Voice Lessons

By David Corbett

First, a couple workshop notices:

Starting January 23rd, I’m teaching an eight-week course on crime-writing both in-person at San Francisco’s The Grotto and online for Chuck Pahalniuk’s LitReactor. If you or someone you know is interested, act fast, because classroom slots are disappearing pretty quickly.

Also, I’m teaching one of my favorite classes at Book Passage the weekend of February 4th-5th. This one’s titled Integrating Arcs & Acts, and I do scene-by-scene breakdowns of five iconic films—Vertigo, The Godfather, Chinatown, Silence of the Lambs and Michael Clayton—and analyze them in terms of character arc, proof of premise, theme, subplot development and suspense, then use what we learn to discuss student work. Seriously, it’s the most fun you’ll have in a classroom ever, promise.

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Most of you know by now I often play the contrarian—call me Captain Cranky—hoping to ignite a fire or at least stir things up a bit, keep the discussion lively.

It’s something I tell my students about their stories: When in doubt, pick a fight. Terrible advice for a marriage, I realize, but that’s a discussion for another day.

An example of my all-too-typical cranky contrarian method was my most recent post, where I staked out a somewhat extreme perimeter on the future of narrative, hoping to flag the flames of debate concerning where storytelling is headed.

I suggested that the eBook revolution may well introduce not just the possibility but a necessity to embed audio and video perks, making narrative a more fully multimedia mindmeld—perhaps, in the case of sophisticated role-playing games, even an interactive dance or duel—all of which most likely means a more communal, demanding and costly enterprise for writers.

A lot of the response this verbal shot across the bow engendered was to the effect that storytelling will never die—the delivery system may evolve, but the fundamental human craving for story will remain.

I don’t dispute this. (I may be cranky, but I’m not an idiot.) But I don’t think that’s why the book cum book will survive.

What is it about the book specifically that makes it both unique and indispensable? Here’s my potentially contentious, contrarian, cranky stand of the day, except it isn’t an extreme position; it’s what I truly believe.

We don’t read books for story. We read books for voice.

Or, put less contentiously: What books and especially novels provide that no other form can is voice, not story.

The book is a deeply personal meeting of minds, writer and reader, and its access to inner life offers a particular type of intimacy unlike any other. It provides access to a whispering or wisecracking confidant in a world of bellowing shills, feverish opinionators, thundering dullards. And the way the singular intimacy between writer and reader takes form is in the unique way the writer’s fictive universe takes form in words.

Voice is more than style, i.e., diction and rhythm, structural boldness, innovative conceit. It incorporates worldview and attitude, the embers of passion, the cool surfaces of reason. It’s the embodiment of the writer’s creative spirit in language. It’s the writer’s presence in words as we engage with her story in our own imaginations—and the written word does require engagement.

There is always an element of passivity to hearing a story, but the degree of that passivity is less in reading than in more visual media. Writers who understand this tend to rein in the special effects, but that doesn’t mean squelching every speck of individuality whatsoever—assuming such a thing is even possible.

The basic power of less-is-more resides in its respect for the reader, its understanding of not just the willingness but the need of the reader to share in the shaping of the story, not just sit there and get pampered with prose. This often leads to a belief that the best writing is always that in which the author disappears, and lets his characters and story command the stage.

And yet I wonder—is this really true? Does that describe the books we really admire and crave and return to? Or is there something subtler going on—enough individual distinctness to remind us we’re not alone with the words, not so much we wish the writer would just buzz off.

Even the sparest prose—Hemingway, Hammett, Simenon—conveys far more than just what the eye and ear take in. A uniquely rendered world takes form, but not just that. We feel what matters in that world, feel the ghosts in the shadows and hear the murmuring beyond the door. Strangely, so much is revealed in what’s missing, because somehow we sense what was chosen and why, and wonder at the omissions. That too is voice, for we know someone did the choosing, the leaving out, and can feel it in both the cut of the words and the gaping silences.

But whether the prose is spare or Proustian, we want not just Once upon a time, we want the smell of our grandfather’s cigarettes and after-shave and the freshly cut grass, we want the whispery hum of the dragonflies hovering near the rose blossoms just beyond the screen and the creak of the old man’s rocker on the porch as, after much shameless begging on our part, he tells us what happened to him all those years ago, when he was a wild young man back in Stillwater … or Acapulco … or Inchon.

From a writer, we want that presence in words on the page:


            You could not tell if you were a bird descending (and there was a bird descending, a vulture) if the naked man was dead or alive. The man didn’t know himself and the bird was tentative when he reached the ground and made a croaking sideward approach, askance and looking off down the chaparral in the arroyo as if expecting company from the coyotes. Carrion was shared not by the sharer’s design but by a pattern set before anyone knew there were patterns.

—Jim Harrison, “Revenge”

            From the beginning, we were sisters more than mother and daughter. Joanna Shaw rescued me in her way, and I tried to return the favor. I do not say this boastfully, but ironies are the way of the world, and now that I am an old woman I tell you with certainty that those who presume to lift another are most often in need of being raised themselves.

—Aimee Liu, Flash House


             The girls look like ghosts.

            Coming out of the early-morning mist, their silver forms emerge from a thin line of trees and the girls pad through the wet grass that edges the field. The dampness muffles their footsteps, so they approach silently, and the mist that wraps around their legs makes them look as if they’re floating.

            Like spirits who died as children.

—Don Winslow, The Dawn Patrol


            Three Indians were standing out in front of the post office that hot summer morning when the motorcycle blazed down Walnut Street and caused Mel Weatherwax to back his pickup truck over the cowboy who was loading sacks of lime. The man and woman on the motorcycle probably didn’t even see the accident they had caused, they went by so fast. Both of them were wearing heavy-rimmed goggles, and all Mel saw was the red motorcycle, the goggles, and two heads of hair, black for him and blond for her. But everybody forgot about them; the cowboy was badly hurt, lying there in the reddish dirt cursing, his face gone white from pain. The Indians stayed up on the board sidewalk and watched while Mel Weatherwax and one of his hands carried the cowboy into the shade of the alley beside the store.

—Don Carpenter, Hard Rain Falling


            She ached. As if her spine were a zipper and someone had come up behind her and unzipped it and pushed his hands into her organs and squeezed, as if they were butter or dough, or grapes to be smashed for wine. At other times it was something sharp like diamonds or shards of glass engraving her bones. Teresa explained these sensations to the doctor—the zipper, the grapes, the diamonds, and the glass—while he sat on his little stool and wrote in a notebook. He continued to write after she’d stopped speaking, his head cocked and still like a dog listening to a sound that was distinct, but far off. It was late afternoon, the end of a long day of tests, and he was the final doctor, the real doctor, the one who would tell her at last what was wrong.

—Cheryl Strayed, Torch


            Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone.

—Daniel Woodrell, Winter’s Bone


In each of these excerpts, we get not just the beginning of the story but the entrance of the storyteller. This can be done badly, of course, and fan dancing won’t do. But neither will the timidity of those who use story like a crutch. It’s not flash we’re after but the sense of someone real speaking to us directly and honestly, and for that a certain confidence is not just called for but expected and deeply wanted. In some cases, even a fire-eyed bravado. Or just the intimate whisper of someone with a secret we feel almost certain we dare not believe, but will.

The writer who too obsessively vanishes leaves us at the altar alone. This is the ceremony of fiction on the page, the thing film and TV and games can’t do (or at least not so well), the thrill of it, the thing that makes the written word crackle and sing, that makes it sumptuous and sensual and gives us gooseflesh, the kind we get when someone important, someone we want to know better, perhaps even someone we want to love, is suddenly standing very near, and with a brief glance first one direction then the other leans close, very close, to tell us something.

So Murderateros—which writers do you read for voice? Which writers do you read for story alone, despite a lack of any distinctive individual voice? Are there any writers you admire whose voice is so subtle—Patricia Highsmith, is my example—it almost seems at first like no voice at all, until the tale gathers momentum and you hear it unmistakably in your mind?

* * * * *

Jukebox Hero of the Week: Long ago in a universe far away, aka the 1970s in the Midwest, I did the solo coffeehouse bit, and I know how naked it can feel up there with just a guitar and a song. No one did it better than Townes Van Zandt, truly one of my heroes, and someone who can teach us all a bit about presence and voice and a slice of life rendered full in words.

(This particular song has a very special meaning for me, which I won’t get into, but should the one who knows what I’m talking about read these words and listen to this clip, know I’m grateful. For everything. Even when I’m cranky.):



42 thoughts on “Voice Lessons

  1. Sarah W

    At least when it comes to fiction, the simplest answer I have to "which writers do you read for voice" is "all of 'em."

    I can't think of anyone I read for story alone–or even characters alone–but the story has to *be there.* Voice will carry me along a far piece, but not all the way. And the more comfortable or familiar I am with a writer's voice, the more I tend to concentrate on the plot.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I'm with Sarah – I don't read anyone for just plot. If the voice isn't there, I can't care about the plot. And likewise if the plot isn't there I don't keep reading. I will read a couple of writers for voice instead of story – Anne Rice comes to mind – but I don't read them straight through.

    Those are great examples of voice above – all first paragraphs?

    Writers whose voice I particularly like: Shirley Jackson, Tana French, Stephen King, Ken Bruen come instantly to mind. I think Mo Hayder and Denise Mina are great examples of great voice that doesn't call attention to itself.

  3. Shizuka

    I don't think there's any writer I read solely for voice; story's way too important for me.
    But some writers (Stephen King, Kate Atkinson, Chuck Pahalniuk, Charlaine Harris) have seduced me to read stories I normally wouldn't with their voice.

    The reverse is probably also true. I read Harlan Coben for story, but I'm sure his voice works for me.
    Otherwise, I don't think I'd keep reading him.

    One author who has a subtle voice that snuck up on me is Kate Christensen.

  4. David Corbett

    Sarah (and Alex): Agreed, voice without story is just so much yodeling. But though I can watch a movie that's almost all story, I can't read a book that is. Just doesn't work for me.

    Alex: The Winslow and Liu excerpts are actually second chapter beginnings, but the first chapters are quite short and (IMHO) not as evocative as these sections, which still have that introductory feel.

    I think Tana French and Ken Bruen are excellent examples of strong voice — Christ, is there an Irish writer who lacks one? Sure there is, don't know who — and I wanted to excerpt Denise Mina because I agree, but like Highsmith she does recede behind the story and characters to a point you don't feel the effect of her voice until some pages have passed. (Which could be the subject of a post in and of itself.)

    Shizuka: Kate Atkinson was someone I wanted to excerpt, but I was surprised when I tried. Like Denise Mina, the effect was subtler than I remembered. And that kinda shocked me, to be honest. I remember being bowled over by her voice and yet as I paged through the books and even her short stories (at least the beginnings, which was what I was after) I needed a longer section to make the point.

    All of which points out how inextricable voice and story are in truly gifted writers. Voice may be a thing one notices most by its lack.

  5. Richard Maguire

    David, when commenting on your posts I always feel way out of my depth. They make me think. Which usually brings on a headache. And the realisation of just how brain-dead I am.

    Alexandra's last post motivated me to finally have a shot at writing a second crime novel. (Since Friday, I've finished 2 chapters.) Whereas your post, including those terrific examples of voice, stopped me in my tracks. And coincidentally I'm reading DO THEY KNOW I'M RUNNING? A terrific story, with great characters, told by an amazing voice.

    So my point? I like the story I'm trying to write. It's been on my mind for quite a while. But…I simply cannot imagine a reader caring for my voice. (In a perfect world it'd be a screenplay set in 4 European countries; unrealistic; so I've wanted to write it as a novel.) So yes, I agree completely that a story is carried by voice. The reason why I stay with a book. And if I were to "hear" the exact same story told by another writer, chances are I might stop reading.

  6. Gordon Harries

    I think there’s certainly a world view, a swagger that’s consistently on offer in Mina’s work, although perhaps it is cumulative rather than one that announces itself.

    My two earliest loves in crime fiction were Elmore Leonard (I was fortunate enough that I scored a bunch of his books from a second hand dealer, most of which turned out to be from the seventies which is his ‘lean, mean’ period.) and his voice was the thing that most held my attention, I think. The other love was James Ellloy, the Black Dahlia rattled me.

    There’s a point in that book –and I won’t go into specifics, because some people don’t like that—where the nominal protagonist makes a decision in his kitchen which alters his status going forward and I had NO IDEA a character could make that decision and be the protagonist. It really made me sit up.

    I’d also argue (passionately) for George V. Higgins’ ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’ being a really amazing, articulate, swaggering voice.

  7. David Corbett

    Richard: Yipes! Do not, repeat, do not let anything I say deter you from writing ANYTHING. In fact, given Alex's encouragement, I would say: Don't think, write.

    Voice does not come in a thunderbolt, it's not a Road to Damascus experience. It builds over time as you get more comfortable allowing your own sense of place, emotion, character and life inhabit your story. It comes from your own engagement with the material.

    Jim Frey in his HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD MYSTERY offers this advice on voice, an exercise he recommends to his students who are struggling with it. Every day, before you begin your own writing, spend 30 minutes typing out a section from one of your three to five favorite writers. Word for word. Don't pick just one, pick all three or five, a different writer each day. Then go from that to your own work. That part of your brain, your imagination, your sensibility awakened by what you love will begin stirring to life as you put your own words down. Over the course of 3-6 months, you'll see your own voice emerge.

    Now go. Write. If I discourage you in any way ignore me.

  8. David Corbett

    Richard (part 2): Also go to a writer who emphasizes story and whose prose is spare, like Simenon, or Richard Stark or Ed McBain. There is elegance there, even when it feels somewhat rough. Voice needn't be conspicuous, as Alex and Shizuka point out.

    Gordon: Leonard and Ellroy and Higgins, yeah, I'd call those three writers with strong, distinct voices. I've been meaning to get to Eddie Coyle (saw the movie, loved it) but have been put off by another novel of his touting "great dialogue" that was in fact page after page of numbing monologues.

    Oh, and the fact that the hero in an Ellroy novel does something that seems not just beyond the pale but, well, psychotic? Welcome to James' LA.

  9. Dana King

    I read almost exclusively for voice, which is why I don't want to have anything to do with multi-media "books" that will try to impose an interpretation of the voice on me. Voice is a unique combination of writer's intent and reader's perception; nothing should be between the two. A good audio book can tread the line and get away with it, assuming the reader is good. Not so good audio books can ruin an experience. This is another reason why people often perceive the book to be better than the movie that's based on it; someone else's voice intercedes.

  10. Gordon Harries

    David: ‘Friends of Eddie Coyle’ is pretty consistently seen as George V. Higgins’ work, even by fans of his. (His early novels are consistently excellent, in my view. But his work pretty quickly atrophied into a sad sack version of what made it unique to begin with.)

    Leonard actually lead me to Higgins’, he was previously a writer of western stories –obviously– and had felt that his first crime novel (‘The Big Bounce’) hadn’t worked and it was the Higgins book that encouraged him to “loosen up and use expletives”. It was an interesting lesson, I thought, in contemporaneous writers cross-pollinating, rather than the ‘dead hand of influence’ approach.

    You mean Ellroy’s got form for writing lunatics?

  11. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    David – your words are wonderful…superb…beautiful.
    One paragraph in particular:
    "Strangely, so much is revealed in what’s missing, because somehow we sense what was chosen and why, and wonder at the omissions. That too is voice, for we know someone did the choosing, the leaving out, and can feel it in both the cut of the words and the gaping silences."
    I'm reading Amy Hempel's Collected Short Stories presently, and it's all about omission. So much voice, in so few words.
    Your argument describes why writing novels is more satisfying than writing screenplays. I cannot have that relationship with a reader when I write a screenplay. A screenplay is a blueprint for a director's vision. I'm lucky if my screenplay has a relationship with anyone at all. I didn't find my voice until I started writing prose.

  12. David Corbett

    Dana: You touch on a sneaky, subtle thing–how much the experience of voice is shared. And anyone stepping in between the writer and the reader gums it up. It's a curious business, like fingering smoke. Maybe that's why audio books have yet to engage me. I feel like I want to claw open the speaker and get at the page.

    Gordon: I've heard that story of the linkl between Leonard and Higgins before. The student outshone the master, imho. But as you've said, I hit the soggy part of his repertoire, and need to go back and read the early work. As for Ellroy: When you own your own planet, you can do as you please. (And I think he does it chockingly well.)

    Stephen: Amy Hempel is someone I've been meaning to get to. I almost included an excerpt from Bonnie Jo Campbell but she's a bit more generous with the regional flavor than Hempel, who (from what I've read), is an inheritor of Carver. The problem with a school of writing like that is it quickly becomes a pose. I'm guessing from what you say that Hempel avoids that (which is something else I've read about her).

    My own take on minimalism is that the real masters were Kafka and Hemingway and everyone else who hears that Muse has been trying to carve out a unique voice while still using the same stark tone and language, which is damn hard. And yet Japanese writers manage it over and over (I'd be interested in Shizuka's take on that). It's humbling to read someone who can pull it off.

  13. David Corbett

    Stephen: One other thing — about scripts. I was kinda surprised at how much voice was in Tony Gilroy's script for MICHAEL CLAYTON. And Vince Gilligan's pilot for BREAKING BAD had similar touches. But it is rare. (And I'm guessing your voice was there, just confined to the point of imprisonment in the hole.)

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Good scripts always have voice. The thing is, most of the scripts out there on the net are shooting scripts, which take out all the original screenwriter's words and leave the bare minimum – no description at all. Gilroy has a wonderful script voice, he always has.

  15. David Corbett

    Reine: This is quite a sentence: I think you'll think I think you're "… an idiot." I wish I'd written it, rather than being it's topic.

    You know I'd think no such thing. Unless you meant it of course. For which I'd have no defense, I'm afraid.

    So please, speak freely.

    Alex: I stand corrected. My apologies.

  16. Allison Davis

    A voice that haunts me is Keri Hulme, in The Bone People, the descriptions of the beach interspursed with her thoughts feels dangerous and delicious at the same time. Hard to describe except it's a book I go back to, like a room to visit. I feel the same way about Michael Ondaajte's books (e.g., Anil's Ghost). That voice is soft, yet so much is going on. I savor those books.

    I have various YA books that I keep around when I am especially stressed, that likely have no literary import, but is a place of comfort and safety (quite unlike Hulme or Ondaatje). Like Sally Saucer (written 1956 by Edna Weiss) or the Enid Blynton series (written in the 50's) of Adventure books.

    I definitely read for the voice because if I don't like being in the place, it's hard for me to read the book. I think that's what happens when people put a book down and say, "I just couldn't get into it" means they didn't want to be there. War and Peace is hard as hell to read, but it's a great place to be. I like the Barbara Hambly books about Benjamin January in New Orleans in the 1840's and David Fulmer Valentine Cyr series (also New Orleans).

  17. Larry Gasper

    David, your blogs make me think so much that I'm afraid what eight weeks of your class might do to me. I think my head might explode. That being said, I think I'll use this blog as the first lesson of the class, as voice is crucial to me. It was probably the main reason why the book I'll be working on didn't work before. Thanks for the James Frey exercise too. I'll give it a try.
    One thing I have noticed in too many books is writers trying for transparent prose and the transparent prose leading to transparent characters.

  18. David Corbett

    Larry: Interesting that Allison should post right before you, since she was singing the praises of your voice just this weekend. I don't think that's your problem, from what I've seen as well. Your stories have a real sense of voice to them. In fact, I don't think you have a "problem," you're just working your way through the material. Sometimes it's easier to get there than others. Look at Stephen with his most recent book. It took a year of agony for him to say: We're moving to Las Vegas, people. Sometimes one thing can change everything.

    This, however, was a gem: One thing I have noticed in too many books is writers trying for transparent prose and the transparent prose leading to transparent characters.

    Words of wisdom. Sometimes the search for simplicity can oversimplify. Less is more, unless it's not enough.

  19. Susan Shea

    Haven't heard Jim Frey say that but it's perfect counsel for me right now. When I think of an author's voice, the first name that comes to me is Jane Austen. Clear, pointed, witty, sly – always at my ear murmuring, pointing me to see something small and revealing so that she doesn't have to tell me.

    But you're talking about crime fiction and others have already pointed out some good ones. Not sucking up but I think your voice is one I'd have on my list – Done for a Dime and Do They Know…have that quality. The late great Barbara Seranella looks unblinkingly at Munch's past life and, to me, her voice insists we not stereotype Munch and her biker/druggie background.And what about Eric Stone?

  20. Reine

    Oh David, you know I love you. I just always seem to say something that misses the mark of what I think you intended. And I fucking have my days, y'know?

    The term "voice" has been problematic for me since escaping the trammels of my doctoral advisor's inadifferentvoiceyness. Not yet recovered from the self realization of having a voice too different for her gilliganselfitude, yet glad I did leave and grateful that I did not have to pay for the humiliating experience. So, while it's not a bad word, I have soul farts whenever I see it.

    I only read books that sound good in my head. I cannot force myself to read anything I don't like. If I try, and I have tried, I see multiple images of the writer pointing spears at me and hear them yelling, "Stay out of my book!"

  21. David Corbett

    Susan: Well, I'm not limiting myself to crime fiction, but thank you for the attaboy.

    I think all the 19th century writers who used the omniscient POV had marvelous voices — that POV requires it. I just re-read Joyce's "The Dead" from the viewpoint of voice and POV and lost a half hour marveling at what we can no longer get away with. Conrad pretty much killed off the omniscient narrator, replacing him with Marlowe. And Hemingway taught us all the power of compression and simplicity and focusing on the surface to conjure the depths. The grand storyteller voice slipped into the background, readers became more alert to the trickery.

    Reine: I hope I've not said anything to make you feel like you've missed the mark. And what the hell is the mark anyway? I welcome anyone's comments, especially yours. Always.

    Academia is a great killer of voice. Though an excellent source of soul farts.

    And life is far too short to read anything that wants to attack you.

    I think I'm not alone in believing you have one of the most distinctive voices around.

  22. paul wilner

    I think Bob Stone among contemporaries is unique. Me, I know it's a cliche but I love Salinger, oft-derided but inimitable. Fitzgerald, Hemingway, too of course. George Higgins wrote a lot of great stuff before his art went south. "The Diggers Game,'' "Cogan's Trade,'' "The Patriot Game.'' Worth checking out, really. Sad the way his life ended. I'm glad you mentioned Don Carpenter. Re Leonard: I agree he's great, but sometimes I think he can be a little too deft…depending on the book; wonderful ear, but might work better (for me) if he was a little less sure of his craft. For screenwriters, you can't go wrong with Bob Towne, whose work is I believe available in paperback. Not just "Chinatown,'' but "Personal Best'' and "Tequila Sunrise'' have amazing scenes and the screenplay for "The Two Jakes'' was great, even though the movie was the opposite. Just some thoughts; thanks for the great piece (I prefer the word to "post,'' though that's probably just me being cranky.)

  23. Reine

    David- Well no, you have not made me feel stupid or incompetent or anything bad. I just fear it. You are so goddamn smart.

    If I learned nothing else at the div school it was entirely worth the exegetical foray to recoup the soul fart hermeneutic.

    And you and the Rati are very generous.

  24. David Corbett

    Paul: There seems to be a line forming for who gets to be cranky.

    I love Stone, a big influence for me. And it's funny, I chose Don Carpenter for my book group last month. Four showed up at the right time, we all loved it. Two were a half hour late, misunderstanding when we started, they both hated it. The gentleman said he knows good writing and that ain't it. Too much telling, not enough showing. The woman said life is hard enough, why read something like that? That's why there's horse races, as they say. I think it's a classic, but that's clearly not a slam dunk.

    I think Chinatown is one of the best scripts ever written, but with Polanski's ending, not Towne's. They had a huge rift about it (I'm sure you know this), with Towne calling Polanski's climax "the tunnel at the end of the light." He later conceded that was the right ending. (And I'm embarrassed to admit that after all these years I still haven't seen Tequila Sunrise — one of those things.)

    Reine: Trust me, underneath all the verbal camouflage I'm as dumb as a stump. Re: your remark concerning div school, duly noted and savored. As it were.

    And we're not just generous, we're honest.

  25. John Shannon

    How come the article is tagged Pete Dexter? Did you mean to include a quote from him? He does have a fine voice, a real ride-along-with voice.
    Yours, John

  26. David Corbett

    John: Oops. I had included a Pete Dexter quote (the opening 3 paragraphs of TRAIN) as one of my examples, then took it out because it was too long. Sloppy of me not to clear the tag, sorry.

    Susan: The omniscient narrator is kind of a cross between first person and third. It can move around like the ghost in the machine (as in 3rd person), but it has a distinct personality or voice, like a character, and is thus like 1st person. Conrad thought that the omniscient narrator, by knowing everything all at once, betrayed how we actually gain information, which is in pieces, bits here and there. And so he rooted the omniscience in Marlowe, who was a witness to the events, and actually described and explained how he came to know what he reported. The "trickery" of the omniscient narrator lies in having this all-seeing eye that can go in and out of everyone's head and yet has no name and does not explain how he comes to know everything, while having a distinctive style and voice, like a storyteller who lives within the world of the novel. (Or like the author.) Now, all POV is a deceit: in 1st person the author pretends to be a character in the story, and in 3rd person the narrator is a disembodied ghost in the machine that can move in and out but needs to be controlled, not invading characters' minds at will because this annoys readers and makes them wonder where they are. But omniscient for whatever reason has pretty much fallen by the wayside because it seems "godlike" in an era that lacks any faith in that kind of all-knowing being, and it's also damn hard to do well.

  27. Gordon Harries

    Another writer whose voice I like (the texture of it) is David Benioff, I thought that 25th Hour was marvellous and really illustrated the shadowboxing between 1st and 3rd person that Corbett talks about somewhere above. (For example, there’s this whole thing in the novel about how the three main characters have all been the most important member of the group at different times, the hierarchical structure keeps reforming in accordance to where they are in their lives at any given time. No way for the movie to do it, of course. Or share it’s anecdote about Jakob being “the world’s greatest pedestrian.”)

    I like the movie (also written by Benioff) too, but it’s a less complicated beast.

  28. David Corbett

    Gordon: 25th Hour is one of my favorite books of the past few years, but I was unaware of any 1st person use. I need to go back and check that out. As for the movie, I was grateful Spike Lee didn't do to Benioff what he did to Richard Price with Clockers.

  29. Susan Shea

    David, Thanks for a terrific explanation of the issue. It's good food for thought as I debate with myself how to proceed with a new project. I've read several recently published novels with omniscient narrators. All were popular, which made me wonder if readers are softening to the style. Louise Penny's "A Rule Against Murder" slips quietly around inside heads even in the same scene. "The Three Weissman's of Westport" is does it. I feel as though Kate Atkinson does it, but I'll have to reread "One Good Turn" again to see what made me feel that. And, yes, it's hard to pull off – maybe that's one reason it's out of fashion?

  30. Gordon Harries

    David: It’s not first person, but as I recall (and again, it’s been a few years) it has omniscient narration that sometimes feels like an overview and then ALMOST feels like first person. Sorry for any confusion, it’s very late here and I am toasted.

    I was at a Pelecanos signing years ago (DRAMA CITY tour) when he mentioned that Benioff was to adapt RIGHT AS RAIN for Sam Jackson. I can’t say I was ever very enthusiastic about the movie (Sam Jackson as Derek Strange?) but I would have been very interested to see what a marriage between Benioff and Pelecanos’ style would look like.

    And CLOCKERS… you know, I don’t see how you could do a book like that cinematic justice within two hours, but on the other hand there was no call for it to be THAT bad.

  31. KDJames

    Yes, I read for voice as well. And not just fiction. There are many voices in these comments that I recognize instantly, without needing to see the name in the corner (including yours, Richard, so for godsakes stop worrying about it and just WRITE), and look forward to reading what they say. I think all writers have a voice, some just don't interest me or strike a chord with me.

    I'm trying to think of a writer whose work I enjoy but who does not have a "distinctive individual voice" as you said — and Brett Battles comes to mind. I always enjoyed his posts over here, but can't say I was compelled by his voice. I had no idea what a kick ass thriller writer he was until I read SICK (I've told him this, so it's not like I'm talking about him behind his back). I've since read more of his work, though not all of it (yet!), and I can hear the voices of the characters, but not his. It must be there, we all have a voice. His is subtle. BUT, I can feel his confidence in every single word and that makes all the difference. I know I can count on him to show me a good time. [No, not like that. Sheesh.] So I don't think a voice has to be "distinctive" or instantly recognizable for me to love it.

    It does tell me that some writers are wise to stop writing blog posts and focus more effort on fiction. Well, we all should do that, really. But for some writers, these short pieces are more of a gateway drug to their fiction than for others. If that makes sense.

  32. David Corbett

    Gordon: Agreed on all scores. Interesting pairing, Benioff and pelecanos. Hmmm…

    Susan: I think Kate Atkinson is multiple close third person. There is never a narrator lording over the telling. The sections are usually rooted in one character's POV or another.

    Multiple third person can sometimes feel like what's referred to as third person limited omniscient (a mouthful, I know). But this is just omniscient stripped of the distinct voice of the traditional omniscient narrator. Or, put differently, it's third person narration that's loose on deck.

    This stuff gets tricky, and everybody makes up rules that get broken every day by writers, sometimes skillfully, sometimes not. A shift in POV can be very interesting if handled well. If handled badly, the reader feels like; What just happened? Where did So-and-So go and why I am now following What's-His-Name?

  33. David Corbett

    KD: I love the idea of blog posts as gateway drugs.

    I think the suspense genre in particular, by focusing on an everyman facing extraordinary events, requires control of voice, otherwise the "everyman" quality gets overwhelmed. Peter Abrahams and Gregg Hurwitz are similar to Brett in that regard, as is Stephen King, really. And like I said, Highsmith is my example on thei kind of seemingly voiceless voice, and she's one of the master of the form. The "normalcy" of the writing is a device, a way to make things seem so much like the world you know, the better to lure you in to the very abnormal things to come. If the prose stands out, the bond may shift to the writer, not the hero, and in suspense that's way bad.

    I remember Sophie Littlefield once commenting that she and Craig McDonald agreed that the writer should vanish entirely, which I found interesting because Sophie's voice is so distinct — and her writing is engaging precisely because of that. She's a great storyteller exactly because she so gracefully marries her story and style.

  34. paul wilner

    Agree that Polanski's ending was better. But the dude really has an ear for dialogue. There's a great scene between Mel Gibson (excuse the reference) and Michelle Pfeiffer in "Tequila'' in which he's trying to explain why it's hard for him to get out of the drug trade and an inspired Scott Glenn rant in "Personal Best'' when he gets into it with Mariel Hemingway.
    Re: Carpenter. I should re-read but as I recall, he was great. Reminds me a bit of Len Gardner, whose "Fat City'' was absolutely on the money but maybe that's just because they both lived in Mill Valley. Agree that Price is priceless. Great discussion.
    By the way, I just finished "Do They Know I'm Running'' and admire your ambition – and your voice.

  35. Shizuka


    Speaking of Japanese writers, did you read OUT by Natsuno Kirino?
    It's a very disturbing, subversive crime story about women who dispose of dead bodies for money.
    The ending was too crazy for me, but the ride was great.
    The setting is a bleak suburb and the sparse language accents the depressing nature of the womens' lives. And although it's multiple POV, the narrator sort of disappears.

    Interestingly, I didn't finish REAL WORLD by the same author because there's almost no story.
    It's all voice and multiple POV. But the same sparse language and the very minimal details lulled me for a while.

    In a lot of contemporary Japanese mystery fiction (like the recent DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X) the narrator does the same disappearing trick even in books with ominiscient POV. And the voice creeps up on you and drags you so subtly into the book's world that you don't notice it.

  36. David Corbett


    OUT by Natsuno Kirino was exactly what I had in mind, but other fiction I've read has the same austerity, I think it's simply part of the cultural mindset, always valuing subtext and respecting the audience's understanding of generally understood cues and symbols. But you're right, it worked devastatingly well in portraying the empty lives of those women.

  37. Lynn in Texas

    Late to the party but I enjoyed reading all the discussions. I'm currently halfway through Sophie Littlefield's BAD DAY FOR SORRY and agree she's got a powerful voice! I've been reading her blog posts at Murder She Writes for quite some time, and love the way she writes, and "speaks" to me.

    David, you've done it once again with your musical selection–straight to the heart. I first met Townes in 1972; what a fantastic singer/songwriter, and all around interesting character he was! Also, very much a tortured soul. He was one of the good ones.

  38. David Corbett

    Lynn: I'll let Sophie know you're enjoying the book. And speaking of late to the party — I didn't even know Townes existed until far too late. I'm envious you knew him way back when.

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