On quiet writing

‘Books are solitudes in which we meet,’ writes Rebecca Solnit in her 2013 essay collection The Faraway Nearby. But in a crowded literary marketplace, thousands of potential solitudes are jostling to be met in, and it’s easy to choose only the ones that call to us most loudly.

‘Loud’ writing attracts attention with its zeitgeisty theme or high-concept plot. An ambitious, edgy approach to form or genre that demands to be read as spectacle. A punchy, fast-paced writing style that doesn’t so much invite you into the story as hustle you along with it.

Overall, what I am calling ‘loud’ writing offers a strong sense of the author’s creative presence. This could be in the autobiographical sense that is now expected even from fiction, or simply a self-consciously performative quality in the writing. Sometimes, too, writing feels loud because it shows conviction and authority – it never apologises or seeks to justify, but assumes itself to be enough.

Loud writing gets reviewed using words like ‘powerful’, ‘important’, ‘gripping’, ‘urgent’, ‘compelling’, ‘incisive’, ‘rollicking’, ‘gritty’, ‘unflinching’, ‘hilarious’ and ‘provocative’. Quiet writing gets reviewed as ‘quiet’. Or sometimes as ‘lyrical’, with a ‘lightness of touch’.

In her 2018 book The Quiet Contemporary American Novel, Rachel Sykes notes that to call writing ‘quiet … dismisses and derides the work of writers whose work seems disengaged from the noise of their wider society’. While ‘quiet’ can be a publishing euphemism for unfashionable literary fiction with a narrow market appeal, it’s usually reviewers who assign writing a volume. This is a problem, because ‘loud’ and ‘soft’ are subjective, unstable categories whose built-in value judgments mirror broader social hierarchies.

The term ‘quiet novel’ first appeared in the Journal of the London Society in 1868; the first American periodical to describe books in this way was Harper’s, in 1884. Immediately, quietness began to function as a critical euphemism for ‘quotidian’ and ‘boring’.

In 1888, the Hobart Mercury described WE Norris’ Chris as a ‘quiet novel’, whose heroine was ‘a very ordinary type of young lady’ and whose villain acts ‘in a quiet and gentlemanly way, and appears at the right time to receive his coup de grâce in a very amiable and considerate manner.’ The newspaper concluded: ‘the reader will, no doubt, appreciate this mode of writing, although it is not an exciting one.’

But it’s lazy to define quiet writing by what it lacks. For a start, it can offer a strong sense of quietness itself, capturing stillness and calm rather than movement and tension. It can be written simply and lucidly, rather than with showy complexity, and unfurl at a leisurely pace. It may follow reticent, introverted characters who don’t take dramatic action or make bold, witty speeches, but who nonetheless have rich interior lives.

Most importantly, the author of quiet writing doesn’t so much demand to be heard as invite the reader to listen. This doesn’t mean quiet authors are invisible in the text, or that they lack authority over it. As Michael Ondaatje observed of Alice Munro’s stories after she won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, ‘They don’t have a large public or rhetorical voice. So the readers have to come to her. She doesn’t go out to them.’

Calling writing ‘quiet’ is inescapably gendered. While all authors are concerned with the effects of broad social and political changes on individuals, male writers are more likely to adopt a universal address, and to be received as universal. Women’s political writing gets called ‘quiet’ because critics are less willing to listen.

Irish author Maeve Binchy, who had a reputation for writing ‘cosy’ romantic fiction, embraced one reviewer’s label of ‘quiet feminist’. In a 1991 television interview, Binchy said, ‘Firstly, it was so delightful to be called quiet; in my entire life, no-one had ever called me quiet. And secondly, my own feminism came from feeling that if I could write fiction books showing that women were sometimes too humble and took themselves too timidly, [I could show] that only by being courageous and taking charge of your own life did you succeed.’

The political power of quietness is its focus on reticent interiority, which illuminates – sometimes very ruthlessly – the things its protagonists have been socialised not to do or say. Seemingly passive characters, from Ellen Olenska in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence to the unnamed, somnolent narrator of Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, are often pushing back, in their own ways, against social expectations.

Quietness also grants space to the political expression of authors whose race and class don’t allow them the privilege of noisy, essayistic self-examination, or whose loudness is dismissed as ‘angry’, ‘radicalised’ and ‘disruptive’.

Quiet writing can be a subversive undercurrent. Like a rip-tide, it immerses the reader in a radical point of view, and propels them towards a crucial but subtle insight. And it’s all the more powerful and critical because it doesn’t make a performance of its power and its critique. Loudness, after all, can sometimes be empty bluster.


Image: Laney / Flickr



Mel Campbell

Mel Campbell is a journalist, cultural critic and media studies lecturer. She’s the author of nonfiction investigation Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit (Affirm Press, 2013), and co-author of the rom-com novels Nailed It! and The Hot Guy.

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