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On the Notoriously Overrated Powers of Voice in Fiction or How To Fail At Talking To Pretty Girls

On a Tuesday afternoon in July, not too long ago, a friend of mine struck a pose imitating a self-portrait of the psychedelic Italian painter Pontormo. We were having lunch on a patch of grass outside some library near Russell Square. In his self portrait, a goatee’d Pontormo levels one sweaty finger at the fourth wall, his hips half-cocked and his closest leg a little kinked, the whole thing oozing sex and transgression. Picture Johnny Depp meets Ewan McGregor. Picture dolled-up sixteenth century facial hair. Now picture: speedo, because that’s all Pontormo’s wearing – that and an expression that says he knows it.

 

My friend (call her Annabel) was not wearing only-a-speedo, but I still felt a lump in my throat as if I’d swallowed a beating heart. I thought about telling her how good she looked, but I thought about a lot of things: how the hell I’d ended up in London, seven thousand kilometres from home; how a train stays on its tracks by sheer friction; why the Victorians ever thought it a good idea to import a tree that smells like semen.[1] Mostly, though – at least, that Tuesday in July – I thought about ways to talk to Annabel. I’m a fiction writer by trade, a modest purveyor of sweeping narrative, reticent dialogue, and moments of emotional revelation, but like a story never translates seamlessly from idea to paper, so too does it not translate seamlessly from paper to voice. Take that from somebody who knows.[2]

 

But those seeking a tale of romance and bared hearts should seek elsewhere, because this is an essay on voice, not girls. Or rather, this is an essay on the poor comparison of voice and talking, and possibly on the failure of translation between the two – though in the examples to follow, the latter is nobody’s fault but my own.

 

I’m going to make a bold claim and say voice is one of the most cited but least understood stylistic elements that readers respond to in fiction. Name a few good books and you’ll find someone raving about the voice. Off the cuff: Ford’s Sportswriter, David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green, Andrew O’Hagan’s book about a talking dog.[3] Publishers and agents stress the importance of finding ‘new voices’ (Granta devotes a section with that very name, every online issue, to an as-yet-unknown writer) and in creative writing workshops students are told they do or do not yet have ‘their voice’ by teachers who have or have not yet found theirs. Stories have voices and writers have their own, body-of-work voices, and writers also talk (apparently quite badly, if I am anything like a reliable cross-section). Meanwhile, Academics gesticulate their theories about postmodernism and the deconstruction of the Self as a stand-in for saying anything at all.[4]

 

Voice is not talking. In fact that makes no sense – the written word being an inherently silent medium.[5] We say we like the sound of a writer’s voice, but this is purely metaphorical, this is hand-waving, this is gross simplification of the highest order. What we actually like is some analogue of sound in a writer’s voice, some approximation of how the voice-as-written represents the voice-as-spoken. Thoughts don’t make noise.[6]The rhythms of a sentence shift between psychic and verbal. My favourite spoken word is herringboned, but my favourite written word is syzygy. Writing is a visual medium but also a cerebral medium; talking is almost wholly aural. I can’t stress this enough – the gap between voice-as-written and voice-as-spoken is nothing short of ontological. The way I like the ‘sound’ of a writer’s written voice shares no commonality with, for instance, the way I like the sound of Annabel’s voice (here’s the fiction writer in me, building tension).[7] This means there’s more to voice than semantic field, diction, and rhythm (though that’s certainly part of it) just as, obviously, there’s more to talking than the words that tumble from my mouth sans forethought – there’s gesture, intonation, sound, stutter, stammer, and slip.[8]

 

So Annabel struck a pose and I felt as though someone was pressing a thumb to the divot where my breastbone meets neck. I’ve been taught to avoid judgements when writing fiction, so words like gorgeous, pretty, beautiful, goddess-of-my-idolatry get to taste my steeltoes[9] but let me say this: Annabel is the kind of girl bumblebees try to gather pollen from. Annabel is the kind of girl who boys write short stories about. She’s got reddish, brown-blonde hair (I’m terrible at these things) that cusps her jugular, green eyes with a speck in one iris I don’t know what to call except a speck. She stands slightly taller than me but I try to make up for it by donning a ballcap. Though I’d likely beat her in an arm wrestle (I consider myself an expert arm-wrestler) she has biceps that can manoeuvre the movement of a mare. When she speaks, I am drawn to the motion of her upper lip against her teeth – a motion I’ve also noticed in conversation with other Brits. She wears shoes with small maple-leaf tags sticking from the sides, says they’re reliable, tough.

 

We’d been editing each other’s stories over lunch. Being a thorough and thoughtful editor is basically my only skill, and let me stress how difficult it is to turn that into a mechanism for inciting romance. She praised the voice in my story and I praised her use of dialogue, and then she ridiculed me for including a German Shepherd named Wolfhound, which I have subsequently named after her, for revenge. Now, though, she’d glided to her feet and struck a pose, and, with this pose, the time had come for our lunch amid the semen trees to end (she had work to do, is a biographer). Up until that point I’d been summoning the wherewithal to voice my attraction to her, but all lunch I’d found myself tongue-tied, writer-blocked, had suffered a ball-gagging of the mind, and the realisation that she was now leaving caused in me a certain degree of distress. Things I noticed, all at once: two people with their backs to some statue of a horseman (the British go crazy over these things) who looked too similar to be lovers, unless they’d been together for decades; the way Annabel grinned slyly down at me, her summery dress a-flutter; my notebook, arm’s reach away, wherein I’d written a dialogue that outlined the way our conversation might go, the things I might say (I just like hearing you talk; nobody’s feedback is as good as yours;I have a pretty big crush on you; wanna get a drink?).

 

In part, perhaps, I can blame my failure to talk (a failure of suaveness – vastly unlike me) on displacement, on submersion in a country that sounds so different from the small town of my boyhood. I can blame it on being overworked, maybe: there’s such a variation of dialect here, and nobody talks the same (at least not to my untrained ear) and there are all these nuances I’m blind to, gestures and conventions everybody takes so seriously but won’t spend a minute to explain.[10] It’s almost like trying to have a conversation from underwater. That, or I’m smitten by Annabel. But this difficulty with voice does not extend to UK fiction; pick up a book by any British author, such as Black Swan Green, and except for points where David Mitchell is using vernacular or explicitly evoking a speech pattern (‘Phelps dashed by, clutching his master’s peanut Yorkie and a can of Tizer’ – whatever that means), we read it in something approximating our habitual voice. Reviewers rave about the narrator’s voice in Black Swan Green, but if we’re all ‘hearing’ a different voice for those same words, how – really, how – can we all enjoy it?

 

—Canadian writers, Annabel has teased me, —are less concerned with ‘who am I?’ and more concerned with ‘where am I?’[11] Though I agree with her (or, though I can’t easily defend myself against her[12]), I think the concepts of where and who cannot be so easily differentiated (what does it mean to be Canadian? To hail from Canada? To identify self with place?), but I do think where exerts much more influence on who than who does on where. Evidence to support this claim: pluck a small-town west coast boy from his home and plant him amid a society of people who take pride in their ability to pronounce things wrong (Wymondham becomes wind-um; Costessey becomes cossy; Happisburgh becomes haze-bruh). Then, watch. Things that’ll happen: he’ll wear his ballcap as if to safeguard his Canadianness from threat; he’ll, bizarrely, develop a far greater interest in hockey than ever before; he’ll score funding to do a PhD on ‘Voice in Fiction’ and be often criticised for his use of Canadian vernacular.[13] And he’ll actually write a fictionalised dialogue between himself and a girl he has a crush on, and expect things to work out fine.

 

Here is a sample of the aforementioned exchange, scribed as I would scribe it in fiction:

 

—I’ve been getting so much work done, I said.

 

—Me too.

 

I looked across my shoulder at her. She’d turned aside, so I saw her in profile. A strand of her hair had tugged lose, so she pulled it behind her ear. She’d bunched the ends of her shirt sleeves in her fists, to keep her hands warm – bad circulation, I guess.

 

—Partly, it’s because of all the writing games we’ve done, I said.  —And partly because I’ve got a massive crush on you.

 

She chewed on that one for a second, tore up some grass and broke the blades in two. She seemed to consider them, like searching for answers, like throwing bones. —Why does that help?

 

—I don’t know. Maybe it’s like a siphon.

 

—A siphon? she said.

 

—Like, I siphon inspiration from you.

 

—Why?

 

Well, I said, and pressed my hands to my chest, sounding as grandiose as possible.

 

—Because you’re so good looking.

 

She rolled her eyes, but it was the right kind of rolling of eyes.

 

I won’t bother transcribing the rest. It’s one part embarrassment and one part obvious fantasy.[14] I will, however, draw attention to the voice – not because I think there’s anything particularly special about it (there really isn’t), but because there are a number of voices to draw attention to. The characters in that passage have voices, and the narrator has a voice, and I – the writer, here, the scribe – have my own voice, and, reading that passage, the reader has her own, habitual reading voice. There are other voices too, layers of them: the Annabel character, the differences in how the reader will ‘hear’ her voice, how I, the writer, ‘hear’ her voice – did you read her with a British accent? And then there’s the desperate male character, whose voice is something like an approximation of my real voice (and, mind-blowingly, so is this entire essay). One might be tempted by – and forgiven for – the notion that spoken voice and written voice are more closely related than they appear. They might also (especially if they’re twenty-five, and Canadian, and fumbling about for romance) be tempted by the notion that what reads well written down must sound good spoken aloud (say, in a park outside some library in London) but the raison d’tre of this essay is to dispel any such illusion.

 

Annabel and I left the park so I could walk her to the library. We crossed streets and our hips bumped, and I didn’t know what to think, but I rarely know what to think. On the way, she showed me what she called ‘the worst art gallery in London’ and berated a hackneyed copy of a better painter’s form. —It’s like reading somebody trying to do Raymond Carver, and doing it badly, she told me when I said I didn’t get it. —Look at the skin on the forehead – that doesn’t look like real skin, that looks like paper.[15][16]

 

But I was hardly listening at this point. Soon we’d part ways and I wouldn’t see her for weeks, since, at the time, I didn’t live in London, was only there to see my agent and to see Annabel, and the ambiguity of that which I had not voiced would drive me batshit (‘Anticipation,’ Frank Bascombe says, in Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, ‘is that sweet pain to know whatever’s next – a must for any real writer).

 

—There’s something else, I said, deviating from script even at the starter’s pistol. —Part of the reason I’ve been getting so much work done is that I’ve got a pretty big crush on you.

 

I felt, more than saw, her draw a breath, and of those few awful moments what I remember most keenly (though it is impossible, is my imagination) is her smell – like clean air, or the vague scent of flowers that is all flowers at once, and none at all. —I sort of suspected, Annabel said, and jittered a hand in front of her face. —I’m just, I don’t know.

 

—Must’ve been obvious all along, I said.

 

—I’m pretty unaware. It comes from going to an all-girls school. Blind to things I don’t want to hear. Not that I don’t want to hear this. I’m glad you told me.

 

—Me too, I guess, I said. —It didn’t quite turn out as I planned.

 

—What was your plan?

 

—Well you’d reciprocate and then I’d kiss you. I hope this doesn’t make anything awkward.

 

People pushed by us. The streets were tiny, cobbled, the sidewalks tinier. Annabel swayed. I readjusted the weight of my pack. —I’m just not really looking for a relationship right now, she said. —I live in this bubble, and there are other people in this bubble, and the Pontormo thing.

 

Then a homeless man appeared beside us, with clothes all greys and greens and a dolled-up goatee. —Can you spare some change? he said, something for which I will never forgive him.

 

—I’ve only got my card, mate.

 

—Thanks anyway, he said.

 

—Wonder why he didn’t ask me, Annabel said, after he left.

 

—Because I look like a dumb tourist.

 

—Yeah, she said.

 

We walked the rest of the way, to the back of the library. —Hope I haven’t sabotaged you getting work done this afternoon, I said.

 

—You probably have.

 

—In that case we might as well go get a drink.

 

—Later, she said, but it was just to humour me. —I’m glad you told me, anyway.

 

—Self preservation. I’d have lost my mind.

 

We stood there so awkwardly that against every instinct in my body I just wished the afternoon would end. And then I remembered a line from a short story of mine, a story about a determined and lonely man, which Annabel had read, and liked[17] (‘If you lose all hope,’ Frank Bascombe says, ‘you can always find it again’).

 

—Persistence beats resistance, I said, quoting myself – which, I hope, illustrates (or, perhaps, undermines) the exact, bizarre nature of what we mean when we talk about Voice in Fiction, since what we’ve got here is my real written voice quoting my real spoken voice quoting my fictional written voice. And then telling you just that.

 

The problem, if I may make a bold claim – which, after all, is how I began this essay – is that critics and readers refer to voice as though it is an embedded thing, a physical part of the writing, as though you can point at an open book and say, —Here is the voice, I enjoy its girth. But I’m not convinced voice is a thing at all. I think it’s an act, a passage of breath, a movement of sound, a certain transfer of meaning – the one special feature of writing that bridges the lonely gap between writer and reader, speaker and listener, lover and lover. Voice is the sensation of being soothed, of growing close, coming to trust. Second only to faces, it’s how we identify people. Voice is authenticity embodied, but is itself unembodied; it does not exist if a story is not being read, if a person is not talking. It is transient, communicatory, interpersonal, social. Voice, I think, is the name we give to the creation of intimacy in our art.

 

Annabel stopped in the entrance to the library, did a little back-and-forth tilt of her head (I’ll take it, I bet she was thinking) and then, therrapping her fingers on the library wall, she leaned in for a hug. —Persistence beats resistance, she said to me, and rolled her eyes, but it was the right kind of rolling of eyes.

 


[1] Pyrus Calleryana – no joke.

[2] Throughout, I will shamelessly equivocate talking and voice and potentially dialogue,too, in order to make this essay reek less of angst and desperation.

[3] That book would be The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and of His Friend Marilyn Monroe.

[4] Insert thinly-veiled frustration with the Academy, here.

[5] The clever cynic will say, —Ah ha! St. Augustine was mystified to find Ambrose reading silently! But this is to miss my point: that there is a difference of kind between spoken and written words.

[6] Evidence to support this claim: look at any sentence written in an alphabet you don’t understand, and you can’t even begin to ‘sound out’ the words.

[7] This might be an opportune time to mention that she’s British, that I’m a small-town Canadian redneck (as if you didn’t already know).

[8] Freudian.

[9] I’m a former electrician, so I can make this claim with some degree of authority.

[10] The British journalist Sam Kiley tells me I have abysmal table manners, which comes as somewhat of a shock because I consider myself a well-mannered Canadian, and because we were eating pizza with our hands.

[11] She is paraphrasing the writer Alberto Manguel, from his book Reading Pictures.

[12] She is stronger than she looks.

[13] Insert thinly veiled frustration with the Academy, here.

[14] Take your mind out of the gutter.

[15] Bet you forgot the British accent, bet you read that in your habitual voice.16

[16] Unless you, dear reader, are British, or if your habitual voice is British. In which case: bet you forgot aboot my Canadian accent.

[17] ‘The Persistence,’ Prairie Fire, Vol. 31 No. 1, Spring 2010. Shameless self plug.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

's debut collection of stories, Once You Break a Knuckle, was published by Hamish Hamilton Canada in 2011, followed by Ballistics (2013). He is a Canadian citizen by birth and temperament, but recently completed his PhD in Creative and Critical Writing at the University of East Anglia.

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