Thursday, February 17, 2011

A Woman Writing in a Male Voice

Elizabeth Zelvin

At the last minute before New Year’s, I added one more book to my list of Best Reads of 2010, which I’d been compiling all year to contribute to the big list on DorothyL. It’s a 2009 book, Emily Arsenault’s The Broken Teaglass, and I’d been hearing about it all year from the mystery loving DorothyLers. Some loved it and some found it hard to get into. I enjoyed it thoroughly for a number of reasons. It’s truly original, both the mystery and the most dramatic, life-defining fact about the protagonist are revealed gradually and late in the book, and the setting, an office full of lexicographers, and constant play with words are a delight to any lover of language. I was also impressed with how well Ms. Arsenault created a male protagonist with a distinctive voice.

As someone who ended up with a male protagonist in my mystery series by default (an editor bumped my female protagonist to the role of sidekick) and with another in my historical series by mysterious inspiration (everyone’s heard by now how the guy came knocking on the inside of my head), this interests me. I’m also a great believer in both the importance of voice and how hard it is, if not impossible, to force or fake. So how did Arsenault do it?

I think it helped that the basic fabric of the book is words and their meanings and how they change over time. On one level, the theme is the flexibility of the English language. The more I know about other languages, the more extraordinary I realize this flexibility is. At the fictional dictionary publishers’ in The Broken Teaglass, they track how usage and meaning change and new words become part of the language by collecting and reviewing endless citations from books, periodicals, and wherever words appear. New words or usages that they find repeatedly make it into updates and new editions of the dictionaries.

The citations are a key to the plot, as the quotations in which they appear gradually reveal the mystery. But the choice of words in which these small narratives appeared was completely up to the author, since her dramatic device was the planting of phony keywords meant only to draw attention to the fake citations, ie the narrative. She also had the fun of choosing words that would interest the lexicographer, ie words that were coined within the past fifty years whose meaning and usage are still developing. I think Arsenault’s inclusion of what I’d call “guy words” helped make the male voice convincing.

The most noticeable words are the fifty words or phrases that call the protagonist's attention to the phony citations that reveal the mystery. I’m not saying every one of them would be more commonly used by men than women. But they help create a text in which I was never jerked out of the story by a turn of phrase that made me think I was hearing Emily Arsenault rather than the fictional Billy Webb.

Here are the words that appear in the citations.

advantaged, overachiever, holding pattern, nebbish, editrix, ballpoint, nerd, schlub, paperbound, trash man, riff, hang-up, ponytail, whoopee cushion, off-the-wall, sonic boom, deep-six, eek, macho, pj, unscripted, showtime, blow-dryer, headshrinker, opt out, cop out, button-down, callithump, track record, cornball, lopper, maven, killer, aficionada, cut-and-paste, demythologize, hot ticket, wind down, aw-shucks, epiphanic, plus, billboard, larger-than-life, white knight, ball of wax, warm spot, wrap-up, softbound, subtext, subliterature

In addition, Billy’s job allows him to think about words, and his word choices are even more important to his voice. Here’s Billy introducing himself and his peculiar job in Chapter One:

Imagine...a guy right out of college—a guy who says yup, and watches too much Conan O’Brien. Imagine this guy sitting in a cubicle, shuffling through little bits of magazine articles, hoping for words like boink and tatas to cross his desk and spice up his afternoons.

A couple more passages that say “guy” to me:

I looked through the cits for beat one’s meat and drafted a definition—a simple and elegant cross-reference to masturbate.

A suffix, -aster....I’d had enough of suffixes for the morning. I stuck it back in the box and pulled out the next batch of cits. Asterisk. Grand. I was beginning to feel nostalgic for asswipe.

Billy himself is not crude. He’s a very nice young man. In fact, he’s been sheltered and is somewhat immature. But his being a guy affects the words and concepts that pop up in his mind as he works eight hours a day with language.

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