ABC’s of Fiction Writing: V is for Voice

Posted by on Mar 23, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Jillian_Ross_-_PhotoIn his essay “Behind the Mask – Narrative Voice in Fiction,” Chuck Wachtel points out that fiction is the only art form that “asks its experiencer to conceive” a world that is “complex and specific” without leaning on any other medium for assistance (Wachtel 65). There is, he says, “no sound, color, texture . . . no screen, no stage, no sets, no one dancing or singing or enacting life” (65). There is only the voice, which must invite, capture and then enrapture the reader into and through a tour of an invented world.

Steven Schwartz, in his essay “Finding a Voice in America,” notes that narrative voice often contains an autobiographical trace of the author’s own voice. He also claims that style—word arrangement, syntax, rhythm, diction, tone—is only a “part of voice” (Schwartz 45) and looks to respected authors for further clarification.

Flannery O’Connor insists that voice includes “manners” (qtd in Schwartz 46).

Margaret Atwood holds that voice is specific, “a speaking voice, like the singing voice in music, that moves not across the page, but through time” (qtd in Schwartz 46).

A writer’s voice, then, “emerges” at the “intersection of unique experience with that of the larger culture” (49). The writer must “claim that space rather than circle around it” even if this causes “pain or intimidation or confusion” (49). The inevitable friction within this process ignites “a spark from which sound is born:  often raw and untutored and shrill to begin with but eventually recognizable to the artistic ear that has been waiting to hear and will create meaning from potent noise” (49).

Authentic voice announces “’I am the sound of truth’” (50) and will always embody a generosity of spirit. It is this “generosity of the human spirit that grants the writing its authority and the voice a means to survive” (52).

Voice, though, must not only survive. It must endure, remaining within the reader’s consciousness long after the last page has been turned. We may even “read the words aloud, speak them to others with exuberance so that we feel as if we have found our own voice just in the repeating” (50).

The Significance of Holden Caulfield

A classic coming-of-age novel, The Catcher in the Rye is renowned for the voice of Holden Caulfield. While many authors are skilled creators of sympathetic characters, Salinger’s characters are “hypnotic through voice alone” (Schwartz 51). The voice of Holden Caulfield—a tangle of intelligence, innocence, wisdom, fear and hope— accomplishes complex specificity with enviable ease as it leads the reader through the maze of the classic coming-of-age story.

The reader meets Holden as a seventeen-year-old attempting to explain

“this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy” (Salinger 1).

The story is not Holden’s “whole goddam autobiography or anything” (1), simply the events of a weekend in New York City that resulted in his current confinement in a mental institution. Bear in mind that, from the very first page, Holden deems all information he shares as confidential.

Holden tells his story in a convoluted, stream-of-consciousness style as he attempts to reassure himself that everything will be fine. Beneath this story, though, another story throbs, breaking through to reveal a narrative voice that can barely contain Holden’s considerable angst. He is still grieving the death of his younger brother, troubled by his dismissal from yet another prep school, confused about sex and sexuality, and disappointed by the hypocrisy of the adult world he is about to enter. Holden’s careening emotions spill all over the pages. His voice soaks his story with an expanding sense of bewilderment that bloats into panic. His overwhelming sadness stains every page.

And he admits he is a liar:

“I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It’s awful. If I’m on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable to say I’m going to the opera. It’s terrible” (Salinger 16).

When he characterizes himself as a “terrific liar” (16), Holden sounds almost boastful. When he describes this tendency to lie as “terrible” (16), he uses the adjective as a positive trait. His ability to distort the truth is an ability in which he takes great pride. There is also an almost inadvertent “old soul” wisdom running beneath his stream of consciousness. Ironically, Holden’s voice is the very “sound of truth” that Schwartz references (Schwartz 50).

In short, Holden Caulfield is a mess. But as an endearing, intriguing, intelligent mess, Holden’s voice immediately engages and then binds the reader to his story. He reveals every thought and action, every emotional response, in a manner tinged with confusion. He’s admittedly immature.

“I also say ‘Boy!’ quite a lot. Partly because I have a lousy vocabulary and partly because I act quite young for my age sometimes. I was sixteen then and I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen” (9).

And Holden may still, in some ways, be thirteen—significantly, the age he was when his younger brother Allie died. As Schwartz indicates, voice begins “raw and untutored and shrill” but will eventually “create meaning from potent noise” (49).  All of Holden’s noise—details he notices, reactions he has, actions he undertakes, impulses he gives in to, feelings he experiences—is the noise of a bona fide teenager, not as an adult masquerading as a teenager. Ironically, this very voice succeeds in, as Tom Stoppard observes, “’imposing a ruling sensibility that unifies the work’” (qtd. in Shwartz 47). The sensibility may be perceived as crazy, but its consistency unifies the work, lending credence to and inducing compassion for this classic unreliable narrator.

This discussion of voice and the process by which it is created demonstrates how an author creates and crafts authenticity. Holden Caulfield is an authentic voice of truth bubbling up from a cauldron of hot anxiety mixed with cold despair. He is a narrator with absolute freedom to speak. His voice, created at the “intersection of unique experience with that of the larger culture” (Schwartz, 49) emerges from this freedom. Ironically, it is Holden’s confinement that allows his voice to soar unleashed.

Through his narrator’s voice, Salinger engages, captures and holds the reader “kindly imprisoned in his language. There is literally nothing beyond” (Schwartz 66).

Works Cited
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1991. Print.
Schwartz, Steven. “Finding a Voice in America.”  Bringing the Devil to His Knees. The  Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. Eds. Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press., 2010. 45-52. Print.
Wachtel, Chuck. “Behind the Mask. Narrative Voice in Fiction.”  Bringing the Devil to His Knees. The Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. Eds. Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press., 2010. 53-70. Print.

Jillian Ross teaches Fiction I Workshop at Fairfield University.  In addition, she is a writer and a freelance garden designer.  She finds writing—like teaching and design—to be a combination of art and craft, enhanced by a dose of inspiration. She strives to combine these elements in all of her work and keep the weeds under control.  She earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Fairfield University in 2013.  Her work has appeared in Dappled Things, The Noctua Review, r.kv.r.y., Dogwood, The Penwood Review, Extracts, Poetry Quarterly, Mason’s Road, Weston Magazine, The Country Capitalist, Fairfield County Life, The Fairfield Citizen News, and Connecticut Gardener.  Jillian lives in Connecticut with her husband, Lee, and their three rescue cats—FaxMachine, CopyCat, and CityKitty—who lounge around the office while she completes her first novel.

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