Liars Club

The Critical Voice

by Gregory Frost on September 22, 2010

in Advice for Writers,The Writing Process

In his terrific book The Sound on the Page, Ben Yagoda discusses the concept of the “Critical Voice” of the story, which can roughly be defined as the specific place from which the story must be told. No other locus will work as well–will satisfy the reader so thoroughly, will allow the writer to parcel out information and withhold it, will echo the persona(s) of the tale.  Yagoda quotes English novelist Zadie Smith as saying “Every genuinely literary style, from the high authorial voice to (David) Foster Wallace and his footnotes-within-footnotes, requires the reader to see the world from somewhere in particular, or from many places.  So every novelist’s literary style is nothing less than an ethical strategy–it’s always an attempt to get the reader to care about people who are not the same as he or she is.”  The more the reader cares, the more she will be glued to the book, right to the very last sentence.

On some level, we all want to write something so engaging. We all want crowds lined up at the docks in Boston to find out if Little Nell lives or dies. Who doesn’t want their readers that desperate to know?

I agree with Smith, that voice is a vital strategy, ethical in that the narrative cannot is fair and honest, and isn’t lying to the reader (unless of course, lying to the reader is what you’re intending all along).  If you serve a mystery novel from an omniscient narrator’s point of view then you pretty much have to lie to the reader throughout, because an omniscient narrative knows perfectly well who the criminal is and what the solution to the mystery is.  That’s why mysteries are generally told in first or third person-limited narratives.  We, as writers, must ask ourselves what are we going to reveal and what are we going to withhold?  The answers, of course, depend upon the individual story we’re telling.  But beyond that, whose voice is this? I find in classes that a lot of beginning writers write only in first person, and that story after story sounds like the same person–them.  They’ve defaulted to the point of view and voice that comes naturally–and we all have one.  First person allows them to fudge their grammatical mistakes, because “It’s how he talks!” after all.  Recently I read David Morrell’s (also terrific) book of writing advice, in which he mentions a disenchantment with the first person narrative–that he feels too many authors glom onto it without really considering that ethical strategy of Zadie Smith’s.  Without, says Morrell, asking the more pertinent question a first person narrative should be able to answer of “Who is listening?” Someone’s telling this story.  Who is their audience–besides the reader. Is it a deathbed confession? A story related over coffee?  I expect a lot of writers will dismiss Morrell’s concern, as the first person narrative is so common to contemporary fiction, but I think it’s worth contemplating as part of that ethical strategy.

Finally, Voice, like all other elements in your fiction, is a personal choice.  Something made you think this story was viable, exciting, needed to be told. And that same something is probably prodding you to inhabit this particular voice to tell it.  Remember, though, that unless it’s a memoir, this is not your voice.  It is someone new speaking through you as if you were a medium at a seance or an actor on stage.

As Hamlet opines about an actor he’s just watched:

Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all the visage wann’d,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect,
A broken voice, an’ his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing,
For Hecuba!

Monstrous to Hamlet in his moment, but essential–that broken voice and distracted aspect–to the author who wants to bring to life someone who never existed, in a work of fiction that flows into being only from that perfect, damaged, lofty, clever, snide, childish, world-weary chosen voice.

The Shadowbridge Duology

Lord Tophet cover art

Gregory Frost is the author of the Shadowbridge duology, named one of the top four fantasy novels by the American Library Association in 2009.  He keeps all his voices in a box along with a bottle of single malt scotch and Hydrox cookies. …No, we don’t know why, either.

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Gerri George September 22, 2010 at 10:34 am

Well, Greg, just when I thought I knew everything about voice in fiction, you come along and Wow me with this great posting. And Zadie Smith, who also knows a thing or two about voice, thanks for adding her words to your piece. They were new to me and helpful. She says more in the two sentences that you quote, than perhaps a whole book titled VOICE (with all due respect to any books which happen to be titled VOICE).

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