I recently read Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, and whilst I thought it was an excellently written book, and I generally enjoyed it, I found the middle section a bit of a drag. After some consideration I’ve realised why. I simply don’t like it when authors write in an accent or dialect.
In fact, the more I thought about it, the more this realisation rang true, and I began to remember other examples. I have never really loved Wuthering Heights (gasp!). This is primarily because it was sold to me as a tragic, timeless romance and I discovered it to be a book full of pathetic, bitter and petty characters that don’t have a single redeeming quality between them. However, my dislike of the book was deepened by Joseph, the disagreeable servant who speaks in an unintelligible Yorkshire dialect throughout the whole novel. Also he’s miserable and irritating, and generally (in my opinion) superfluous to the plot, although I’m sure I once said how his character is an example of the hardened labouring classes of nineteenth-century rural Yorkshire or some such claptrap when I studied the book at school. My point is, any book that contains the below speech is just asking to be thrown at a wall in exasperation.
We’s hae a Crahnr’s ‘quest enah, at ahr folks. One on ’em’s a’most getten his finger cut off wi’ hauding t’other froo’ sticking hisseln loike a cawlk. That’s maisterm yah knaw, ut’s soa up uh going tuh t’grand ‘sizes.
Back to Cloud Atlas. It isn’t half as bad as Wuthering Heights, but it still got to me a bit. The middle section is set an indeterminable amount of years in the future after the collapse of civilisation. The story is narrated by a man living on an island inhabited by several tribes who live without electricity, technology or any of the “Smart” of the “Old’uns”. It starts:
Old Georgie’s path an’ mine crossed more times’n I’m comfy mem’ryin, an’ after I’m died, no sayin’ what that fangy devil won’t try an’ do to me
Upon reading this first sentence my heart sank. Yes, I know it’s not that different to “normal” writing, and it’s definitely easier to understand than Joseph but I couldn’t bear the thought of a whole chunk of this novel being written like this. In my experience writing in an accent makes it awkward for the reader, constantly trying to sound out the words in their head, and it usually ends up ruining the flow of the prose.
It’s not that I don’t see where David Mitchell is coming from; it makes perfect sense to write the middle section like this as it is an oral account, not a written one, and therefore it wouldn’t make sense to be overly formal. I totally understand why he felt the need for a dialect. I also think it’s perfectly reasonable to imagine that countless years in the future after the collapse of civilisation language won’t be the same as it is now. Hell, I know that language is evolving every day and if my Victorian/Edwardian/until 10 years ago ancestors read this they would be horrified and perplexed by my informal, scatterbrained writing. I think it’s actually extremely clever of Mitchell to have written the book like this, with each section written believably in the language of its setting. The middle section is meant to be a narrated story, not a written journal or tale like the other sections, and as such it fits in with the rest of the book nicely. And the rest of the sections are also cleverly written. The proper and precise language of Adam Ewing’s Journal in the nineteenth century seems entirely credible, as are the funny, flowery and verbose letters from the 1930s.
However, it’s not the language I have a problem with, it’s phonetic writing. Even though writing in an accent like this is the best way for Mitchell to convey that a) it’s an oral account and b) language has changed in this future setting, I still don’t like it. Phonetic writing slows the reader down because you have to translate the words in your head (internally you go, “oh I see, by “an'” he means “and”). I don’t really want to have to translate what I’m reading. In fact, if I wanted to do that, I’d have bought a book in Italian and spent a month trying to decipher it. What I really wanted was a novel written in my own language that I could lose myself in. It’s made even worse by the fact that English is the least phonetic language in the world (it feels like it anyway). We’re just not used to reading like this! We carefully learn how to spell and say every word properly when we’re really young and then we stick to it. Stubbornly.
I’m only picking on Cloud Atlas because it is fresh in my mind. Please understand that I thought that it was a great book, and the language thing was really only a minor irritation. I’m just using it as an example of a bigger issue I have had for years. I also had similar troubles with Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and even though it was a good book, I struggled through it because of the phonetically written speech. I think that generally, I have a pretty good idea of what most accents sound like in English, and if an author was to write that a character spoke in a Scottish/Irish/German/Whatever accent I would be able to hear it in my mind all on my own, without any help from the author. Sometimes it feels like writers just like showing off.
So there you have it. I reeeeaally don’t like accents and dialects in writing. In my opinion they’re unnecessary and awkward to read. Rant over.
N.B. I allow only one exception: I don’t really mind Hagrid’s slight accent in the Harry Potter books as it’s very easy to understand, doesn’t interrupt the flow of the writing and accounts for such a small part of the series. But as a Potter geek I’m probably a bit biased.
*in my humble opinion.
Hello! I’m going to kick WCBH Version 2.0 off with a list! I just love lists, me. This post isn’t really aimed at those established novelists or academics out there, but more at people who might want to improve their everyday writing. If I do happen to help any professional writers though, that would be awesome! These are really simple things which have helped me enormously, and still do every time I think about writing (which is more than you might have thought given how few and far between my blog posts have been). I’m sorry if I lapse into bossiness below, I can’t help it. It’s for your own good anyway.
1. Read more, read everything!
I accept this to be an extremely obvious point but it has to be said. Reading is one of the best ways to help
your writing; it will help spelling, vocabulary, style, tone, grammar, the list goes on. However, my advice to everyone is don’t limit yourself to one genre; just reading OK! magazine or the Twilight Saga (sorry Meyer) isn’t going to help you that much. Similarly, sticking to the classics probably won’t help if you’re the kind of person who likes laid-back informal writing. Mix it up! Read a bit of everything: modern fiction, classics, sci fi, fantasy, romance, crime, magazines, newspapers, online articles, blogs, etc. Yes, you’re going to have favourites, but branching out and finding new stuff is exciting and enlightening. You’ll develop a good feel for style and flow in your writing and you’ll probably expand your general knowledge in the process as well.
2. Learn a foreign language
Now I know this one is hard; I tried suggesting this to a friend once and the idea was instantly poo-pooed. I understand that it’s not easy to just decide to learn a foreign language overnight, you’d have to think about finding classes or forking out for Rosetta Stone software, but TRUST ME ON THIS ONE, it’ll be worth it.
Native English speakers don’t have to think about speaking English, you just do it. You’ve learnt it by talking it first and it comes naturally to form sentences. However, when writing it, people get mixed up with homophones and make other basic grammatical errors that don’t exist or matter in speech. The best way to correct this is to see English from a different perspective, and learning another language will do this. You have to get to grips with different verb conjugations, pronouns, sentence structure, etc. and your mind will relate it all back to English. For example someone who speaks English as their second language wouldn’t mix up your and you’re, because they will be translating two different things; they’ll know they mean either the possessive pronoun or “you are”.
OK, I know I can’t convince everyone with this one and I’m not even explaining myself very well, but I really think just learning the basics of another language will be an eye-opener; you’ll learn things about English you never expected. You could just learn a few key verbs (to be, to go, to eat etc.) and some really basic vocabulary. Plus, pick the language you’re going to find most useful on future holidays and you can stop shouting slowly at waiters and embarrassing yourself. Just think about it.
3. Read your writing aloud, then get someone else to check it for you
A fairly straight forward tip. Reading your work aloud will help you identify problems in flow and sentence structure. It will also help you pick up on punctuation placement and repetition of certain words. If you’re like me and you would rather not start talking to your computer you can do it all in your head by imagining you are giving a speech. Well, in either case you’ll end up feeling crazy but it will help your writing.
Having someone else read your writing is invaluable as they will always pick up on things you don’t see. Your eyes will skate over obvious mistakes and typos. I find it hard to keep rereading my own writing anyway, it makes me cringe, so I hastily get someone else to check it for me when I’m finished.
4. Write more!
The more you write, the better you’ll get at it. Fact. It doesn’t really matter what you write, just do a bit more of it. This is something I am aiming to do at the moment. At the top of my list is to blog more often. Number 2 on the list is to write an international best-seller aimed at the teen market which will rival the success of Suzanne Collins, Stephanie Meyer and JK Rowling. It’s all about setting yourself small, realistically achievable goals.
5. CARE MORE!
Today I feel a bit like Captain Obvious but never mind! There is absolutely no way you will be better at writing if you don’t really care about it. It’s simple: if you’re not that bothered, you won’t see any improvements.
This is the hardest thing for me to try to convince people, and I’m just not sure how to get through to people. Think you can do it all perfectly already? That’s fine. Think it’s not important to write correctly? That’s also fine. But don’t complain when people think you’re stupid because your writing is littered with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. In my opinion you should always want to do better, and to strive to be the best you can be. As it happens, that is my life motto as well.
So there’s another list for you! I’m sure there are lots of other really important writing tips out there, if you could let me know some of them that would be great! 🙂
I am very sorry that I’ve neglected the blog for a couple of months. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster, what with me getting addicted to 24 and leaving my job in search of an airy-fairy dream job that probably doesn’t exist. I think I’m having what they call a “quarter life crisis”.
Seriously though, the reason I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog front is because I’ve been having a really long think about which direction to take it in. I have big plans for the future of Words Can Break Hearts, and have been umming and ahhing about how to make it happen. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be making some changes, and hopefully I’ll be blogging more regularly too. I’ve decided that I will focus a little less on book reviews and a little more on other things, such as grammar, writing tips and me! I love doing book reviews and will continue to do them, but I think I’d like to take the focus of the blog away from them a little bit for now.
So stay tuned! I’ll be back very very shortly with some (hopefully) interesting things to say on grammar, writing, my life, etc.
Here’s a picture of Tallulah being lazy to cheer you up until I’m back: