In my school assembly hall there was a grand piano with a plaque on it that said: ‘Given in memory of Gustav Holst, who did so much to raise the tone of music in this school.’ *
Of all the aspects of a piece of writing that a reader responds to, it seems to me the most elusive is tone. By tone I mean the practically indefinable stance that the writer (or in fiction perhaps the character) takes towards the subject matter. To some extent it’s within the writer’s control: writing a blog, for instance, may call forth a slightly jokey, talking-to-the-reader voice (though voice isn’t quite the same as tone), whereas an academic essay is likely to be more distanced. It would be hard to write a blog without including oneself, whereas academic convention has it that ‘the present writer’ stays well out of the picture, “paring his nails,” as James Joyce famously puts it.
A writer may set out to adopt a particular tone – ironic, heartfelt, lyrical, matter-of-fact – but what comes out on paper may not always be quite what was intended. We all bring to our writing more than we are aware of, and it takes a great deal of skill not to let our own attitudes and biases colour the material in hand. In a novel, especially in first person or close third person narration (using ‘I’ or the ‘he/she’ that is almost ‘I’), parts of ourselves may creep into the character unawares. [I notice I’m using ‘we’ here, as though I were a writer of long standing, but I’ll let that pass.] So, on an obvious level, if I love Mozart or don’t love the Coalition I may have to be careful the character doesn’t take on my opinions, especially if they don’t fit. More subtly, and perhaps especially in first person narration, my way of seeing things can easily take over the character’s. The character may be blinkered and unimaginative but may end up writing poetic prose because that’s what I like to write. Or they may not be particularly ironic but may end up expressing a wry take on the world because that’s habitual to me.
It may also happen that my habitual tendency to, say, irony takes on, in the context of the character, a different dimension. Instead of being slightly irritating it may become something more pervasive, an indicator of a whole negative world-view that I hadn’t intended to land on the character – in fact a negative tone. How far this is attributable to lack of skill as a writer and how far it reflects my own unacknowledged negativity is probably hard to tell. What I can know is the reaction it produces in the reader who, coming upon what I think is a mildly satirical observation, is repelled by the character’s heartlessness. The reader’s responses are of course no less subjective than these elements of the writer’s inner world, but as a reader I know how jarring it is, regardless of the subject matter or the quality of the writing, to read a book whose tone alienates me. “But I never saw it in that way,” the poor author may cry. “That wasn’t what I meant.” Since we always write with more than our conscious minds, our writing will never be quite what we meant.
With my book I’m left with two dilemmas: first, how to evaluate as honestly as I can the tone of the writing that has emerged on to the page; second, if I find the tone unpleasant or even repellent, what to do to remedy it. I can of course modify particular passages, but beyond that the tone of a book is something so global that the only thing to do may be to rewrite it. Which may not be such a bad idea, though I would certainly rather not have to do it.
One thing that as writers we have to do is find the right balance between taking on others’ feedback and trusting our own instinct. It isn’t always easy, especially when you are trying to get published and want the book to be as appealing as possible. But with something as subjective and elusive as tone, perhaps the most important thing is to listen to your own writing. And listen. Like a piano tuner sounding a note again and again until it is completely true, I can read and reread for falsity of tone. But an A at concert pitch will vibrate at 440 Hz regardless of who hears it, while a book may resonate deeply with one person and leave another cold. Fortunately or unfortunately, that’s what happens with books – and with tone. You can never get it completely right for everyone.
*I couldn’t resist putting that in. Actually Gustav Holst left our school because the facilities were so much better at St Paul’s.