Sunday 18 December 2011

Hearing voices

This is a little post that is a really musing and half a question. Though it's skirting around some deep issues I don't have time to think about today. So you can think for me.

I've noticed, as I come to know more and more writers personally, and as other writers make more public appearances, that I now often hear the author's 'real' voice in my head as I read. I first noticed it reading The Woman Who Thought Too Much, a brilliant memoir by my friend the poet Joanne Limburg, perhaps because it was such a personal book. I read slowly, hearing every word as spoken by her. I was reading Margaret Atwood's Negotiating with the Dead the other day, and that was in her voice, too. It happens less with fiction, probably because most good fiction has its own voice, but it's still there to a degree.

Years ago, I did a PhD on literature that was mostly anonymous. I knew nothing at all about the authors I was spending my life with. Of course they had voices in my head, and I felt close to those (dead) people I spent years with. But I knew I invented their voices. It's different when the voice is a real one - one I might have heard earlier in the day in Waterstone's coffee shop or on the phone (or on radio 4).

All writers adopt a voice - a public voice, a literary voice, a this-is-all-I-will reveal voice, a this-is-how-I-want-you-to-see-me voice. It's our prerogative - even our necessity. It makes the book an artefact, a creation, rather than an extension of ourselves. If I hear Joanne speaking the words into my head, the artefactness of the book is lost. It's easy to be deceived into thinking it's pure Joanne (whatever that is).

It feels like it's one step away from being one of those nutters who sends Christmas cards to characters in The Archers. (That's a radio programme about farming, for you non-UK people. It's useful if you need hints and tips on preventing your beetroot getting root-and-mouth or whatever they're onto these days. It was invented by the BBC in their paternalistic role of educating the lowly farming masses by sneaking info in under the guise of entertainment.) Actually, I've just written a Christmas card to Joanne. I hope that doesn't make me a nutter. No, she was in my house on Saturday. I'm sure she's real. Perhaps I will re-address it to 'the real Joanne Limburg', just in case.

Of course, with a memoir, the artefactness is often trying to hide itself anyway - or maybe even trying not to be there. But the awareness that voice is not equal to writer, or narrator is not equal to writer, is one of the defining marks of an intelligent, sophisticated reader. Writers choose how to deal with that shadowy presence that stands between them and the words on the page. The narrator/voice might be a robust, chortling, self-aware character in his or her own right, standing to one side and saying 'look at this story, look what happened next'. Or s/he might be as thin and sticky as clingfilm so that you're barely aware of their presence and they're hard to see and peel away from the shape of the narrative. Or they might be the shadow-on-the-wall of the real writer. Oh, I am rambling on about narrators. And Plato's got in again. Time to stop.

I think there is some very deep issue with being a writer under all this. To do with how much you want to be in other people's heads and how much you don't. If you didn't want to at all, you wouldn't write (or you wouldn't publish). But - I don't know those readers! They can have my carefully constructed narratorial/discursive voice in their heads - that's what it's for - but I don't want them to think it's me. Perhaps that's why I don't like to be heard in real life - no readings, no school visits, no radio, not even any phone...

The question is - do you hear the writer's voice (if you know/have heard the writer) when you read their books? Does it bother you? Does it make reading different? Better? Worse?


  1. I do - in non and fiction - and it doesn't bother me at all. In fact, I like it, it's as if I am being told a story directly by them and it makes it no less authentic.
    It is strange though - we always try and be careful, in fiction, of allowing too much 'authorial' voice bleeding and yet that voice, the tone that sets a novel, is what makes is love it or not.

    It's the thing that makes a book yours - your Venetian novel could only have been written by you - the elegance of script, the underlying historical knowledge, the edge of danger that laces through the story, the frightening subject matter - those things come from you, how could we not hear you in the telling of that tale?

  2. I find if I have heard the author speak then yes I do tend to hear them particularly if it is a non fiction book. This is not an intrusion it is like having a silent conversation with them.

    I think Kathy is right sometimes it is what makes a book yours. I know I have read books by friends and I know exactly what they are talking about even though it is not written in words on the page. You just know them well enough to understand. But, having said that, I am not sure it happens when you don't know the writer. You may have created a voice (as you said when doing your PhD) but that may not be a true voice.
    Oh dear I think I am rambling too...Roland Barthes has a lot to answer for....

  3. There is a lot of negotiating to be done here as a writer - how much of your voice does your reader really want to hear?
    Thank you for this - much to consider.
    This was interesting too ://

  4. I don't exactly 'hear their voice'...that is their actual, factual voice, but if a book is by someone I know (and I know a lot of writers) they are sort of THERE in the book in a way I can't explain and which is not true of people I don't know. I have heard, eg, Ruth Rendell speak many times but I don't hear HER....I am conscious in a way of her being the person who did the writing. I am not making myself clear but then I don't really know what I mean!

  5. I don't think there is a single answer to this. There are books that no-one else could possibly have written (most of Steinbeck) but does that mean that I hear his voice of that of his unique characters?

    But when can we be sure it is the writer's voice alone that shines through? I agree with Ness, it makes a difference if you have seen or heard a writer. And some memoir feel very personal (though we know that some of those, too, have an interesting relationship with 'truth').

    And does it bother me? Only on those few occasions when an author forgets to narrate a story and butts in with his or her opinion. I want to work those out for myself.

  6. Another,separate but linked experience arises from reading something you, yourself, wrote many years earlier and thinking, 'Oh God! That's definitely me but not me as I am now.' Personally, I hate that.

  7. I don't think I do 'hear' the author's voice as I read. I don't experience reading like that at all. Except maybe poetry, if I've heard it being read by the poet...

  8. Thank you, Kathryn, that's very kind - and reassuring!

    Ah, Jo, I meant specifically writers that I *do* know/have heard. I agree with all the points about manufactured voice, and the voices of the character/narrator/author. With writers like Steinbeck who create a voice you may feel you can hear, that's a very different matter. If you knew Steinbeck personally, would you hear the stories read in his voice? And would it put a layer between you and the book that you would welcome or dislike? Perhaps it depends on how much you like to suspend disbelief.

    Yes, Brian - I know what you mean! If only some things could be unwritten. Oh, that's what OOP is for. Was for. When it still happened.

    Sue - poetry, you're right! Once heard, always read in that voice.