What the heck is ‘Voice’?


He was a great author, but Bram Stoker didn’t have the voice we want to read now.

Every writer who’s submitted anything has had so sit through a stern lecture about Voice. “The Voice isn’t quite right.” “Publishers are super-attuned to voice.” Or, my personal favorite: “Your narrative has no voice.”

No voice? None? With thousands of words filling hundreds of pages it would have to at least sound like me. When I speak, people hear my voice, so surely it’s the same when I write.

Agents may have been sparing my feelings when they gave me these actual points of feedback. They couldn’t have meant the narrative was silent, so maybe they just didn’t like the writing. I think there’s more, though. I think part of it might be that they want something in #ownvoices.

And preferably someone else’s own.

The Author’s Voice


Western literature’s first and ‘most boring’ vampire

As usual, it’s pesky old history that helps to explain this. Back in the days before every story had already been written, readers actually wanted to read the voice of someone who wrote intellectually, or at least using the rules of English.The author’s voice—formal in tone and judgemental in attitude—was one that lesser-educated readers could really respect. Not long ago, a Twitter follower made the comment that reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula was all at once boring and fascinating. That makes perfect sense for many of the classics: their timeless storylines can seem fresh and new to anyone who takes the trouble, but oh, ehm and gee, reading those sentences fifteen times each can really take it out of a guy. Even first-person narrators spoke in the educated author’s unmistakable voice.

So what are we losing by putting down books like that? What are we gaining? Ignoring the classics deprives our intellects of history’s greatest stories but gives our emotions a chance to connect to the greatest of them now. Still, we’re in flux about this concept of ‘Voice.’

The Narrator’s Voice


Be honest: would you rather listen to Suzanne or to Katniss?

Even Stoker himself was experimenting with Voice in Dracula. By writing it as a series of letters years before Stephen Chbosky played with that structure in Wallflower, the old Bramster may have already been noticing that people wanted something different.

So, after the Modernists like Joyce and Woolf made it popular, readers started preferring to hear a story from a fictional narrator’s perspective. No longer was the author master of the genre, but another more interesting Voice was taking over—more interesting, maybe, because it didn’t exist. It belonged to a narrator who had the advantage of being invented.

To this day, that’s the style that remains most popular. Everything from Catcher in the Rye to The Hunger Games takes on a made-up voice for a made-up narrator. Maybe that’s why they seem more natural; a fictitious Voice might just fit in better with the fictions that it’s describing. It’s just easier to feel a personal connection to those bigger personalities.

And that’s where some of us start to face a problem.

The Own Voice


Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club helped break ground for other #ownvoices

For a while, it was possible for an author whose own life is boring—let’s say an author like me—to write using the persona of a troubled teenage girl or a driving instructor whose ex-student brings assassins into his life. In other words, we could write from a more exciting perspective. Trends are changing again, though. More and more, agents are looking for #ownvoices.

You know it’s important when it’s earned its own hashtag. You know there’s a new pressure. That pressure has shifted from Stoker being the most educated man in the room to Katniss Everdeen being the most emotional narrator, and now all the way back to the author herself being the most exciting. For all its appeal, it still creates a problem for someone whose brain is in my body. If the voice of an old white guy is too dull to write, but I’m compelled to write only in my own voice, then that leaves me with one question.

What’s left for me to write?

#ownvoices is important. It opens the door for marginalized authors to write from experience about their societies or subcultures. The world is a more accepting place because of movements like this.

Like putting down a classic, though, I can’t help but wonder what we’re going to start missing.

2 thoughts on “What the heck is ‘Voice’?

  1. I wonder, too.

    One of my favorite books from long ago is “Memoirs of a Geisha” and it was written by a white man. In that novel, he became (at least in my mind) a Japanese geisha.

    Making sure marginalized voices are heard is crucial, certainly. But if we can write from a POV that’s different from our own with respect and authenticity and nuance… Is that something that should not be allowed?

    Thanks for your comment on my post (on The Muffin) by the way. I appreciated it.


  2. I was motivated to comment! This is an important issue, and like most important issues there is no obvious solution. I predict that, over time, #ownvoices will lose its forward momentum as a ‘trend’ and leave in its wake open opportunities that are more open for writers of every background… just as it was supposed to be.

    In the meantime, the silver lining is that rejections from hardworking agents may not reflect the quality of the writing. It took longer for me to find one who would represent my teenage narrative, but I did find one. So will you. It might or might not have made a difference that I made clear in my query letter the reasons that I’m ‘qualified’ to write in that category.

    Let’s keep the discussion going ;in your post on The Muffin at http://muffin.wow-womenonwriting.com/2019/04/who-has-right-to-write-it.html


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