Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books have partnered to exchange a series of articles with international concerns. Today’s article, “Ditching the New Yorker Voice,” by Kate Rossmanith, was originally published by the SRB on February 21, 2022.
A few years ago, my book Small Wrongs was published. It has been labelled “essay-memoir” because it is a meditation on a concept: remorse in the criminal justice system and remorse in our everyday personal lives. In the criminal courts, a person’s apparent remorse can influence their sentence, including the granting of mercy in death penalty cases in the USA, and yet it is unclear how remorse is assessed. “Remorse is vague, ephemeral almost,” a lawyer told me. Remorse is a feeling, but it is also an exchange.
In developing Small Wrongs, I was confronted with the typical problems of writing from real life—negotiating all the ethical and technical obstacles—but the problem that seemed insurmountable concerned voice. I don’t mean, what is commonly referred to as, “the writer’s voice,” but to something else: the truth-speaking presence, the narrating “sound” of a piece of writing, the timbre of the consciousness on the page.
The book emerged as part of a major research project. Over three years, I conducted ethnographic fieldwork in New South Wales, documenting court hearings, conducting interviews, and observing people’s work practices. I watched a woman being sentenced for murdering a young man with her car, heard small children chat during a lull in proceedings with their inmate father in prison for armed robbery, sat alongside two sets of parents—those of the killer, and the killed—and observed a hierarchy of suffering. I spent time with judges in their chambers as they calculated people’s sentences and with the parole board as it made decisions. I attended meetings of a support group for bereaved families of homicide victims and I visited parolees in their homes as they tried to piece together their lives after prison. I wanted to discover how people assess remorse, how offenders enact it, and what the justice system wants remorse to do.
During my fieldwork, urgent questions arose about people’s ordinary and extraordinary entanglements with one another, and about the intimacy of judgment. The questions I was asking over the years about the law and the justice system, about institutional structures and structures of feeling, meant that I was simultaneously struck by the depth to which human relationships involve moral matters and that remorse, guilt, grief, regret and responsibility—our shared understandings of what those things are—work upon us in the sharpest and most opaque ways.
Within weeks of beginning work on the manuscript, I woke up one morning, read what I had written, and sensed it was wrong. The stories were all there, the legal and philosophical discussions were written with clarity, but there was a problem with the “sound” of the writing. I took a gamble and shared a section with a novelist friend. She was blunt: “Your writing feels breezy. It’s almost chatty. Is this really the book you want to write?” She questioned if a monograph-length manuscript could be carried by this narrative voice, whether this register would hold readers’ attention, whether it would do justice to the material and to the topic at large. “You’re writing a book on remorse,” she reminded me.
My friend’s comments precipitated a creative, personal and technical crisis. I moped about the house for days. Then I located the trouble: the voice I had instinctively adopted was the voice I use in my long-form journalism.
A couple of years earlier I had written some articles about the justice system for a national magazine. The voice I used in those articles, and the voice in which I had automatically begun writing my book, was a New Yorker sort of voice. It was the default voice I used for a general readership. (Like other academics, I was encouraged early in my career to “write beyond the academy,” to produce “cross-over” writing “accessible for the public.”) The New Yorker sort of voice—or rather, the New Yorker voice I was using—is one that sounds on top, or ahead, of the material under discussion. It is a voice of intelligent curiosity; it implies that the writer has synthesized a great deal of information; it confidently takes readers by the hand, introduces them to surprising characters, recounts dramatic scenes, and leads them through key ideas and issues. The voice narrates the material in the first-person and describes the researcher conducting the research, encountering people, reacting to situations, thinking thoughts. The voice is smart-sounding. It is an effective voice for a lot of long-form journalism (including many virtuosic monographs), but it was not for the book I was trying to write.
In raising the question of voice, my friend was also, implicitly, raising the question of structure. I quickly saw that voice is structural. I am not alone here: Vivian Gornick refers to the “voice” of her writing as “the story;” Maria Tumarkin points out that essays “are held together not by a narrative but by a sensibility, or a consciousness, or a voice, or way of moving through the world.” (Likewise, Rachel Cusk’s Faye trilogy has been praised for its “iron-rich pleasures of voice” and that, as Lorrie Moore puts it, “what runs through [Cusk’s] trilogy is a coolly abstracted consciousness organizing all the stories.”) The voice I had used was connected to the quest structure I had (accidentally) begun to adopt; what ethnographers identify as “a narrative account of a quest, discovery and interpretation—the journey from outsider to insider—using story conventions to persuade readers effectively.” The standard quest structure would not work for this book because there was not, and could never be, an obvious narrative arc, or an argument arc, or a case arc, or a point of resolution.
Returning to my writing desk I opened a blank page. I kept thinking: the etymology of remorse is remordere: “to bite back, to be re-bitten.” Remorse is often experienced as a feeling that bites again and again at the conscience and the spirit. It is, as Raimond Gaita says, “a pained, bewildered realization of what it means … to wrong someone.” The voice (structure!) of the book had to feel as if a persistent pain kept resurfacing; there had to be a circularity or a looping to the textual pattern. And the writing needed to be affective. The book needed to be awash with affect—which meant I needed to develop underlayers of writing, a sort of net of emotional threads. Readers had to sense echoes and surprising connections and an ocean of feeling without these being made explicit. As per Hemingway, I needed to surgically remove sections of text so that what was left on the page resonated. (What was I attempting to do? Was I working with liquid or with tectonic structures? Was mine the labor of a seamstress or a physician?)
This was done in an agonizing and roundabout way. Over several years, I assembled 150,000 words. The manuscript needed to be half that.
I had met Helen Garner in Melbourne at a conference years earlier and we had remained in touch. I emailed her. I wrote to say I was despairing, that I had 150,000 words, that most of it was nonsense but some of it wasn’t, and that I didn’t know what to do. I told her that she should write this book and I should return to teaching the second-year students at my university. A couple of hours later, she responded. She was in Berlin and hopelessly homesick. She said that I “seemed to be describing one of the most excruciating stages of a nonfiction book” and that she felt “a terrible stab of comradeliness.” She told me about what she went through writing This House of Grief, how nothing was coming together, and how she showed an early draft to her sister, who said it was boring, “which it was.”
But then one day an opening sentence, and then a paragraph, came to her “out of nowhere,” like a tiny distant thread of music. She wrote it down in a notebook. A year later she remembered it, pulled it out, and stitched it to the very front. It worked. Somehow it was like a chord that she could tune the rest of the book to. Of course, it didn’t come “out of nowhere,” she said. It came out of the abyss of struggle she had been dragging herself through. Something distilled itself in her unconscious and floated to the surface. Regarding my own situation, my “writing mess” as I called it, she told me to “think of the thing as a series of technical and tonal problems, rather than as an existential struggle in which your character and your worth will be weighed and found wanting.”
Technical and tonal problems, Helen said. I was back to the question of sound.
In attempting to resolve the issue of voice and structure, I had to thrash out another issue too: What was the true object of study? Yes, the book was about remorse. But what was it really about?
Small Wrongs is about the burden of self-narration and self-insight. (For offenders in the justice system to demonstrate remorse they are expected to have the perspicacity of psychologists or monks).
It is about riddles of self-transformation.
It is about our attempts to truly know what another person is thinking and feeling and how we comprehend something called a “soul.”
And it is about the tension between “event” and “background” and its implications for emotion in the law.
The courts are about “event.” Someone has done something to someone else. There is agency. There is cause and effect. There are beginnings, middles and ends—delimited occurrences, neat narrative arcs. Lawyers compete to tell the winning story; judges enlist plot-driven narrative in their judgments, with an emphasis on verbs and action: “this is what happened.”
Mostly, though, we live our lives in “background,” the quotidian, the uneventful. We wake up, we go to work, we come home. We have our relationships. We live in routine, in-and-through thousands of tiny, repeated experiences. And yet this background is critical in shaping legal concepts. Remorse—our concepts of it, judges’ concepts of it, how we expect it to be expressed—doesn’t appear in the justice system from nowhere. Our ideas and experiences of moral agency, of what remorse is and what it should look like, emerge from the soup of our everyday lives. We drag these unarticulated, unacknowledged ideas into the justice system and use them to judge people who come through the courts.
When you are a woman and you write a book that appears memoir-ish, you are called “brave.” This is because the “I”-narrator is interpreted as you-the-writer—a writer who has bared all. Memoirists and essayists bridle at this misconception and they clutch at language to describe the “I” on the page that puts distance between the writer and the speaking voice. “Persona” is a popular term. I have used it myself. “It’s a persona. I’ve created a persona,” I assured my well-meaning family who fretted about how much of “myself” I had “exposed.”
“Persona” sounds playful, stagey, like putting on a show. It’s a performance of self. The “persona” can be heroic even. Vivian Gornick describes how she began to read the great essayists and found that she responded to their “personae.” Of her own work, she reflects: “I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.” For Gornick, the persona became “the instrument of my illumination.”
In such formulations, the “persona” is a “who,” its meaning tethered to “character”—as in “a character played by an actor.” Janet Malcolm suggests that “the ‘I’ character” in journalism is connected to the writer in the way that Superman is connected to Clark Kent. In Latin, persona also means “mask.” More and more, I am coming to see that the artifice (if that’s the best word, and I’m not sure it is) is perhaps best regarded not as a “who” but a “what.” As readers, perhaps we shouldn’t be asking “who” is speaking to us, but “what” is speaking to us.
Small Wrongs reads as memoir, but it isn’t really. Writer Claire Dederer described it to me: “Your book reads as memoir but it is doing something else. The narrator isn’t the protagonist. The narrator’s thinking is the protagonist. You embed your thinking in an ongoing embodied anecdote-driven contemporary narrative that lets the reader be with you as you think. It looks like memoir but it is more like emotional and personal context for your thinking.”
The narrative “I” in Small Wrongs reflects on her life and enacts a particular interiority. At first glance, it appears as if the narrator is the central character: she has a daughter, a strained marriage, a heart-breaking relationship with her father, and a job as a researcher at a university. But really the narrator’s consciousness is the protagonist. Structurally, the book moves between the event-focused processes of the courts and the background of ordinary life. It doesn’t use a braided shape, though. Rather, the writing—the entire book—enacts a mind making itself apparent to itself. (Gestalt psychologists argue: “human consciousness continually oscillates between different modes of being-in-the-world … without ever achieving synthesis or stasis. Whatever is focal at any given moment stands out against a background that will, at another moment, displace it.”)
The question of what we should or should not “spill” as writers might be applied to dimensions other than our intimate life.
A lot has been written about how much (women) writers should “confess” regarding the intimate aspects of their lives. On the one hand, they are criticized for revealing too much; on the other, any withholding is assumed to be motivated by a desire to shield themselves. In her review of Meghan Daum’s essay collection The Unspeakable, Maria Tumarkin rejects this formulation. She writes of Daum’s work: “Concealment and withholding are not defensive strategies to protect parts of herself or others … They are essayistic imperatives. [T]he confessor spills everything. Spills. Everything. Not the essayist.”
In writing Small Wrongs, I removed sections that made the narrator sound like a unique, memorable “character.” In early drafts, I included accounts of childhood sexual abuse and trauma (perpetrated by someone outside my family), events where the I-narrator was a central actor (victim). Early in the writing, it seemed natural to incorporate them: the book was, after all, about crime, remorse, justice. I took them out because the narrating consciousness needed to be commonplace, not noteworthy; it needed to be “background;” it needed to be devoid of significant “event.” The voice needed to be empty of an obvious narrative arc. It could have no arresting story. Removing accounts of abuse and trauma also rescued my project from being derailed: had the material remained, I was concerned the book would be regarded as a “survivor memoir” rather than a meditation on the concepts of remorse and justice.
The result is that the remaining memoir-ish paragraphs in Small Wrongs relate a more common type of experience; they narrate humdrum middle-class domesticity, repetition, small conflicts. (Rachel Cusk suggests that “repetition is more powerful than change.”) They provide the “background,” the everyday domestic setting, where no major happenings or notable transgressions arise, but relationships between spouses, parents and children accrete, bit by bit, and constitute an entire unremarkable world. It is a background from which many people’s understanding—including judges’ understanding—of moral emotion emerges.
The question of what we should or should not “spill” as writers might be applied to dimensions other than our intimate life. For instance, a writer need not spill her cleverness. While she needs all her intellect to write well, the manuscript may, in some instances, be weakened if the text’s voice is intellectual. In writing Small Wrongs, I removed material that made the narrating voice sound smart (or rather a particular type of smart). I was not worried whether readers might feel alienated or threatened by a smart-sounding (female) voice. Such worries are absurd and, if acted upon, lead to impoverished public discourse. No, what I mean is that the narrating consciousness of my book needed to have an epistemological humility. The book was about the fogginess of self-insight and interrelationships; it was about affect and sensed understanding, not just espoused knowledge. I did not want the consciousness on the page to parade its intelligence.
Instead, I tried to animate the narrator’s conscious (and unsure) acts of interpretation of her own and others’ lives, her understanding and misunderstanding of other people’s actions and thoughts. I tried to capture what David Lodge calls the “dense specificity of human experience” and how our inner worlds are hidden, or not, and inflect our engagement with the world—and how all this relates to how remorse might be expressed, or not. It was a matter of attending to syntax. My usual sentence—thought nailed down, phrases didactic, professorial asides (a tertiary educator’s habits)—wouldn’t do; it had to be altered. I removed sentences, phrases, language that too fully explicated an idea. I broke down ideas and scattered them across the manuscript via the repetition of words, rhythms, imagery. This, I hoped, would allow space for the reader to sense things, unnamed things, and to step in and complete the thinking and feeling. It was a way of writing in correspondence with the world.
This approach also allowed an ambush of sorts to occur: a structural and vocal bait-and-switch. Small Wrongs has the veneer of memoir, but is actually an essay. In the justice system, offenders are expected to produce a certain form of narration to demonstrate self-insight. A parolee I interviewed spoke to me about the autobiography he was forced to write in prison as part of a rehabilitation program. He revealed that he was forced to change details and stories about himself to satisfy the prison psychologists. The underlayers of Small Wrongs are asking: What does it mean to self-narrate? What does self-insight look like? When it comes to our dealings with one another, what is the relationship between words, deeds, and affect? I wanted to show the tangled experience of thought and feeling and to have it pulsing through the text. This tangled experience is at odds with the neat narrative arc the justice system hopes to encounter in offenders: a narrative of acknowledgment, suffering and personal change.
Nonfiction writers are reaching for new terms to conceptualize the relationship between themselves and their subject matter, and what this relationship can do epistemologically. There is a recent thrilling exchange, for instance, between Maria Tumarkin and Mireille Juchau in the LA Review of Books regarding Tumarkin’s Axiomatic. The two writers consider the terms “interruption,” “shadowing,” “sublimation,” and “haunting.”
The shift from “who is speaking” to “what is speaking” is what I am most taken by. This shift has a liberating effect for us writers.
It can liberate us from our egos. If the narrating consciousness of my nonfiction is a “what” not a “who” then I am not worried about the voice sounding clever nor the “narrator” being “interesting” and worthy of “story / opinion.”
It liberates us from an uncritical concept of personhood. Existential anthropologist, Michael D. Jackson, points out that our understanding of a “person” is often as a “seamless monad possessed of conceptual unity and continuity.” Karl Ove Knausgaard writes: “Our ‘I’—that is to say, our self—is nothing but an entity that holds the various different parts of our inner reality together, connecting sense impressions and feelings, memories and thoughts.”
The Ten Thousand Things
And it liberates us from the assumption that the singular self is a necessary precondition of experience. All human experience reflects a field of relationships. A writer’s experience is always intersubjective, always “in correspondence.” Knausgaard: “the self, the ‘I,’ is actually nothing else but the implicit presence of a ‘you’—the self is the embodiment of a reaching out to someone else.” As Jackson puts it: “Consciousness is the natural state of human existence. But notions of subject and object, ego and alter, are not given, but made.”
Once again, I am reunited with the term “consciousness”—a term by no means new in literary contexts. David Lodge devotes a book to the subject, and Philip Lopate suggests that the essay’s job is to “track consciousness.” I find it curious, however, that nonfiction writers persistently attach personified descriptors (“character,” “persona” etc.) to the speaking voice of their work.
“Narrating-consciousness” is how I have come to conceive of the voice of my nonfiction writing. The “what-ness” and the intersubjectivity of the voice opens up possibilities for social, cultural and institutional critique. It has become an instrument of illumination. The narrating-consciousness I developed in Small Wrongs is held up for scrutiny as much as the “subject material” of the book. The voice allowed me to tease out the problem of “authentic performances” in the courts (the courts routinely eschew the metaphor of performance, and yet people are expected to produce “sincere enactments”), reveal the clumsy way in which the courts intersect with the project of psychology (remorse is associated with the inner life of the transgressor), show the awkward role of Christian theology (remorse is a theological hangover), broach unacknowledged injustices and ongoing wrongs in Australia, and trouble the modern dream of self-transformation. The justice system expects people to emerge from jail reformed, and yet what is “transformation” supposed to look like?
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