Monday, 24 March 2008

Thinking about voice


It’ll be no surprise to those who’ve been visiting this blog a while that I’m a fan of Raymond Carver’s short stories. And so, this morning, to celebrate the holiday, I began Sam Halpert’s Raymond Carver, an oral biography (University of Iowa Press, 1995). My daughter bought it me a few months back, and it’s been one strata of The Stack ever since, protected by the supplier’s shrink-wrapped plastic, in preparation for such a moment.

How I’ve been looking forward to peeling off that plastic wrap and getting into it! And, though I generally prefer fiction to biography and am just a quarter of the way in, it hasn’t failed to delight.

It’s got me to thinking (yet again) about voice.

Richard Cortez Day, who took some creative writing classes that Carver attended early on, has this to say in the opening interview: 'As soon as I saw his first manuscript I realized that this guy could really do something, because he had a strong sense of narrative. Of course a lot of writers have that, but not many know the other two things, and though one of them can be learned---the use of detail to establish a reality---the other I believe cannot be learned. It’s the real gift, the true sign of whether a person is a writer or not---and that is the voice. And right from the start Ray’s voice was authentic, personal, and compelling. A bit Hemingwayish maybe, but that’s OK---you have to work through some predecessors.'

I’m not sure about that business of it being learned or not (the nature versus Raymond_carver_an_oral_biography nurture argument too often generalises and simplifies a point of view to the point of meaninglessness), but I do believe voice is something that’s developed and that can become more pronounced with time, practice and confidence. But it’s also something that can be spoiled, by being too measured, too cautious, too refined, self-conscious, or smug. As readers, we all have preferences of course for the type of voice or tone of voice that we prefer attuning ourselves to throughout the journey of a story, but me---well, I’m probably more comfortable with one that borders on being a tad raw rather than carefully polished. (It's what'll hold me to a novel like Charles Bukowski's The Post Office, for instance, when I'm feeling there's not enough else.)

It’s an elusive quality though and not that easy to define, which is possibly what Day was alluding to. It’s not necessarily the narrative voice we’re talking about, because the narrator can be as much a shaped character as any other character, with flaws and idiosyncrasies which mark his/her voice and interpretation of events; although sometimes, when that isn’t the case, the narrative voice may indeed be the authorial voice. But often, I think, when people are talking about this authorial voice what they’re really talking about is ‘style’---except ‘style’ is a less fashionable word. All the same, what’s being discussed is no different: the type of choices that define an author, the vocabulary that’s drawn upon as a whole, the selection of what’s important and how it’s shown, along with the omissions and silences---these are perhaps the things which contribute to that quality of voice or style and which might sometimes be described as ‘authentic, personal and compelling’.

Yes, I think that's it.

To finish, I’ve just got to a section where Scott Turow (novelist and lawyer) adds this to the debate: 'There’s a massive difference between the writer as a person on the one hand and his work on the other. There’s an invisible element in writers. Indeed, one of the things that drove me to law school was the fact that hanging around with these guys, I came to realize that writers as a group do a miserable job of talking about themselves. They’d be happy to tell you stories, repeat stories to you that they heard, but when it came to talking about their inner selves ... very little. I found that lawyers are much more open ... Writers in many ways write because there are things that are otherwise unapproachable for them.'


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