The importance of tone

And I’m not talking muscle tone, as important as that is! This is a litblog after all, and so what I am talking about is the tone of a piece of writing. It’s important to me – it’s often what engages me first and what can keep me going when, say, the plot is weak or character development minimal. Is the book melancholic, or ironic, or satirical, or humorous, or playful or, heaven forbid, didactic or? Of course, the tone is not always consistent throughout a book, but it often is.

I was thinking about tone as I picked up my current read (review to come soon-ish), Haruki Murakami’s Blind willow, sleeping woman. It’s a collection of short stories, and I settled in for a good read because I’m a Murakami fan and one of the things I like about his writing is the tone. And, what should I come across 6 stories in but a little statement about tone. He read my mind! What Murakami writes, in the story “A folklore for my generation: A pre-history of late-stage capitalism”, is:

… I think things took place pretty much as I set out. I say this because though I might have forgotten some of the details, I distinctly recall the general tone. When you listen to someone’s story and then try to reproduce it in writing, the tone’s the main thing. Get the tone right and you have a true story on your hands. Maybe some of the facts aren’t quite correct, but that doesn’t matter – it actually might elevate the truth factor of the story. Turn this around, and you could say there are stories that are factually accurate yet aren’t true at all.

And there you have it. Tone = Truth! Now (if you have been reading my blog for a while) you can see why I like tone so much. It is through the tone that you glean the writer’s attitude to his/her subject and once you have  done that, then you can usually identify the underlying meaning, the main message or truth, of the work.

Take Murakami, for example. His tone is, more often than not, detached. His narrators rarely express strong emotion, but rather “speak” as if one step removed from what they are talking about. He does this in a number of ways. One is by using qualifiers (such as “maybe” and “perhaps”) and the other is by using imagery or telling stories that have a slightly bizarre or off-centre edge to them which effectively unsettles you and removes you from the central emotion that may be occurring. This tone is perfect for his themes which tend to be dislocation, alienation, being out of touch with or distanced from life/reality.

Jane Austen, on the other hand, writes with an ironic tone, that is, what is said and what is meant are often two different things. This is the perfect tone for her themes which are to do with mocking (and therefore exposing) the pretensions, superficiality and/or misconceptions of the world her characters inhabit.

Then again, sometimes the author can use a tone which appears to be in direct contrast with the import of the story, and in so doing shocks us into fully heeding the meaning. This is a risky approach and does not appeal to all readers. Good examples are the light-hearted tones used in two Holocaust novels, Marcus Zusak’s The book thief and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is illuminated. There are some who do not like to see humour and Holocaust in the same sentence, and yet I think these writers use a light tone well to convey the dark side!

I could go on, but think I’ve made my point. Is tone important to you? If so, I’d love to hear what books/authors, in particular, appeal to you for their use of tone.

29 thoughts on “The importance of tone

  1. This makes me think straight away of Angela’s ashes. Frank McCourt writes of terrible privations from a child’s eye view and a with a humorous tone which (I thought) really highlighted the poignancy, and made it easier to deal with the subject matter. I bet it helped him to cope emotionally as well.

    I loved the book, but a friend of mine found it shocking that he could joke about such things.

    I hadn’t really thought about it before, but if it was the use of tone which contributed so much to my enjoyment of this book, then yes, it is important to me, and I must look out for it in future reads.

    • Oh yes, great example. I liked it too and I think I remember it all the more for the humour. I’ve heard people worry that humour takes away the message, that you focus on what the laughs but not the message. However, I remember the poverty vividly in that book! As you do apparently!

  2. I don’t think of it as tone, more as atmosphere. A lot of my favourite books have it. Have you ever read Precious Bane by Mary Webb, it has extraordianary tone/ atmosphere – a very bleak landscape indeed?.

  3. Yes, tone is important. That is why fiction is usually more truthful and moving than non-fiction. Non-fiction tends to be a blatant recital of self-serving ‘facts’. The only non-fiction I try to read are books written by authors whose fiction I like. These writers have struggled with the issues that are important. Stay tuned for my upcoming post on ‘Fiction Hunger’ versus ‘Reality Hunger’.

  4. I don’t know if I outright prefer any one tone, but I do find that I just have to believe it. It’s irritating and distracting when you feel like a writer is “trying too hard” to be serious/poetic/funny. I wonder if this happens when writers are trying to copy someone else’s trademark tone rather than trying to figure out what their own natural style really is.

  5. Wow, for once I’ve not only read the writers you’ve referenced here, but some of my favourite writers/books too! I like how you’ve managed to tease out some of the complexities of “tone” as a concept… for me, a book’s tone can be so hard to express in words, precisely becausr it’s something hidden beneath, or perhaps enveloping, the words…

    (I do disagree with you on one point, though. I don’t think M. read your mind, I think you’re psychic! How else would you have known to bring me salted nuts that don’t incorporate icky walnuts? :P)

  6. Anne: Thanks for this. That’s interesting. My gut feeling is that for me they’re related but a bit different. I would see atmosphere as “feeling” and tone more as “attitude”. Hmm…are they really different or the same or just closely intertwined. I think I’ve heard of Mary Webb but I haven’t read her.

    Tony: I look forward to that post Tony. And I know what you mean about non-fiction. I tend to be most interested in non-fiction by writers too. A generalisation of course but it always adds an extra incentive.

    Lija: Welcome to the blog – thanks for commenting. Good point. Tone is important but it has to be convincing as you say. Do you have any particular books in mind where the tone hasn’t convinced you? I can think of some bland ones!

    Hannah: I’ll have to try to be more erudite next time! Enveloping the words is quite a good way of describing how tone works. As for the nuts, I carefully removed the walnuts and resealed the packet, just for you.

  7. Hi Whisper, hope you’re well. Is tone different from voice? Recently I wandered around The Pastures of Heaven and was struck pleasantly dumb by Steinbeck’s tone/voice. Later that night, I happened upon a letter from his massive output of correspondence in which claims that he has the instincts of a minstrel, not a scrivener. I think he’s right. Cheers, Kevin

    • Yes, thanks Kevin, I am. have popped into your Netherland posts – wonderful and fascinating way to explore a book. I think tone and voice are closely related and it’s probably a little bit of a definition game because whenever I read about “voice” I get slightly different senses of what people mean by it. The way I tend to use it is to see the voice as essentially WHO speaks (1st person, 3rd person – omniscient, and so on) and whose point of view are we getting (narrator’s, protagonist’s, multiple) and the tone as HOW that voice sounds. However, “voice” is often used to cover both these aspects and I think that’s probably fair enough because they are pretty entwined.

  8. I recently enjoyed the tone of Jenn Ashworth’s book A Kind of Intimacy. It’s written by an unreliable narrator who has a checkered past and a very skewed view of the present. In spite of the fact she does really terrible things, the narrator’s voice is one of primness that’s mixed with a coyness when dealing with men.

    • Thanks Guy. Have you read Ishiguro’s The remains of the day? That book with its unreliable narrator was one of the first in which I really took note of tone as something to specifically poinder. I’m sure the butler is nothing like your character in A kind of intimacy but I wonder if the tone is similar? I loved the way he sounded so sure of himself that it was almost a case of “methinks he protesteth too much”.

  9. I love that Murakami quote, and I completely agree with your thoughts on the importance of tone. I particularly appreciate that mixture of light heartedness and seriousness/tragedy you mentioned about Foer and Zusak. One of my favourite authors, Terry Pratchett, does that very well also. As does Kurt Vonnegut. It’s curious to see how often people misread their tone and dismiss them as frothy, when their work does in fact deal with serious things, funny though it may be.

  10. Nymeth: Glad you agree. I must admit I’ve never read Pratchett but I understand what you say about him. I have read Vonnegut – a while ago – but as I recollect he does also make that effective contrast.

    Lisa: I have have two words for you: You must: And then some more words: Which two do you have on your TBR?

    • I’d love to know what you think. I have heard it called “the perfect novel”. I’ve no idea how you would define such a thing, so make no such claim, but it is one of those books that I haven’t forgotten and that I would willingly read again. Have you read any Ishiguro?

  11. Great Murakami quote. Tone is very important. Books where the tone is very flat unless in the service of something larger are dreadful brain sucks for me and I am not likely to get through them. I think poets tend to be masters of tone. As for novelists, Margaret Atwood is fantastic I think. And while I have only read Never Let Me Go, I think Ishiguro’s tone in that one makes the whole thing all the more chilling.

    • Ishiguro is wonderful at tone I think…I’ve read all but one of his books and he gets me in every time. Never let me go is probably my least favourite – but I still enjoyed it, and agree re the tone. And Atwood is of course great. I need to read her last two sci fi style ones.

  12. Very important. If writing can be understood as a means of limited self-perpetuation (a single aspect of oneself shot through space and time, a fragment that transcends death), then tone is the author’s most intimate representative, closer to them than plot or climax or the names of the characters — tone is, itself, another character, and always the most important one, as is it the only character that occurs everywhere, in every word. Without tone there is no book.

    I can think of a number of fine examples, and a couple of bad ones. Ernestine Hill, as I’ve already muttered on my own blog, did herself no favours with the jolly-romantic-blustering style that compels her to stomp over nuances as if they’re not there. But then you have someone like Christina Stead, whose big, brawling, combative tone leaves her books feeling huge, capacious, and large enough to hold everything she stuffs into them — generous, organic, full of open ends and new doorways. Mervyn Peake’s slow style, with plenty of descriptions and regular deployments of adjective, matches his subject matter, the enormous weight of Gormenghast castle, the oppressiveness of life there — the slow pressure of castle life isn’t only in the story, it’s in the bones of the book, it is the book. Anita Brookner lays down cool little sentences calmly one ofter the other. Her sentences never get excited, and nor do her characters. (I’ll stop there because I’m looking at the books around me and realising that I could say something like this about all of them. Ruskin’s pronouncements are sometimes bats, but tone keeps me with him.)

    • Thanks DKS for your lovely, as ever, engagement with my topic. You are not, I have to say, encouraging me to read My love must wait! Thanks for sharing some examples. I have yet to read Mervyn Peake, but Anita Brookner has been a favourite of mine. She has a very precise with a very distinctive tone. I think the books we love the most, we love because years later we can still “hear” or feel their tone – from the big generous, dare I say, rollicking ones to the precise tightly observed ones.

      • It’s like falling in love with a particular food. Tone is to writing what taste is to food, and I think a person can pine for a tone in the way that some people long for the taste of chocolate. You can overstuff yourself, or become drunk on someone; and when it comes to Brookners, I gobble.

  13. Great post!

    I realize in reading it and the comments that I should think more concretely about tone. Of course, it is there in every book. Of course, it matters a great deal. But I do not always consciously analyze (either during or after) how the author used tone and whether the use was particularly effective.

    Great books, by definition, involve excellent use of tone. So, The Great Gatsby, Pale Fire, and Catch-22 all have different, yet perfectly fitting tone. Fitzgerald’s narrator is intimate, but not overly earnest or heavy, which effectively conveys the very personal drama while still capturing the surface lightness of the Roaring 20s. Kinbote is earnest to the point of comedy, taking himself, and all manner of minute details, far too seriously…but then, maybe not. It is brilliant. Heller uses a light-hearted, comedic delivery similar to Vonnegut, while having very interesting and sobering things to say about the world which makes Catch-22 not only great fun, but brilliant. (I would add Ilf & Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs to the Heller-Vonnegut category.)

    As for books that did not work, I think maybe Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs may have suffered a bit from disconnect between tone and plot/conflict/theme. Or, maybe, the tone was the thing I liked most while the plot was a mess, the resolution of the conflict felt contrived, and the theme morphed and dissolved in unsatisfying ways. Hmm. Yes, I think she had an excellent tone for a book and bungled the rest.

    Going back to great works, Cloud Atlas is a masterpiece in voice/tone. I haven’t finished it yet, but the way Mitchell manages to change voice and atmosphere from section to section and, yet, somehow keep it hanging together. I wonder if this has to do with a unifying tone. I think that may be it. I will think about this as I finish it. Thank you!

    I’m just kind of rambling, but I realize that I must think about tone and its relation to a work more concretely.

    • Thanks for that “ramble” Kerry, and for engaging so thoroughly with it. I’m glad my post has given you something to think about. I’ve enjoyed learning from the wonderful responses to this post. I look forward to your post on Mitchell. It’s been a long time since I read that one. I’m planning to read his latest in October…had a look at the first para in the bookshop today and am looking forward to it.

  14. That is a great quote by Murakami and I agree with you about the importance of tone. I enjoyed your example of Foer. I’ve always had such difficulty explaining why his book had such an impact on me, but I think you reminded me of why it did.

  15. An interesting post -and on a subject I have not necessarily given much thought to.

    I wonder if there is a sort of “standard” set of tone descriptions somewhere, a comprehensive list? Your’s is a good starting point

    “melancholic, or ironic, or satirical, or humorous, or playful or, heaven forbid, didactic ”

    Wikiepedia gives this list

    ” formal, informal, intimate, solemn, somber, playful, serious, ironic, condescending”

    . . . and differentiates tone from mood.

    I suspect there must be a book on this somewhere!

  16. Iris: Thanks for your comment, and glad I’ve contributed to your thinking about Foer.

    Tom: And thanks too for your comment. Re tone and mood, I think the definition of tone is a little fluid. Some equate it with voice, as I think I discussed in a reply to another comment, but I think they are different. I think mood is probably different too – I think it probably relates more to the “feeling” evoked by the setting while tone related more the “feeling” evoked by the voice. But that’s a generalisation – these things are closely related I think and work together to produce each other, if that makes sense. There probably is a book in it – but that book isn’t in me! LOL.

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