMANN HAS ALREADY DONE THIS – AND YOU, MEAGRE WRITER, AIN’T NO LUCY ELLMANN.
It was a good few months since I’d last (re-)read Lucy Ellman, so I had only a residual urge to BELT OUT THE CAPITALS, which was becoming easier to restrain. Mr Saunders’s brilliance, however, was clearly a problem. I had to put down the George and back away slowly.
The fact is, I occasionally need to stop reading for an hour or two, in order to really start listening again to the voices of the people around me, and to the rhythms of their speech. I can’t claim yet to have captured them on the page, but at least they are settling in to my internal ear again.
Update: It appears I was worrying over nothing. Courtesy of the quite amazing time-wasting/ego boosting device at I Write Like, I have discovered that I don’t write like a rubbish George Saunders at all. In fact, I write like James Joyce (x4), Charles Dickens (x2), PG Wodehouse (x2), ‘Arthur Clarke’ (‘C’, surely?) (x2), Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, L Frank Baum, Chuck Palahniuk, David Foster Wallace and Stephen King. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Clearly a very efficient and perspicacious machine. Do try it – you might be surprised. You will definitely be amused. And do post your own results below.
*If anyone reading this has any connection whatsoever to the fragrant Ms Ellmann, could you please encourage her to write another book, it’s been ages…