I often get manuscripts that are a microsecond away from publication that have a giant mandate across the top from the production editor, “DO NOT TOUCH THE AUTHOR’S VOICE!”
The thing that troubles me about this mandate is not that I try always to be respectful of a writer’s voice, but that a writer’s voice is not smoke and mirrors. So often what these writers mean when they refer to their voices is that they stack up fragments to indicate tension or suspense or a particular rhythm of motion that an author feels they can’t convey with mere language (imitative fallacy), or that they like to sanction habits that are puzzling and labor-intensive to break or address in revision like having to write in a consistent tense, or using an active construction. Or the hyperactive hyphenation that seems to appear in any two words preceding a noun.
So in a rare and brief moment of humility, I thought to myself, “what the heck is a writer’s voice?” I feel as sure as I know my own name that I know what a writer’s voice is, but when I tried to explain it to myself, I came up with nothing more enlightening than syntax. Mostly, it’s the order in which writers string together words, even within the confines of a subject, verb, object grammatical structure.
When I think about why I read what I read, it’s at least 80% about the writer’s voice.
I dug out a few of my favorite text books from my exhaustive study of writing in college, and I looked for index entries on voice. I looked for some mention of it in E.M. Forester’s Aspects of the Novel, thinking, “Surely! If there is to be a definitive statement about what constitutes a writer’s voice, it’ll be there.” I looked in a glossary of Literary Terms, all to no avail, so I gave up and asked the internet.
The internet talked about voice most exhaustively in relation to high school level writing. Wikipedia told me that voice is more-or-less tricky to define, and that it varies by author, and that it spans all of the constituent parts of writing: syntax, punctuation, diction, dialogue, character development, etc.
It occurred to me, given this somewhat imprecise and potentially unreliable information, that stacking up fragments could, in fact, be considered to be voice. But at what cost?
My point is that writers earn their voices by writing. By practicing the craft. That the voice is not something that can be inserted into a work by means of cheap manipulations of punctuation and syntax, and that creating a voice by manipulating the rules of grammar is an amateurish impulse that should be squashed by editors and agents very, very early in the development stages of a book.
Here are some examples from Deepening Fiction. I’m going to pick some stories at random and put down the first sentence or two.
“On the day he left her for good, she put on one of his caps. It fit snugly over her light brown hair. The cap had the manufacturer’s name of his pickup truck embossed above the visor in gold letters.” *
“I received one morning a letter, written in pale ink on glassy, blue-lined notepaper, and bearing the postmark of a little Nebraska village. This communication, worn and rubbed, looked as though it had been carried for some days in a coat pocket that was none too clean.” **
“A salesman who shared his luqior and steered while sleeping…A Cherokee filled with bourbon…A VW no more than a bubble of hashish fumes, captained by a college student…And a family from Marshalltown who headonned and killed forever a man driving west out of Bethany, Missouri…” ***
There’s no doubt in my mind that these three, grammatical introductions were written by three distinct authors. The things that constitute these writers’ voices, the choices they made, are not things like making up a new way to use the semicolon, or the overuse of sentence fragments. The voice-making choices here are things like describing paper as glassy, as starting a story about hitchhiking with a series of clauses, punctuated by ellipses, that paint an evocative picture. These choices, these voices tell us something about the story we’re about to read. Even the first and most mundane of these story starts, about the day he left for good, we get a sense of the tension in the story, a heterosexual couple who agree about hats, but apparently not about love. The particular choice to say “his truck’s manufacturer” instead of “Ford” or “Toyota” is a choice that lends to voice.
And I would go so far as to say that voice is especially important in the romances I am paid to read. Especially since there are so many norms for the genre, so many tropes and rules and very specific expectations from readers. It is a pity that there’s such a limited understanding of voice in these particular writers’ circles, since voice is really the only distinction between some of these books.
* “The Cures for Love” by Charles Baxter
** “A Wagner Matinee” by Willa Cather
***”Car Crash While Hitchhiking” by Denis Johnson