Last week I ranted at some length about fiction I’d encountered that failed to convince me that I should care about it, either because of the trivial issues it raised or because the author made no attempt to convince me that any of the action was plausible.
Over the last week I’ve been thinking about these issues, as well as mentally reviewing some work that I’ve liked. And I’ve come to the conclusion that plausibility may not be as big an issue as voice.
Some writers— including some I know personally— have only a tenuous grasp of human nature and, for that matter, reality itself. Yet I enjoy their work. While I’m reading, their characters seem plausible, their scenarios convincing, their fictional worlds fully realized. And this is because their voice is convincing.
I teach writing, but I don’t teach voice. I’m not sure voice can be taught. It can be developed, though not in a class or through instruction, but rather by doing lots and lots of writing. Voice is the author’s fingerprint, a particularly idiosyncratic approach to word choice, character development, grammar, dialog, and so on.
I’m a sucker for certain writers’ signature styles. I know that Gene Wolfe’s faux-naive style hides myriads of complexity beneath what seems to be a simple narrative. I also fall for E.R. Eddison’s elaborate pseudo-Jacobean prose, which is about as far from Wolfe as you can get and still remain within the bounds of the English language.
Ultimately, voice is what you bring to the table as a writer. Voice is what makes the reader want to read you, and not some other person writing in the same field. It’s why you read Jane Austen and not Hannah Moore, Raymond Chandler and not Raoul Fauconnier Whitfield, Robert Heinlein and not Colonel S.P. Meek.
Is there any reason to read H.P. Lovecraft that doesn’t have to do with style? You certainly don’t read Lovecraft for a masterful exposition of the contemporary human condition. No, you read him because he developed a voice that succeeded in encapsulating his quirks and obsessions, prejudices and night-terrors.
It’s a writer’s voice that makes his fiction live. And live fiction— writing that’s immediate, authoritative, and demands my attention— is what I’m looking for.