Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Voice

In nearly every critique of writers' works, be it of a query, a chapter, a blog entry or a novel, the topic of voice comes up. We know that voice is the element that makes each writer unique. It's often said that one can't develop voice by trying, consciously, to find it or create it, that it only comes about through constant writing until one's own way of way of it putting down becomes stripped of affectations, blind obedience to rules, and takes on a distinctive tone and cadence.

Okay, so we know what it is, sort of, and we know when we read a work that has it, and we can recognize many well-known authors' voices, and we know that without it, we ain't goin' nowhere. Love him or hate him, a few pages from the middle of The Road could be no one but Cormac McCarthy.

So I'm finally reading The Lovely Bones because it was lent to me. I had read the first pages years ago and was hooked, but not enough to buy it. Then the movie had me look again, but still not intrigued enough to pick it up. But having it put into my hand, I did want to see why this debut author broke through the barriers to publication and not only landed an agent who sold the book to a publisher, but became a best-seller that went on to be made into a film. Why?

Well, the first page is obvious. A dead fourteen-year-old girl narrating her own murder. Great hook. But then (the big BUT) I moved past the opening chapters as she narrates the story from "her" heaven, looking down on events that unfold, and something began to bother me. Significantly. The writer has voice, no doubt. The narrator, the dead girl, has voice. But is the voice of the dead girl her voice or the voice of the writer? Because I'm constantly stopping at bits of observation on her (dead girl's) part that sound no more like a fourteen year old girl than I do. She says she wasn't the bright one. (That would be her still-alive older sister.) Her language, her choices of images, metaphors, and observations are so beyond a fourteen year old. My question, then, is is the voice of the novel, written in first person from the girl's POV, hers or the author's? We're told that each character's speech in dialogue, must be distinctively hers/his. Should it not be the same for a character who happens to be a first-person narrator? Or do we not care as long as the whole thing has "voice" and maintains it throughout. Because, as stated up top, the author must have voice.

What I do know is that I'm constantly stopping, though I'm enjoying the story well enough, and shaking my head, thinking no fourteen-year-old girl would think that or say it that way, and whether or not the "voice" of the author is distinctive (and therefore good by that standard), I should be held in her (the girl's) head, in her story, in her observations and way of seeing and saying things, and never pulled out to think she'd never say that. Shouldn't I? Isn't that the author's job?

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