It’s All About the Voice

UntetheredYesterday I read my first official YA novel – because I am of that generation that didn’t have literature aimed specifically at my age-group, or paternalistic age-banding on books.  By the time YA literature made its official appearance, I had grown up and preferred to go back to my childhood favourites when I was in a nostalgic mood (Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or Ballet Shoes). I had no desire to relive my late teens, when back in high school all I wanted to do was be as pretentiously grown-up as possible.

But for a friend and fellow member of the Geneva Writers’ Group (who moreover shares my love of popcorn!), the one-woman dynamo that is Katie Hayoz, I decided to forsake my stupid genre scepticism.  I find genre such a meaningless category anyway. Her book ‘Untethered’ is labelled YA fiction, as the protagonist is a teenage girl. (But then, The Lovely Bones, Catcher in the Rye and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter should all be categorised as teen fiction.) It’s also labelled a paranormal novel, which is more than a little misleading, although it does deal with astral projection.

However, this is not a post about genre fiction, fascinating though that subject may be. Instead, it is about the importance of narrative voice. The narrator of ‘Untethered’ has a remarkably clear voice of her own: self-absorbed and whiny at times, self-justifying and pretentious at others, but also sharply observant, funny and poignant. Unique and yet representative of teenagers everywhere. Or the teenager we think we remember we were.

This is the one thing that literary agents say over and over again about submissions: what makes them instantly prick up their ears and read on is this strong individual voice.  Yet it is far rarer than you might think.  I read so many books this year (140 at last count) and only a handful or two of those have that truly unique voice. Confidence, an above-average plot and a polished style: yes, there are dozens like that and I rank many of my favourite authors amongst these. But a voice that grabs you (even when you don’t much like it) and takes you into their world (however unfamiliar)… it is an exhilarating experience when that happens.  I’ve felt that this year with Katie Hayoz’s Sylvie, Denise Mina’s Garnethill, John Burdett’s Bangkok Eight, Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseille trilogy. All very different voices, but all whispering (sometimes shouting) potently in my ear.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin

Then I realised that it’s not just in literature, but also in music that I am bowled over by unique, strong, perhaps even unfashionable or unlikable voices. What I call ‘lived-in’ voices – people who have experienced much, suffered and not always overcome. Voices of experience, voices on the edge. Voices that you wouldn’t want to hear on your children, but in which you perhaps recognise just a little bit of yourself. Yes, I admire the perfect pitch, poise and modulations of great singers, but it’s these ‘broken’ voices, simultaneously world-weary and world-hungry, that make my heart do a double turn.

Good morning heartache, good morning Billie Holiday, Jim Morrison,

David Bowie, Janis Joplin, Maria Callas…

11 thoughts on “It’s All About the Voice”

  1. Marina Sofia – I couldn’t possibly agree more with you about the value of a strong individual voice. It made Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong unforgettable. Janis Joplin too as well as Jimi Hendrix (who gave an inanimate object a voice – how he did that has always astounded me). As to writing, the more we write, I think, the more self-assured our voice becomes, and it’s easier to see how distinctive it is.

    1. And of course, in some cases, we deliberately want a more neutral voice to carry the story, but these books just struck me as voices so strongly flavoured that ‘never mind the consequences’. It may not be to everybody’s taste and it may not be the kind of book you want to read every day all day for the next two years, but it certainly stands out!

  2. Absolutely right about the importance of “voice” . As Margot says, the more we write the stronger the voice becomes … at least it’s what we hope! I had to chuckle as you mentioned your hesitation to venture into the world of YA lit. I felt the same way and, like you, was persuaded to dip in through friendship with authors writing in that genre. I, too, was pleasantly surprised!

    1. Same thing happened to me with chick lit… I really should know better by now. I’m just showing the same appalling genre snobbishness which I abhor in others!

  3. Megan Abbott is a writer that springs to mind as a creator of unique and distinctive voices – her characters tend to stay with me long after the plot is forgotten. Just finished the Booker contender We Need New Names – NoViolet Bulawayo, and found that she has that same skill.

    Oh…and Lou Reed…

    1. I’ve been meaning to read Megan Abbott, I’ve heard such good things about her. I haven’t read ‘We Need New Names’ either (although books about immigrants really speak to me), but perhaps one in a similar vein I could have mentioned was ‘Half Blood Blues’ by Esi Edugyan, which is uncanny in its depiction of a voice very different from the author’s.
      And you are absolutely right about Lou Reed…

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