Friday, 8 August 2008

Hearing voices

Narrative voice. Authors are preoccupied by it but it seems hardly to be mentioned by critics/reviewers. Or maybe I’m just not reading the right reviews.
Reviews seem to concentrate on two, or maybe three things:
1. do the characters strike the reader as ‘real’ and their actions convincing given the personality which has been built up?
2. is the plot credible?
3. (depending on the type of book) is the pace of the book right?

OK, fair enough, if you can’t get those things right, why are you bothering? But why are we all struggling with narrative voice and structure if these things are never given a look-in at the critical table?

There are writers who have ‘a voice’ which doesn’t vary from book to book, one could hear their voice from any of their novels. Hemingway springs to mind, as does Austen, Dickens and Hardy.
But there are others of us – you can tell I’m indluding myself here as I’ve used the first person plural – whose voice depends on whose point of view we’re writing in. Which means that our ‘voice’ may feel different in each book or at different points in each individual book.

The trouble is, it’s possible to get a bit carried away with voice/s.

In the previous version of the work in progress, events were narrated by three different voices (three in the present day, anyway, there’s also - surprise surprise - a historical voice which has changed a lot less in the rewrite). A problem ensued - each character had so much of their own stuff going on (to ensure that 1 above was taken care of) that the central events of the book had a tendency to get lost in the noise (leaving 3 above very definitely not taken care of). The book was about too many things, too many people. It rambled.

Don’t get me wrong - I liked each of the characters, I’d spent a lot of time and effort in developing each of their individual voices and I’d become fond of them. It was hard to give them up. But the structure of the book suffered because of the extent to which each of the voices belonged to a fully-developed person with ideas of their own about what was happening and lives of their own which were going on against the backdrop of the central events. What didn’t work was the relative weight I’d allowed each character to give to their own lives in relation to the novel’s central events.

The current version of the story has only one viewpoint character in the present day and one in the nineteenth century. It’s a lot easier. And 1, 2 and 3 above are falling into line nicely.


Martin Edwards said...

I agree, and I also find that it's harder to write multiple viewpoint/voice books because you have to keep moving from the inside of one character's head to another. Quite achieveable, and great when it works, but far from easy.

Tim Stretton said...

I admire writers who can switch voice - it can be immensely rewarding for the reader.

That said, the writers I enjoy the most--Vance, Austen, O'Brian--don't work that way at all.

One of the beauties of the novel form is how there are so many ways of creating a satisfying whole (and, conversely, so many spectacular ways to fail...)

David Isaak said...

Ack, I'm in a quandary here. ANd I'm not even sure what a "quandary" is--as a child, I somehow associated it with "quarry," in the sense of a place where people removed huge blocks of stone and left a big hole you could be in. I'm morally certain that isn't the origin, but I'll be damned if I'm going to go look it up.

I love writers who carry their authority and voice from work to work, and Tim's trio are good examples. But I also love the ones who play with voice, tone, and style from work to work--Jane Smiley, Iris Murdoch, and John Fowles come to mind.

The critical establishment thinks an author has a single voice, which can be "found." That might be correct--though I feel that some (Hemingway and Faulkner and Waugh, offhand, though I love all three dearly) tend to drop into imitations of themselves after a time.

Fowles predicted the day would come where good writers, like Picasso, would prodcue works in every imaginable style. Maybe so. But I doubt they'll get those works published. (I'm still trying to figure out how Jane Smiley gets away with it...)