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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

On Narrative Voice in Nonfiction

In the Calendar section of the LA Times today (March 11, 2008) --there is a review on the front page that goes over to page E9. An associate editor of Boston Review Books, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow says talks about narrative voice in nonfiction as she reviews a book on global warming, Earth: The Sequel by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn.

My critique group and I had been talking about this very issue over passion fruit iced tea and field green salad (how California-y!) on this last sunny Sunday. We go early and grab what we call the "piano table" where we can read to one another and chew on writing problems without fear of ruining the day for others eating lunch at the famous Louise's on Los Feliz Boulevard in Los Angeles. Anyway, if Tuhus-Dubrow had been there she might have inserted this quote (paraphrased of course!) from her review into the conversation:

"The authors deserve a great deal of credit for spelling out the science, but readers should be warned that...much of the book reads rather like a text-book for a college course about renewable energy. An odd lack of narrative voice compounds the impersonal tone. Ostensibly by Krupp, the book refers to him several times in the third person. The pronoun "I" never appears. ...a frist-person narrator--a stand-in for the reader, telling the story of visiting the research sites and learning about the technologies--could have made for a livelier narrative."

Notice that word "warned." Few like to read textbooky stuff unless they have to read it for class.

I also kind of liked the idea of a "stand-in narrator." Maybe that's something to explore in your next nonfiction book--or mine.

And, by the way, yes, this is the job of an editor. It give a writer suggestions of how they might improve their voices. Enhance them as it were. Not to change them. In the long run, it's always the author's choice, anyway! (-:
Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits and consults on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success on Amazon. Learn more about her other authors' aids at


Nikki said...

Regarding the narrative voice in nonfiction... the trend or desire to make even nonfiction more and more narrative isn't surprising. Look what's out there -- the old fashioned lines between fiction, nonfiction and memoir are pretty blurry these days along with our steady diet of reality and confessional TV. These days it's all about the "I" and the "Me." Maybe the next book on global warming can be from the Earth's point of view. e.g. "When I woke up this morning, I was feeling kind of hot." For more of my musings see

Julia Ward said...

Wonderful post! I've been working on my memoirs and this post was incredibly helpful.

I find myself switching between the teeny-tiny me, the teenage me, and the now me and which makes it difficult for the reader. I'm trying to refocus my writing and use one voice.


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