Voice in the novel - how far can you go? - Alice Jolly

The new novel I am writing is all about voice. The main character tells her story in the first person and the novel will either succeed or fail depending on whether her voice engages the reader or not. For that reason, I have been thinking about voice in novels often recently. It is something that I think about anyway because my teaching at Oxford is all about voice. But practice is always different to theory.

The particular question I have been considering recently is - just how far can you go with voice? Where does the line fall between a voice which makes a novel which is original, interesting, engaging. A voice which really adds to the story and becomes an integral part of what the novel is. And at what point do we move away from all those positive things to the moment when a voice becomes off putting, hard to read, distracting, annoying.

Of course, there is no answer. All we can do is look at the books which work (for us) and the books which don't. When I'm teaching I used to talk about Ulverton by Adam Thorpe, The Secret History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. More recently I have talked about A Girl Is A Half Formed by Eimear MacBride - a book which has certainly redefined our ideas about what we can do with voice.

I should also be talking about The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth, another recent novel (published by my publishers Unbound) which has pushed back the boundaries of what we think can be done with voice. But I have put off reading it because it does look intimidating. I need to find a time when I've got some peace and quiet. Everyone tells me that it is hard for the first few pages and then you understand the patterns and rhythms of the language and it becomes a pleasure to read.

I certainly agree with the statements that Paul Kingsnorth has made about the fact that, if you are going to write about a certain period of history, you do need to find language which is in some way authentic to that period. Of course, many modern historical novels don't do that and some readers don't mind. But I do mind. If I read an historical novel then I want to enter that period of history and I can't do that if the voices are not authentic.

But what you can get away with and what you can't does also depend on other factors. Elmer McBride's novel couldn't really have been longer than it is. Peter Carey's book is an extra-ordinary voice and it is very long - but the story is very gripping. I have never felt able to read Train Spotting by Irvine Welsh and that is partly because I found the first page off putting. But then, in truth, the subject matter never really attracted me.

So plenty of interesting things to consider. Plenty of editing to do. How far can I push the reader? I suppose I can only go back to what I always tell my students. 'The worst crime a writer can commit is to underestimate the reader.'


Nick Green said…
Ulverton pushed this up to 11, 12, 13, and was still caprivating. I don't think there's a limit, but it does require more skill to pull off. The ploughman chapter in Ulverton is possible the most impressive thing I've ever read.
Nick Green said…
Kathleen Jones said…
Interesting post, Alice. I think Voice is the most important element in a novel - if you don't like the tone of the narrator you're not going to listen to that voice for a few hundred pages more.
The historical voice is tricky - I've been working and re-working a novel in 3 voices (originally 4 but our former agent didn't like it!) - one 17th C, one 19th C and one contemporary. Getting them to 'sound' right is like being some kind of contortionist with words! I have to read some literature from the right period before I start to write, just 'to get my ear in'.
Looking forward to your new novel! what happened to the one I read and loved?

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