What Is Authorial Voice?
A story is just a story until you learn to sense the writer behind the words, and that is something experience (ie. a massive amount of reading) refines for you.
Why should you need to hear the author’s voice at all? Because it adds a new dimension to what you read. An author can act like a falcon, flying above the characters, dipping down to hear one, then another, but it’s the choice of what to hear that makes the voice. Dickens is fabulous at this sort of thing, soaring about and listening in. Dylan Thomas comes to mind, F Scott Fitzgerald, Ruth Rendell, Tom Wolfe…
In first-person narratives there’s a double voice, that of the main character and what the author chooses to have them say.
Literature nearly always has an authorial voice. I think some literary figures are held back by the stridency of their own opinions. There are several authors I struggle to read now that their personalities keep poking through the story.
But let’s take the blandest popular writing I can think of; Agatha Christie. A single location, a series of murders, a detective, the least likely suspect found guilty. No voice, surely?
Look again and you find all sorts of clues; the snobbery of the period (‘she was a cheap sort of a girl’), minimal description and a simplicity designed for the widest readership – Christie used far fewer words than her contemporaries, which pumped her sales through overseas translations. She used simple tricks, so that the murderer is not only the least likely character but also the one you know most about. And their are quirks – in describing a country house you learn little about how it looks but an awful lot about egress. She’s obsessed with how you get in and out of rooms. The miracle is that she works under these constrictions and still makes her books pleasurable.
I suspect that her authorial voice is saying ‘I know that you know this is a construct, but let’s have fun with it anyway.’ In his book analysing golden age crime novels, ‘Snobbery With Violence’, Colin Watson’s trademark acerbic prose dries up as he admits admiration for Christie’s double-bluff trickery.
My agent once said, ‘I knew you wrote that article in the paper today, it has your voice.’ Until that moment I wasn’t aware that I had a voice at all. Authors can be quite frightened off by the idea of revealing themselves. What if you’ve picked the wrong tone? Does it come to define all your writing? Bret Easton Ellis courted a bad-boy image with such skill that it eventually constrained him.
Sometimes you know you’re in the company of a trickster. The greatly underrated author Gary Indiana had what I thought was an identifiable style – journalistic, serious, epic, elegant, disturbingly honest – until he wrote ‘The Shanghai Gesture’, a Fu Manchu novel that’s an absolute blast. I suppose this is no different from Virginia Woolf being able to write ‘To The Lighthouse’ and ‘Orlando’. Writers need to cut loose and have fun occasionally.
Of course we’re all multi-faceted, but often we present only one side to the reader for fear of over-complicating matters. In a time of extreme compartmentalisation I’ve been stuck with a dozen different labels, but I remain determined not to be pinned down.
I think honesty is the best policy for anyone creating something. If your own attributes can’t help but come through, the public will decide whether or not you have an appealing personality. I’m met one or two authors who are quite horrible in person, and when I’ve gone back to their books I’ve found clues to their true nature hiding in plain sight…