March 25th, 2012 / 3:32 pm

On tone

My favorite word to use when describing writing is “tone,” though actually looking the word up in the dictionary, I realize its definitions all relate to sound, not meaning. The closest implication of meaning i.e. rhetoric is: a particular quality, way of sounding, modulation, or intonation of the voice as expressive of some feeling, spirit, etc. I have either been using the word incorrectly, or — either on behalf of or bestowed from tone — I have simply used the word as a writer is given license to — all of which point to the problem I had in making this grid. Once I appointed an author his or her grave dot, I grew unsure of why I put them there; or rather, became littered with contrary evidence. Their coordinates merely represent my “gut” instinct, which I think, as writers, however, we are irrevocably liable for. Writing is like being in a relationship: how the other person feels is really how it is. Let me just take one example, Ishiguro: he’s just over into the ironic side because he seems self-aware and almost critical/cynical at times; he also seems weary of “the novel,” and his attempts at them seem to be both homages and challenges. He’s in the figurative camp because — while his actual sentences are quite literal — he employs many oblique techniques (specifically, for him, reticence) by which the overall meaning of his books are portrayed. This is the kind of thought that went into each author. It will be hard not to notice the author who’s dead center, obviously a rhetorical exercise, perhaps tribute, which acknowledges his near-perfect tone. One may see all other authors as deviating from the kind of unexpected calm balance his manic obsessiveness and ceaseless skepticism of authorial resolve was able to bring about. The impulse would be to put him deep into ironic-figurative field, but his provincial inquiry into the human condition was rather, awesomely, conventional. If there is such a thing as a solemn pun, we may (or may we) all be his foster children. I feel like a bunch of people are going to tell me that I put so-and-so in the wrong place, then, using words like “a little,” “left,” “up,” “nudge,” etc., are going to describe where they would put the author, making me feel like they either skimmed over my inferred concession or ignored them. Or maybe thoughts are fun, so please. Though if someone mentions the disproportionate ratio of female to male authors, I will be first be embarrassed, then saddened. To not see the message in order to present one is often the failure of words.


  1. Anonymous

      Plath is literal?  Hmph.  I guess if you’re back in high school and “you can interpret however you want.”

  2. Anonymous

      Phillip Roth or Henry Roth?

  3. Jimmy Chen

      damn, i don’t even know who henry roth is, srry

  4. Jimmy Chen

      i’m feeling this. high school sucked.

  5. Jimmy Chen

      i would put dostoy 1″ northeast of tolstoy, tho idk abt balzac

  6. bartleby_taco

       joseph roth ftw lol

  7. deadgod

      its definitions

      Of course every person is allowed – encouraged? – to use words figuratively (as a way of being differently literal), but, in the case of “tone”, you’re perfectly condoned by the OED, which starts with the materially ‘literal’ (musical and acoustic) senses, but moves easily (though with signposts) to the figurative:  “I.  5.  d.  transf.[erred sense]  A particular style in discourse or writing, which expresses the person’s sentiment or reveals his character.  (Cf. 9.)  II.  9.  A special or characteristic style or tendency of thought, feeling, behaviour, etc.; spirit, character, tenor; esp. the general or prevailing state of morals or manners in a society or community.”

      self-aware and almost critical/cynical at times […] weary of “the novel” […] attempts with them seem to be both homages and challenges

      This is a useful meta definition of ironic – ‘conflicted about or distrustful of the medium of expression’ – .  But, in execution, it’s not only not not earnest–it’s a kind of play that’s terribly earnest.  On an earnestness spectrum, Salinger, for example, is to the left of this whole graph!  –and not just earnest about the virtues of companionability and authenticity, but earnest about his writing.

      Is there a better single word for the other of ‘self-doubtful irony’ or ‘self-referential distrust’?  ‘Straightforward’?  (Damn — I look up “devious” for an antonym and Webster’s offers:  ‘straightforward’.  Better than earnest, but not good enough as the other pole of ironic on this axis.)

      in the wrong place [. . .] skimmed […] or ignored

      Nice prophylaxis.  Some of these writers whom I know could have three or five dots – a spatter – .  Or a spill.

  8. herocious

      DFW is the origin?

  9. Andrew

      Rand on the ironic side rather than earnest??  Cant’ think of a writer more earnest  and less ironic than Ayn Rand.

      I’d also say she’s slightly more figurative than literal.  

      Stephen Dixon on the other hand (especially in his writings before 2000) is highly ironic and not very literal.

  10. Vomithelmet McGee

      This is pretty

  11. Jonathan Joel Brennan

      Henry James is more often literal than figurative.

  12. Ben Roylance

      i love when graphs 

  13. Bobby Dixon

      DFW is a perfectly fine origin for an affecting Cartesian coordinate system. 

  14. Anonymous

      Tom or Cormac?

      I really like this. I struggled with the literal/figurative thing at first, because at first blush I associate that with the “highness” or deadpan-ness/spareness of rhetorical style. But I think I get it now. I wonder where Anne Carson or Vollmann would go?  Ashbery would have to be somewhere northeast.

  15. david stickland

      Vollmann would definitely be in that Earnest Hemingway quadrant – the one you pay money to Gartner to get out of.

  16. Anonymous

      deadgod, with all due respect, you’ve got a lot of time on your hands.

  17. Anonymous

      like the Orion’s belt of Murakami, Woolf, Nabokov

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  19. Andreea Nastase

      Would love to see Barnes plotted on there as well as Martin Amis. Barnes may not be far from Waugh I suspect. 

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  21. deadgod

      bemightee, with all due respect, you put a lot of effort/effect into this dot quip.

  22. deadgod

      Look at what Jimmy says he means by an “ironic” tone.  What would you call the other pole of this axis? is “earnest” the best term?

  23. Marcus Speh

      At least to a German reader of the original (I never read the translation), [Thomas] Mann is misplaced: he is rather ironic and figurative; probably rather North of Camus. The Magic Mountain or Joseph and his Brothers, or most of all his last great novel, Confessions of Felix Krull, are both supremely symbolic and super-ironic. Glad to find him in your tone-universe however!

  24. Anonymous

       to be honest i don’t know. i don’t really care. it was fun to look at for a few minutes.

  25. Anonymous

      not really took me just a few minutes and a cursory google search of the constellation to make sure i remembered it correctly.

  26. Davis Dunavin

      How much can we as English readers really tell about the tone of a writer who writes in Japanese?

  27. mimi

      after reading bemightee’s Orion’s belt quip i glanced at jimmy’s dot chart to see if there was a cluster i could refer to as the Pleiades, or Seven Sisters (“an open star cluster containing middle-aged hot B-type stars”, according to wikipedia) but, alas, there was none to be seen (“it is the cluster most obvious to the naked eye”) and i was left quipless  (also, i took a minute to cursorily google search the constellation to make sure i remembered it correctly)

  28. deadgod

      The slash here was meant to indicate a ratio:  effort per effect.  However small the effort was, the ratio of it to effect is unusually large.  I should have shown the due respect of making that more clear to a reader in a hurry.

  29. deadgod

      You had the time to add publishing a personal assumption to the time you spent looking up a constellation, but not the time to think about the basis of what you had enjoyed for a few minutes.

      With all due respect, you might find it fun to begin to sift your opinions about the category “ironic”.

  30. reynard

      How much can we as readers really tell about the tone of a writer who is not us?

  31. mimi

      hey deaders, if it makes you feel any better, (and ironically, it most likely won’t, much), i spent more than a few minutes this morning, over my latte, and thanks to your prompting, pondering an apt label for the polar opposite of ‘ironic’ – i Like ‘straightforward’;  – and i agree with You that irony, in execution, can be terribly earnest …. – the next word that popped into My mind was ‘sincere’ (lame, but the caffeine hadn’t kicked in yet) – then, later in the day, ‘sensical’ (drat! Not a Word according to; then ‘congruous’ …   then ……  


  32. Anonymous

      i think an issue here is also tone versus affect

      especially with poetry, to identify a writer by their tone seems mistaken as many quality poems have more than one “tone” at once

      also how the hell is “figurative” a tone?

      the idea of this post is more appealing than its execution

  33. deadgod

      Yes, it’s both calming and exciting to wonder which is the best of all the wrong words in cases where words work almost well.  Many times, the chosen words are a fine impetus, but sometimes one plays the fun game of This word or …?.

      I considered ‘sincere’, too, but there’s the same unsuitability as with “earnest”:  ‘self-referential self-undermining’ can often be stiflingly sincere.  I think the contrast to what Jimmy’s talking about is directness.  ‘Congruous’ might be good; ‘congruity between layers of meaning’ . . .

      I feel pretty good about how I spend time here, including interactions with determinedly distracted interlocutors — buy the ticket, take the ride, right?  But I feel even better considering your antonyms to “ironic”.

  34. Anonymous

      “figurative” seems more for paintings, no?
      yet lyrical is not really the opposite of literal … idk
      it’s cool you did this, i feel your art history background
      ok maybe you mean figurative as “stylistic”
      ok i notice all those up in figurative are more visual
      it bothers me that DF Wallace is smack in the middle
      come to think of it a lotta writers are in the middle
      is this a cop out?

  35. deadgod

      Tonal plurality in one text is what I’d meant to suggest by “spatter” or “spill”.  Ulysses, for example, is famously polyphonic – sometimes quite sincere, sometimes maliciously mocking – , where each story in Dubliners seems to me tonally unified, but, sure, more than one tone in each chord, as it were.

      I think the “figurative”/”literal” axis isn’t meant to register a difference in “tone” per se, but rather, in the conveyance of or context for the tonal distinction between “ironic” and “earnest[?]”.  ?

      I’m pretty surprised there isn’t more outcry at the hideous misogyny that drips from the graph.

  36. Anonymous

      i struggle with this in translated poetry but for prose, i think tone is less hinged to language and more related to voice, the whole shebang of point of view, pacing, etc

  37. Anonymous

      “I’m pretty surprised there isn’t more outcry at the hideous misogyny that drips from the graph.”
      please define your tone

  38. Jimmy Chen

      cormac. i stayed away from poets since i don’t understand it very well. vollmann was too overwhelming to consider

  39. Jimmy Chen

      yes, the narrative and dialog is rather literal, though — and this freaking rocks about James — the twisty sentiments of the characters implicated by their dialogs are, to me, very figurative

  40. Jimmy Chen

      i feel, in part, that facetiousness or derisiveness towards either the reader or, in rand’s case, their subject, is a form of irony. i find these tendencies in her work. dixon seems ‘formally’ ironic due to the deadpan anti-lyricism of his writing, but his subjects (loyalty, dying, empathy, sympathy, co-dependence) are to me extremely earnest

  41. Anonymous

      whoa let’s back up here. ‘with all due respect’ was meant in all seriousness. i often marvel at the acumen and sheer tenacity you bring to bear on various posts. the rest of my original reply was meant in jest at the amount of time it must take you to respond so thoroughly and often. there’s no reason to get so worked up.

  42. deadgod

      Thanks, but I’m not worked up.  A jester can joust just the gist gesticulatorily justificationless – ?

      Problem:  graph f(Jimmy Chen).  A limb Twistered in each quadrant?

  43. lorian long

      vollmann would be a giant $$$shot all over yr graph

  44. Neil Griffin

      I found Perec very earnest in Life: A User’s Manual. Sure, he used Postmodern Oulipo writing to compose it, but I didn’t find it very ironic……..

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  47. jtc

      It’s probably too late, but Jimmy, could you give us more on DFW’s placement in regards to Figurative/Literal? Also, would love to know what of his, and anyone else, you’ve read, or if it’s everything. I think that’d help make the placement make more sense or something.

  48. Jenna Carver

      Fuck yeah, he’s the origin.