“I want to pour your voice into a goldfish bowl before flushing it down the toilet.”—Jarod Kintz
I consider myself contemporary, if not futuristic, but with fiction writing I can be old-school—maybe old-fashioned. I’m mainly interested in narration, dialogue, tone, pacing, scene, description, plot, and characterization. Most of all, I’m interested in the story. If I’m talking about how a writer tells a story, I use the term style. If there’s such a thing as a writer’s voice, I don’t think it helps a work of fiction. Unless I’m reading a memoir, my imagination’s ear rejects a narrator or characters who sound like their creator. I expect the fictional characters to have their own voices, not the author’s. If the characters in The Hours sounded like Michael Cunningham I would’ve stopped reading after a few pages. Cunningham is an interesting speaker, but he doesn’t sound like many women I’ve ever heard. The characters’ stream of consciousness in The Hours is not Michael Cunningham’s voice; it is a combination of Cunningham’s imagination, his memory of what women sound like, and his individual prose style. He was not channeling Virginia Woolf.
Many fiction writers, and readers of fiction, claim that narrators and characters in a work of fiction have the author’s voice. But if writers have distinct voices, as some claim, why didn’t readers recognize J.K. Rowling’s voice when she published The Cookoo’s Calling under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith? Sure, once Rowling revealed that she was the author, book reviewers and Harry Potter fans who read The Cookoo’s Calling said, “I knew it was her voice all the time.” Yeah, right. Maybe it’s easier to recognize someone’s voice after she tells you her real name, and that she’s female and not male. Rowling is not the first famous writer to disguise her or his writing simply by using a pseudonym.
John C. Gardner, John Irving, and others have written novels that have characters reading segments of another novel. Is the actual writer’s voice in the primary novel, or in the partial novel within the primary novel? Well, if the same person writes all parts of the novel, I’d have to pick what’s behind Door #1—Not Voice.
Before the 1980s, I rarely heard fiction writers and readers using voice the way they do today. This makes me wonder why few people between William Shakespeare’s plays and Stephen King’s early novels noticed an author’s voice. Sure, many important things have gone unnoticed for long periods before being discovered—such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, gravity, and America. With 500 years of published writers, wannabe writers, literary critics, and English Professors needing to write about anything to get tenure, I’m surprised that all of a sudden, like the Emperor strutting the boulevard in his New Clothes, writers waited until near the ending of the 20th century to start noticing their voice.
People who prefer to use voice instead of style don’t bother me at all. Actually, I’m pleased they’re interested enough to have a name for what they do. But I’m a naturally curious person. And sometimes I over-think terms I don’t find self-explanatory, yet others seem to easily understand. My lack of understanding frustrates me. When I read about writers who are satisfied with their voice, I asked myself, “What are they hearing that I’m not?” And when writers say they’re struggling to find their voice, I wonder how they developed literary laryngitis in the first place.
My over-thinking this voice concept has sent me to the Twilight Zone. At times, I’ve asked myself, “If I’ve lost this writer’s voice people are talking about, what is it supposed to sound like when I finally find it? And if I’ve never known my own voice, how can I be sure I haven’t found somebody else’s missing voice? What if I find Haruki Murakami’s voice, instead of my own, and start drafting a novel in Japanese? How the hell would I revise and edit it? Since not having one doesn’t bother me, maybe I’m better off without this voice thingy that gives so many other writers problems.”
While looking for something to help me understand the writer’s voice, I ended up on a Writer’s Digest website Q & A:
Q. “Could you define the difference between a writer’s voice and style in creative writing?”
A. “Here’s one way to think about it: WD tries to have all its articles fit a similar style—conversational yet straightforward. But between the covers, each piece is written by a different author whose own voice colors his particular piece. So the continuity of the magazine stays together, but each piece is still different.…”
To my mind’s ear, every WD article sounds like the same person wrote it. And I’ve heard many writers and wannabe writers say the same thing. The only way I’d be convinced that Writer’s Digest articles have different voices is for WD to offer a Coke v. Pepsi challenge where WD removes all the bylines and mention of anything the authors have published, and then ask WD’s readers to match from a list of writers (1,2,3,4, …) the article they wrote (a,b,c,d, … ). Anyway, if there’s really such a thing as a writer’s voice, Writer’s Digest should respect their contributors’ voices and edit only for grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes—or maybe not edit at all. Writer’s Digest is an excellent resource for writing books and how-to articles, but it is not a good example of writing styles.
After realizing that Writer’s Digest is not the only source of information about the writer’s voice, I went to Powells.com and found The Writer’s Voice, by A. Alvarez. The users’ comments made me think it was not a book I wanted to own, so I got it from the library. I didn’t get much out of The Writer’s Voice. For one thing, Alvarez writes about his favorite poets and not much of anything else. Maybe poets actually have more of a voice than a style, since poetry is written to be read aloud. The Writer’s Voice does not mention any opposing opinions of voice and style; writers have a voice because A. Alvarez says they do, and that’s that.
A more satisfying discussion about voice and style is The Sound on the Page, by Ben Yagoda. Before I bought The Sound on the Page, I figured that voice is at best a metaphor for style, at worst a misnomer. And I was not surprised to find that Yagoda and most of the writers, literary critics, and editors he interviewed, or those who responded to Yagoda’s survey, believe a writer’s voice is the same as a writer’s style:
“Voice is not a perfect metaphor for writing style, which is why it’s just a metaphor. Writing is much more premeditated than speaking: we are allowed to mull over our words for an awfully long time before setting them down, and once they are down, on the page or screen, we can look at them, puzzle over them, revise them … Yet even the most thoughtful writers can stare at a sentence for a whole day and not realize precisely how readers will ‘hear’ it. A part of style is unintentional or even unconscious; as Richard Burton said, it betrays us.”—Ben Yagoda
Even though I share an opinion with many other writers, I know that the majority is not always right. An impressive minority of noted writers, literary critics, creative writing teachers, and editors Ben Yagoda surveyed passionately believe that voice and style are not the same:
“We learned to speak before we wrote, and, even if we are writers, we speak thousands upon thousands of words more than we write in a day. When we write, we speak in written words. The magic of writing is that readers who may never meet us hear what we have written. Music rises from the page when we read. We call the heard quality of writing voice, and it may be the most important element in writing. Voice, like background music in a movie, is tuned to the writing, supports and extends what the writing says.”—Donald Murray
After reading The Sound on the Page, I’ve come to believe that discussing voice is a lot like discussing religion: I’m not going to convince true believers that they’re wrong; true believers are not going to convert me without offering some persuasive evidence of how my conversion will be beneficial for me. Maybe someday I’ll start trying to find my voice. Until then, I’ll keep doing what I’ve always done—write, revise, edit, revise and edit some more, until I get the words right.
Call it voice, call it style, call it style of voice, or make up something new to call your prose. The important thing is to keep writing and revising and editing until your writing sounds right in your head, and then it will sound right in your readers’ heads.