One of my wife’s friends used to suffer very badly from sleep apnoea. Every night as she slept, her throat muscles would relax and constrict her airways. She’d wake up choking dozens of times a night, night after night for years. Eventually the broken nights and daytime narcolepsy led her to seek medical advice, and she was prescribed a sleep mask. This was a rather Victorian looking contraption; a fitted mask covered her nose and mouth, held in place by straps around the back of her head. A flexible tube led from the mask to a machine plugged in by her bedside which sent a supply of air up the tube and into her breathing passages, keeping them open and allowing her to breathe properly and to sleep. The machine on her bedside table fed air in from the outside world via a small intake, powered like a weak vacuum cleaner to provide a steady stream of air for her.
Now, my wife’s friend had a husband who liked on occasions to go out for a beer. One night, off he went to the local boozer, arriving home several hours later after a dozen pints of Scottish cooking-lager and a beef Vindaloo to find his wife had already retired for the night and was lying in bed asleep, connected to her machine. Spotting the opportunity for a little tomfoolery, and with all judgement fled, the husband removed his trousers and underwear, crept round to his wife’s side of the bed, picked up the machine and, placing the air intake between his buttocks, performed an act of flatulence that only an industrial quantity of lager and a highly-spiced curry could possibly engender.
A few seconds passed, mostly in silence apart from the steady hiss of the machine, then the wife came awake clawing at the straps that were fastening the mask in place over her nose and mouth. Gagging and spluttering, her first sight was her husband’s pink and hairy arse, quivering as he laughed himself silly. In hindsight it might have been better had he pretended to be asleep, or even dead. Perhaps he expected his wife to see the funny side, in which case he had obviously not been married long enough, but it is said that his wife’s voice could have been heard several counties away.
Which of course brings me in a convoluted fashion to the subject of this issue, the use of voice. “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” as Elvis Presley once said. This is very good advice to writers. Write softly, for you write upon my wall. Your writing is going into my private head-space, so please don’t insult it with your overblown adjectives, lumpen dialogue attribution and scattergun approach to adverbs. Such things are often more a matter of tone and style, so another piece of good advice to writers is not to confuse voice with either of these things.
Your voice will of course be subject to style, tone and genre, as the following examples illustrate:
“Gosh! Who’s that knocking on my door so early in the day?” said Fluffy Bunnikins. “Why it’s Mrs Spike the hedgehog! Do come in, Mrs Spike. Whatever can the matter be?” [Enid Blyton]
“They laws, who’s that knockin at mah daw at this tahm of the mawning?” muttered Savannah, opening the door of the antebellum mansion, “Why ah do believe it’s Massa Tom from the plantation.” [Margaret Mitchell]
Could it be him? She murmured drowsily to herself as the thunder of the doorknocker pulled her unceremoniously from another night of foolish dreams. Had Sebastian returned unexpectedly for her, bravely crossing the tempestuous oceans for her warm, pink hand? [Almost any form of chicklit]
“Ey oop, that’s bound to be nowt but trouble at this time o’ t’morning”, grumbled Jedediah Braithwaite as he stumbled red-faced from his bed, hurling the new servant-girl to the floor as he did so. “Who t’heck’s that?” [Barbara Taylor Bradford]
I could see the shape of the dame through the glass, and it was a shape that spelled trouble. I pulled myself out of the office camp bed, checked my .45 was loaded and poured myself a breakfast bourbon. I’d been sleeping in my suit again. [Raymond Chandler]
Dawned rimmed the edge of the world against the serrated butcherpaper mountains and the girl hesitated for a second before she knocked a second time and the oak door was hard against her fingers and a secular wind moved the hem of her skirts and the wind scattered the prairiedust across her polished shoes as she waited. [Cormac McCarthy]
“Who dares disturb the sleep of Thorson Bravethigh? Speak now or begone!” [Something with a dragon in it and a really fit princess with unfeasibly clean Timotei hair and massive tits. Game of Thrones, basically.]
“Whae the fuck’s that? Git tae fuck, ah’m tellin youse.” The night sweats wis lashin offay me as I staggered tae the door. It wis wee Kirsty fae the scheme come fae hir skag. “’Mon away in, hen, get yir kecks aff ‘n’ ah’ll get youse sorted.” [Irvine Welsh]
So voice is, of course, deeply embedded in concepts of style and genre. But it’s more than this. Your style, tone and genre will show what you, as an author, are trying to achieve; the overall ethos of your book, the audience at which it’s aimed and your work’s commercial viability. But the voice will belong to the characters and if you’re skilful you’ll use that voice to portray their natures and their thoughts as well as you can. And of course your characters will say things that you, as an author, would never choose (or dare) to say. James Ellroy, for example, sets his dense and paranoid noir fantasies in a Los Angeles long gone. In the forties and fifties, characters spoke in derogatory racist terms about black people, Mexicans and Japanese, and women were objectified to a far greater degree than they are today. Ellroy’s characters’ dialogue reflects this, but his writing doesn’t. Mark Twain, on the other hand, wrote during a time when such racist insults were deeply embedded within the national psyche, and as such his style, as opposed to his characters’ voices, contains a whole bunch of epithets we now consider unacceptable. People are trying to change this, seeking to edit Tom and Huck to cleanse Twain of his assumed racism to make his books more palatable to today’s younger generation. Teachers could perhaps instead warn children that Twain’s books contain words that are no longer considered appropriate or acceptable, but that was how we thought back then, and could you forgive us because we’ve made things a bit better now although they ain’t perfect yet? The point being that Twain may have been a racist (although I rather think he was just using current idioms without questioning them) but Ellroy is not.
It’s very difficult to tease voice away from style, but the best way to get voice across is through dialogue. But dialogue is never true to life. If it was, it would be full of disjuncture and asides, and the points would be buried in those little, y’know, tics and affections we use, sort of, and by the way did you feed the cat? And yeah, it’s like I was saying to Bill from next door you know, about UKIP, and he says they’ll—oh bugger off, dog, I’ll walk you in a minute. Anyway, Bill said... Shit I’ve lost it now, what were you saying about, you know, Thingummy-bob off of Coronation Street…
Somewhere in there, an author has to portray dialogue that not only makes sense but appears realistic, even though it’s anything but. And the author must also portray characters through their voices via dialogue, accentuating differences in gender, class, intelligence levels and prejudices, whilst often incorporating regional idiom, modes of speech and accent. Or if you’re Cormac McCarthy, you could just have your Spanish characters speak in Spanish and leave your reader to pick up the gist of it (this works brilliantly, by the way, much better than some patronising mixture of accented Spanglish.) So voice is probably the most difficult thing to get right. If your novel is set in historical times, to what extent do you use outmoded speech patterns? Will your book appear forced and artificial and downright boring if your characters speak like Victorian textbooks? Will your book appear patronising and cartoon-like if your cheeky cockney chimney-sweep says: “Gor blimey, guv, that’s a rum ’un and no mistake!” whilst the ladies of the house say “Please show the gentleman through to the withdrawing room and tell him I shall be with him directly.” In short, the voice you use for your characters leaves your book either a tonal masterpiece or a bunch of ruinous clichés.
Or what’s worse, just as boring as all get-out. Which brings me knocking on the door of the self-publishing industry. Without an editor to slap you around the face every time you commit a cardinal sin, your dialogue and your characterisation is going to be as much use as a limp dick in a whorehouse. Your characters will be samey, your settings will be clichéd and your book will be lifeless. This is where those self-published authors who can actually write properly still sometimes fall down. They have no idea of voice. And even the experienced writer will look at a book he’s created and wonder what’s wrong without quite knowing the answer. There are many published writers who don’t hit their stride until three or four books in, when they’ve found their confidence, sold a few thousand copies and made a bit of money. Take Ian Rankin, the highly respected author of the Rebus series. There’s something wrong with the first few books, something a little two-dimensional, something missing, but it’s hard to say exactly what. Then suddenly there’s Let it Bleed and its successor, Black and Blue, where Rebus suddenly snaps into the third dimension, coming alive with his flaws, his pig-headedness, his drinking, his broken relationships. Rankin’s writing turns the corner into something wonderful. James Ellroy was the same. The books before the LA Quartet are shallow in comparison to his later work. To me, it comes down to voice, which carries character and makes the difference between some rote A + B = C plotting and something special.
OK, nearly finished, but first I need to set you some homework. Go and read two books: David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. These are books that taught me a lesson about voice, tone and style I will never forget. David Mitchell is very possibly the finest British writer at work today. His imagination is boundless, and he takes astonishing risks with his plotting and his storytelling, mixing genres in a Cowboys-and-Aliens kind of way that somehow always manages to work. What brings Mitchell somewhere close to genius is his style. It doesn’t matter if he’s writing a thriller set in 70s California or a futuristic dystopia set in a Korean fast-food restaurant, there’s something in there that tells you it’s David Mitchell throughout. That something is called style. And before you think that Mitchell can’t do voice, go and read Black Swan Green, an entire book told brilliantly in the voice of a fourteen-year-old boy (that’s not part of your homework assignment, by the way, it’s just good advice if you want to study voice). OK, that’s what style is. Now go and read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. This is where I made a calamitous mistake once. I hated that book. I thought it was badly written and unimaginative. I hadn’t read anything else by Ishiguro, and when I got to a bit that said “His socks peeped over the tops of his wellingtons” I hurled the book across the room then ran over and jumped up and down on it yelling “socks do not have eyes, you stupid, stupid man!” I wrote a scathing review of the book, giving it no stars whatsoever and then I put that review into print in this very magazine. Then I read The Remains of the Day to see if it could possibly be as bad, and wound up realising how important voice is in literary fiction. Because The Remains of the Day is one of the finest books I’ve ever read. Emotive despite being told through the eyes of an unfeeling Englishman, sad because that character is outmoded in the modern world and doesn’t know it, thought-provoking because of setting, characterisation and sheer storytelling brilliance. And what I realised was this: in Kazuo Ishiguro’s books there is no Kazuo Ishiguro. Everything has been subsumed to the voice of the first-person narrator. The entire world is seen through that character’s eyes, the plotting, the word-choice, the expressions used, everything is part of the protagonist’s voice. Ishiguro is well aware that socks can’t peep, but his character isn’t, so the hackneyed expressions stay in at the expense of style and tone because they reflect the character, who is after all the one telling the story, rather than the author, who is the one writing the book.
And having written such a scathing review simply because I wasn’t intelligent or perspicacious enough to make a fairly simple deduction, I’m the one who fetched up looking like a horse’s arse. I hope Kazuo is having a chuckle somewhere at my expense. Knock yourself out, Ish, I’m a dick sometimes. But there’s the difference. That’s it in a nutshell, the differences between voice and style summed up in two very good examples of literary fiction (although I still prefer The Remains of the Day). Bear these things in mind and be aware that writing is just so much more than putting words on paper. Some lessons are best driven home with ridicule, which works better than a shitty stick, and now, if I can find a door to crawl out under, I’ll bid you adieu until the next time…