Holden Caulfield can go and shite. The articulate teenager – a contradiction in terms surely – got traction because of him. If I read another teenage voice in contemporary literature with a ‘flair’ for the English language but a disinterest in almost everything else, I will puke. And it’s not just the teenagers Holden has influenced. The amount of contemporary novels – Irish novels even – set in the side streets and back rooms of society that conveniently feature ill-educated adult narrators with a love of the English language when in school – and thus, ta-da! a flair for language itself and therefore able to offer a flowering first person narrative, is bordering on ridiculous. Surely the whole point of being a teenage voice, or an un-educated peripheral voice, is to be a frustrated, inarticulate voice?
Most writers take the above-mentioned conventional cop-out by making their teenage narrators, their sullen, quiet adult heroes confess early on in the book to having a love for English. I can see why. To write to the limits of a teenager’s horizon of language isn’t really to write at all in the conventional sense that good writing is an art form that needs shade and light and subtleties and new adjectival couplings and maxims of truth. But the vernacular of the teenage voice – the average teenage voice (mumbles, half-sentences, repetition and clauses when no clauses are needed) sets the writer new challenges that are not as fashionable, but just as important to attempt and overcome as writing the most fluent, ethereal Banvillian sentences.
Ther oft-quoted Wittgensteinian maxim the limits of my language are the limits of my world should be celebrated for the inwardness suggested by the line. Who cares if language – ie, the majority of youngsters’ language is limited? It is still a world to be expressed and discussed, analysed and interrogated anyway, free of literary prerequisites. Critics say such language, whether it be vernacular teenage voices or vernacular narrators is not high art, is not worthy of literature (just look up the division in literary circles when James Kelman’s ‘How late it was, how late,’ won the Booker prize in 1994). His problems stemmed from the fact his novel’s narrator was not a privately-schooled, middle-class one with sayings and slang that the opinion-shaping broadsheets found acceptable. Instead it was an ill-educated and foul-mouthed sub-working class voice considered unliterary in the jet-setting circles of the literary elite. But a vernacular voice should not sound like high art, should not even sound literary. That is the point. And the paradox.
A voice on the street telling you a story is only telling you a story in all its slack and rough vernacular glory because it is not self-conscious of the fact that it is telling you a story. Repetition is the rhythm of the street. Unfortunately for writers, critics and reviewers often perceive repetition as a sign of laziness or lack of ability or a lack of attention to detail which marks out bad writing. But vernacular writing – teenage writing – surely should have all the signs of the street, the boredom of the street corner, the brief intense necessity of telling you this story because it is part of the teller’s identity and they have nothing else to fill the time. The page isn’t even contemplated in such stories.
The vernacular writer is trying to convince you and only you that you are being urgently whispered to by their narrator, as if you have just happened upon the street corner where they hang out and have a little time to spare to hear what they are really trying to say, what they really need to say, in the way they have of saying it – their way. It’s hard work for a writer to achieve this and – in the hands of someone like Kelman – great art can be made of it. Contradictorily, in order to achieve the coveted effects of suspension of disbelief and reader-immersion in the tale, those stories told in the freshly vernacular voice of the teenager must be highly crafted, as highly crafted as any other successful, authentic, or original voice or style.
Kevin Curran is the author of the novel Beatsploitation (Liberties Press). His story Saving Tanya is among the most admired in the Young Irelanders Anthology – this summer’s essential short fiction read.