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.