“Voice” is a tricky subject for writers. It isn’t a teachable aspect of writing, but it is invaluable and strengthens with practice, perseverance and diligence. Usually a reader finds it within character in novels. You know, unique characters that simply are themselves. Readers may call them friend or enemy, but not fictional – for they have jumped off the page and into the real world.
I recently read Self Editing for Fiction Writers and authors Renni Browne and Dave King gave one of the best examples of a writer’s developing voice that I’d come across.
Take this first line:
It was the middle of a bright tropical afternoon that we made good our escape from the bay.
Okay, not bad, I guess, but hardly compelling. Years later the same novelist opens another story:
Call me Ishmael.
Wow! Melville jumps to the page with authority and power and never drops a note within that voice. Today Moby Dick is still considered to contain some of the best writing and the best “voice” in literature.
I knew Jane Austen had it. Each of her novels reads with succinct perfection. She is consistent, witty and we never doubt her. A few lines from any of her books and you recognize the power within her voice.
It is a truth universally acknowledged… As bold as Call me Ishmael. And beneath its layers, true too. It’s a truth universally acknowledged to all Mrs. Bennets that a young man must be in want of a wife, because all the Mrs. Bennets have the daughters who need to marry them.
But she’s subtle too; She lays her voice so completely within her characters that you forget it’s Austen speaking. Until you read Northanger Abbey. Here her narrative, and sharp voice, continually breaks through, telling us exactly what to think and making fun of all we take for granted. Here a few lines you can’t help but enjoy.
Her opening line:
No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine. Her situation in life, the character of her father and mother, her own person and disposition, were all equally against her.
The description continues and Austen tells us she isn’t going to let us go. This is going to be a different kind of story and she will be our guide.
Here is a later line I particularly enjoyed:
Catherine, meanwhile, undisturbed by presentiments of such an evil, or of any evil at all, except that of having but a shore set to dance down, enjoyed her usual happiness with Henry Tilney, listening with sparkling eyes to everything he said; and, in finding him irresistible, becoming so herself.
It struck me because it’s so true – in finding someone else irresistible, as Austen states over and over in this story, we appeal to their vanity and we become irresistible.
And finally, her fantastic defense of novels:
Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom, so common with novel-writers, of degrading, by their contemptuous censure, the very performances to the number of which they are themselves adding; joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another- we are an injured body.
Well said, Miss Austen. We readers and writers of the novel heartily agree!
This hasn’t been a terribly informative or serious post – my musings on narrative voice and the delight I’ve lately rediscovered in Northanger Abbey – but I hope it entices you to pick up this treasure again.
And… Are there novels you’ve read recently in which you’ve loved the narrative voice? Found it unique? Ones you would recommend highly in the comments section below?
Please do… I’m always looking for that Next Great Read.
Thanks for stopping by today…Katherine