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…

8 comments on “What Is Authorial Voice?”

  1. Helen Martin says:

    Now this is what I’d call instant response. I was just commenting on voice and I’ve been thinking about it since. I said I trust your writing for certain things, including not terrifying the reader, because I recognise *you* in the writing. When I read someone blasting the upper class as we get in Seventy Seven Clocks I recognise you and I particularly recognise you in Arthur Bryant. I wonder if the voice becomes stronger as time goes on or whether authors become better at hiding certain aspects of themselves, things which others might call biases.

  2. Jan says:

    There’s a definite difference in your voice now to the very early Chris of “Roofworld” or “Rune”.
    He was obviously young and had thousand ideas circulating in his head + wasn’t “saving up ideas for later”. Which I think tends to happen with many novelists. Including yourself (sorry)

    It’s all very slightly more world weary now. Bit more measured, stylistically improved I suppose. You can hear an older, sadder, more experienced bloke. Maybe not sadder but changed.

    Very interesting what Helen is saying I think you self identify with John May very much he’s you physically …and how you are socially to an extent. Arthur Bryant’s your first partner isn’t he? The guy all your employees called by his full title whilst you were just “Chris”.

    Think H may be right though and a lot of your truth comes out of Arthur’s mouth. It’s funny John gets carried along by events he’s far more passive than Arthur. Arthur is a more proactive detective whereas John efficiently organizes a response to events Arthur proactively engineers a solution. John gets caught up in stuff that would never get near Arthur who has a totally different perception. A big picture Dc is Arthur.

    In a sense throughout the stories there’s a sense of your admiration, of respect for the man. I know it’s wrapped up in the comedy. Arthur foibles. But as far as the roles go there’s a homage to his character and the reader comes to appreciate the partnership is a real meeting of minds, skills and talents.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Arthur keeps a lot to himself, which helps with the plot, but you’re right that he sees beyond what is happening under his nose and is aware of causal connections and what comes next. “What is the natural end to all this?”
    I feel that the author (separately from Admin or Chris) admires John for his ability to organise, for the way he keeps up with technology while Arthur has to rely on those around him. He understands the general principles but someone else will have to do the actual operation. Arthur on the other hand is totally intuitive and has created a huge group of supporters who will answer his every call. Who said he’s not a people person?

  4. Jan says:

    Helen it’s the old Sherlock Holmes storytellng trick without one of the guys being employed as part narrator. Arthur’s cards although played close to his chest will almost always reveal where the answer will come from.

    With the gardening book (where I only twigged who the baddie was from my own experience. Admittedly I fluked it) in retrospect Arthur’s investigation revealed the culprit in a totally different way. One procedural detective one intuitive detective is a common enough device here there’s the added twist of both men being taken from life. One of them having traits of the author.

  5. admin says:

    As usual, Jan, you are frighteningly accurate in your assessment – and you too, Helen – the odd thing is that I don’t consciously think about these things when I’m writing. I guess they just surface.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I don’t think most authors are aware of noticeable little quirks and even readers only notice them after there is a reasonable body of work (love that phrase, it makes me think of someone building a woodpile) in which they can surface. Don’t think about them because there is nothing worse than a self conscious author trying to control his/her vocabulary. Perhaps we shouldn’t think about it either until we have the complete body of work (and there’s a euphemism for you.)
    Is it “a” or “an” euphemism? I want to say “a” due to the Y sound at the beginning, but there seems to be different answers depending on the style manual involved. Must look it up in my Fowlers. Good Lord! He *was” a Fowler, wasn’t he?

  7. Jan says:

    Probably it’s precisely cos it is unconscious is why the writing does reveal you.

  8. Jan says:

    More atrocious English from moi

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