Chorus Lines: Will Ashon on writing ‘The Passengers’
Posted by Will Ashon
The Passengers by Will Ashon, shortlisted for this year’s Rathbones Folio Prize, is a portrait of contemporary Britain told through a patchwork of voices, collected by Ashon over a period of three years. You can read an extract from the book here, find out more about some of the polyphonic books that inspired The Passengers here, and below, read Ashon on losing – or giving away – his writer’s voice in favour of the choral.
Writers are supposed to have a voice. It’s something they find, as if it’s a grail and they’re on a quest. Once they’ve found it, they then have to hone it, like whittling a stick to a fine point. Somehow, the writer’s voice has survived the Death of the Author, the birth of the internet, ChatGPT and the rest. There’s something spooky about it, uncanny even, because although we call it ‘the writer’s voice’ it never sounds the same as any writer actually talking, being too considered and constructed. And if it does, well that’s creepy too. I never really gave much time or thought to my writer’s voice, this old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy concept. And then I lost it. Poof. And found two hundred others.
Actually, did I lose it or did I give it away? Around four years ago I decided to change how I worked. I was tired of myself, tired of my textual interventions, more interested in the quotes I’d gathered than the thin, brittle mortar of my words between them. I was, as they say, sick of the sound of my own voice. More specifically, I was sick of ‘I’. I had backed myself into a corner where, in order to acknowledge the artifice of non-fiction, the subjectivity of the text had to be emphasised over and over again. And that subjectivity was me. Okay, I wanted to make it plain that the story was constructed, that decisions had been made over what to include and what to leave out, and furthermore that these decisions had been made from a particular position, in my case one of privilege. But what a bore.
So I stopped. Instead, I started taping other people and making monologues of their words, crunching them up against other people’s words, simulating conversations or building representations or intersubjective testimonials. I called it direct reported speech, a phrase I was sure I’d seen somewhere, though I couldn’t for the life of me find out where. And what I meant by that was that it felt as if the people who I wrote up in this way were talking directly to the reader with my role that of ghostly ectoplasm, barely visible between the two, every last one of them saying I to you.
Nothing about this was exactly original. After all, writing began as a recording technology – in particular, as voice recording technology. It takes the sounds from someone’s mouth and renders them as marks, so that later the same sounds can come from another mouth, or the same mouth, fundamentally unchanged. If you want to get grand about it, this type of writing has a pedigree that can be traced back to Homer, but even without evoking ancient Greeks, there’s the monologues in Henry Mayhew’s Victorian studies of London workers and the poor, Studs Terkel’s epic work recording the history of 20th-century America, Ronald Blythe and then Tony Parker in the UK, all before we reach the Nobel-winning apotheosis of the great Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich.
This might seem, however, like an odd choice for a writer apparently concerned with the non-objectivity of non-fiction. After all, direct reported speech is often employed by journalists, as it creates a sense of immediacy and, most important of all, authenticity. Henry Mayhew, in a way the pioneer of this contemporary form, described himself as ‘a mere collector of facts’. But the recording of speech acts is an action in itself, and any particular action opens up the possibility of other actions. If you think of human beings as creators and users of technology, then they are also twisters and misusers of technology. Writing is a way to record speech until it becomes a way to invent or create speech. The recorder has been hacked.
This should actually go without saying: an accurate transcript of someone talking contains endless repetition, run-on sentences that would impress Thomas Bernhard, sudden changes in direction, and enough ums and errs to bury a city under. Unedited transcripts are almost unreadable. As the renowned oral historian, Alessandro Portelli puts it, ‘the transcript turns aural objects into visual ones, which inevitably implies changes and interpretation’. But the acceptable boundaries of any tidying up are porous and difficult to maintain. When we write out speech to ‘record’ it in some way, we are also re-writing it, presenting it, creating a version of a voice, enhanced in some aspects and simplified in others, lacking in tone, colour and cadence but with much more punctuation. Making written sense of the transcript of someone talking is a little like carving away at a block of stone. It’s still the same stone, kind of, but now it looks like an elephant. But if the trunk is naturally growing where one of the ears should be and you move it under the eyes, have you gone too far?
Perhaps these monologues operate in the way they do exactly because they collapse or blur certain boundaries which usually exist in writing and reading. First up, the author isn’t gone but is somehow split. He or she is being directly addressed by the person ‘speaking’ but is also hidden inside the text of the person speaking, as that person responds to the questions and prompts which the author has used to elicit their answers. But the reader is addressed directly as if the reader is the author, and hence the reader, too, sits both inside and outside of the person ‘speaking,’ because those questions and prompts become theirs. And this sense of closeness – this sense of being part of the subject as well as addressed by the subject – is something like a formal rendering of empathy. Because isn’t empathy, on some level, a confusion of the self and other, a muddling or refusal of those boundaries, a rejection on some level of the notion of consciousness as individual, discrete and whole unto itself?
The only thing required to bring this formal effect to life is careful reading, as if the effort of paying attention, of ‘deep listening,’ is enough to generate a Magic Eye moment, the text springing into three dimensions inside and outside you. This can be encouraged in a number of different ways, usually revolving around slightly disturbing the reader’s assumptions so that they approach the text with a degree of uncertainty, which in turn generates increased care and attention, a heightened awareness of the text. In effect, the way to do this is once again to collapse and blur boundaries, so that the reader remains unsure what terrain they’re moving across. The traditional monologue in direct reported speech comes with a label stuck to the front of a glass case: ‘Mabel Abel, 64 years old, former garment worker from Bermondsey.’ Take that label away and the reader is left to figure out how to respond, how to interact, rather than having their response conditioned by the information they’ve been given.
If the first step is to remove this label, the next is to remove the glass case. There are other ways to disrupt how the text is ingested. Line breaks can slow the reader down. Making each piece a certain length can emphasise the artificiality of the undertaking which, paradoxically, can make the reading experience more rather than less ‘real’. Anything which emphasises the text-as-text will help. We are presented with something close to poetry, by which all I mean is writing whose formal properties signal a need for close reading. And when we read, really read these direct reports from other lives without assumption or categorisation, something wonderful happens. It’s just basic humanity, really, that if someone sits down in front of you and talks to you openly and honestly, then you are beholden to listen – and rewarded for that listening as well. To be alive and conscious that you are alive strikes me as so unlikely and preposterous that it’s also some sort of miracle, even in the darkest of moments of our existence. To feel that on the page, even for a moment, is then a miracle, too. Obviously these are not living voices, but at the same time, obviously they are. They’re not my voices, but at the same time they are. The buzzing between these contradictory poles is what generates the book’s energy. Writers are supposed to have a voice but then so does everyone else.
The Passengers by Will Ashon (Faber) is shortlisted for the 2023 Rathbones Folio Prize. The winner is announced on Monday 27 March.
Join Will Ashon, alongside the Rathbones Folio Prize judges Ali Smith, Jackie Kay and Guy Gunaratne and a stellar line-up of other shortlistees, at an event at the British Library on Sunday 26 March. Find out more and book tickets here.