Vox Dei

by wjw on February 28, 2013

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.

Jim Strickland February 28, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Interestingly, I had a class entitled Writing: the Personal Voice in undergraduate school. It was very inductive rather than directly instructive. Lots of free writing, lots of analysis of what works and what doesn’t. It can be taught, albeit by conditioning as much as conventional education. IMHO you learn your writing voice first by reading, then by imitating, and finally you evolve your own.

For some writers, as you say, voice is the only reason to read them. Gibson leaps to mind. He’s got a glorious voice. He writes really beautiful things, but sooner or later (around the end of the Sprawl series) you realize that the plot doesn’t go anyplace and the characters aren’t there. (I went from the Sprawl books to Difference Engine to Spook Country. I’m told there’s good stuff I’ve missed in the gaps.)

I don’t think you can separate voice from the other components easily. How much of voice comes from characters? Chandler’s certainly does. Marlowe’s narration /is/ his voice, and it’s giving you insights into Marlowe he’s not inclined to tell you straight out. (I’m reminded of your observation that Marlowe is a WWI veteran and never /ever/ says so.)

How much of voice comes from the environment of the story? Does your writing voice change when you change universes? I think it must. Example: I adored Richard K. Morgan’s rather bleak future noir (Takashi Kovacs) books, and Thirteen/Black Man, but when he applied his hyper-violent, gritty voice to fantasy, he got mired trying to sound like Tolkein only with more excreta and anal penetration. The genre made demands on his voice and (IMHO) his voice wasn’t up to it. (A lot of people disagree with me about Morgan’s fantasy novels too, btw.)

As a final example, consider Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The English version is a wretched, almost scholarly translation that is utterly unsuited to the story it’s telling. (Whether this is also Larsson’s fault in the original version, I have no idea.) As a result, it’s a tough slog until about halfway through when things finally start happening. If you’ve watched either of the movies made from this book, you realize that it’s a good story with lots of sharp edges. It has strong characters (Salander is a cyberdeck and a few elective implants from being a cyberpunk heroine), and ‘Trapped on an island with a murderer’ is a well worn plot format for a reason. It works. But I nearly didn’t finish the book because of the huge disconnect between the voice and what was going on. (Also there were, for American audiences at least, huge pacing problems.)

I think rather than voice in and of itself, the real thing that makes a novel readable or not is whether the voice fits the characters, universe, and plot. It’s a gestalt between the three.


Shari March 1, 2013 at 4:51 am

Kevin Brockmeier (The Brief History of the Dead; The Illumination) has a distinctive voice. His novels seem to defy classification as well. Once encountered, never forgotten.

Waiting for the 3rd Metropolitan – write faster! 🙂

TRX March 1, 2013 at 12:55 pm

I’m not sure I know the difference between “voice” and “style”, but I’ve been reading a bit of Laumer and Simak lately. It’s unlikely one could be mistaken for the other…

Oddly, though I enjoyed most of Simak’s novels when I was younger, his phrasing (voice?) seems very stilted and awkward to me now; enough to bother me a bit while reading. Every character sounds like he stepped in from the 1800s. The stories move slowly, with pauses for character introspection. They still have entertainment value, but most have moved from the shelf to the discard box.

On the other hand, it had been quite a while since I’d read Laumer, and I’d forgotten (or never noticed) how much his stories were driven by dialogue and characters. Some of them are much better than I remembered. My preferences seemed to have changed over the years.

There are some other authors, like Zelazny or Moorcock, who liked to experiment, I guess. It’s probably technically good to be able to write anything from traditional prose to LSD-stream-of-consciousness, but you never knew what you’d get; when it came down to shelling out money at the bookstore, I’d usually go with something from a more consistent writer and wait for his stuff to make it to the public library.

John Appel March 2, 2013 at 4:39 am

Some writers clearly evolve over time. John Barnes wrote in a column a few years ago about changing voices and used Robert Heinlein as an example: young Heinlein, the boy wonder; mature Heinlein, the uncle or older brother everyone wanted to have; and late Heinlein, the creepy uncle you warned your girlfriend about before introducing her to the family.

Dave Bishop March 2, 2013 at 10:20 am

For me, Jack Vance has always had the most distinctive voice in the SF/Fantasy field. Although I don’t always find his fiction to be particularly convincing (in a logical/scientific sense), his distinctive voice has been addictive to me since my teens. I would read Vance if he wrote the copy on the back of cereal packets!

wjw March 3, 2013 at 4:24 am

Jack Vance’s particular style was fairly common in the pulp fiction of the first few decades of the Twentieth Century. (Vance did it better, though.)

Michael Chabon’s GENTLEMEN OF THE ROAD also adopted this style, which has now become so rarified that I don’t recall a single review that mentioned it was a pastiche of 1920s pulp fiction. It was even serialized!

Voices certainly do change. Mine has— it’s grown simpler, possibly in response to my work growing more complex, and my sense that an elaborate style and complex subject matter may not be the best mix.

Jim, I like the idea of your class in style. Mindful reading + mindful imitation = self-discovery, or so we hope. It’s still more than I can do in a two-week workshop, though.

Ralf The Dog. March 5, 2013 at 5:49 am

I defiantly think Roger Z is the perfect example of voice. I also think the best way to learn voice is a mix of reading and writing.

There was an abruptness to Douglas Adams that I always liked. I always felt, his voice would have worked better for short stories than longer works.

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