Saturday, January 5, 2013

Coming to Terms with "Voice"

When I worked at The Georgia Review, I saw plenty of examples of failed voices. A story would start in heavily misspelled vernacular, heavy with the y'alls and yokelisms we might expect from a bad actor, and I'd find myself scanning ahead quickly to see if it ever redeemed itself. They almost never did. And because I associated "voice pieces" so heavily with bad writing, the concept of voice itself became suspect. I cringed when I heard people talk about a writer finding "his/her voice," as if it were lost change in the couch cushion that had to be dug out. I figured, a writer's voice was whatever was natural, and if I had to think about it too hard, then the piece was doomed to feeling hackneyed and artifical.

Lately, though, I've realized just how wrong that assumption is. I've been listening to the New Yorker Fiction podcasts (which are free through iTunes and are, for the most part, mind-blowingly good). A few weeks back, I was listening to Eudora Welty's "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" while scrubbing my toilet, and Joyce Carol Oates, who selected and read the story, talked with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman afterward about the title and how crucial the voice was to the piece. The language seemed so natural. Welty said that she felt she knew this person because she had grown up with him. He was her neighbor, her uncle, her grocer, etc. He was a part of her community and thus a part of her--though, as the title suggests, a part that perhaps she didn't know was there and may not have wanted to acknowledge.

On Thursday, Joshua Ferris read George Saunders's "Adams" intimately into my ear while I ran around the track (again, thank you New Yorker Fiction podcast), and I felt the same impulse driving the story. The speaker's voice was crucial, as Ferris pointed out, to mediating the violence of the story, allowing it to flirt with the comedic while we are simultaneously horrified by the speaker's action. It's the same trick Burgess pulled off in A Clockwork Orange, a book I've always loved for its language, its voice.

It dawned on me just how many books I first loved for the voice of their speakers: Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, or more recently, Christopher John Francis Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime) and just about any character by John Green. Their voices made the speakers real to me. They drew me in.

A speaker is a book's emissary. We have to like them if we're going to root for them--especially if they're as despicable as Burgess's Alec or Nabokov's Humbert Humbert. I think a part of me always recognized that voice was a part of this liking, but I've arrived at the conclusion that it's more than that, that voice is nothing less than the embodiment of personality in language.

This is perhaps what is most terrifying about finding the voice for a novel. Let's face it: most of us worry about whether we're likable enough. Do we have the necessary charisma? Are we witty enough? Can we create a character who is?

I suspect that it's this fear (that no one will like me enough) that drives my avoidance of voice-driven fiction, but, in this season of resolutions, I vow to avoid it no longer. I still believe it's inaccurate to talk about a writer finding "his voice" because that implies there is a single voice to find. The voices a writer seeks are multiple: the voices of all of those characters, the embodiment of all those personalities. In Welty's example, the killer's voice is and is not her own. Her and her speaker's language are related but not identical. Welty allows what's familiar in their common language to draw her into a vernacular of racial hatred that was not her own, and the story is terrifyingly successful as a result.

Whether they come easily or not, the best voices draw us in not because of any politician's false charm but because they feel natural and authentic, because the writer erased the footprints that got him there.