Yesterday, Lady Glamis posted about voice, which got me thinking. About voice. In my last novel, which is set in 16th-century Europe and plunders Shakespeare's "Hamlet," my narrator and all the characters speak in a sort of modernized Elizabethan speech. It's very distinctive but nothing at all like the way I write or speak in real life. My current work-in-progress is set in 18th-century Colonial America, and while I'm not totally sure how my characters should talk yet (still doing research on that), the narrative voice is more modern than in my last book, but still has a sort of formal, old-fashioned tone. Again, it's not how I talk or write in real life.
As I said in my comment yesterday to Lady Glamis' post, I think that beneath the narrative voices lies my own authorial voice somewhere, which presents in the way the rhythms of the prose work, in word choice, in sentence and paragraph construction. Even though the Hamlet-based book was heavily influenced by the language of Shakespeare, and my current book is heavily influenced by the language of Hemingway and Melville and possibly people like Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens, I think that not only does each book have its own unique voice, they both also have my own unique voice.
Which gets me thinking about influence upon authorial voice. Davin Malasarn, as anyone who's read his posts for any length of time should know, is a big fan of Count Leo Tolstoy. Yet Davin's writing doesn't sound like Tolstoy, it sounds like Davin. Which is good, because I am a big fan of Mr. Malasarn's writing. His book ROOSTER is written in a clear, shining voice that gives space for the characters to act and the reader to see. My own prose, despite my love of Hemingway, is dense and can become overcrowded with multiple meanings if I don't watch myself. So how much actual influence is there on us from the writers we admire most? What is it that we take from reading their works? What, exactly, is the influence Tolstoy is having on Davin and what is the influence Hemingway is having on me?
I think there might be a large gap between our favorite authors and the stamp those writers make on our writing. Which is curious and strange but I think it's true. I think that when we really admire to the point, maybe, of worshipping some writer, they may have less actual impact on us than writers we don't love as much.
When I wrote my very first novel about 15 years ago, I was trying very hard to write in the style of Flannery O'Connor, a sort of bizarre religion-centered Southern Gothic darkness. That novel is really awful, so bad that I gave up writing for about a decade in fact, but in a lot of ways I got the O'Connor voice on the page. But I'll never try that hard again to imitate another writer, at least not consciously. I have since then learned that I write better when I'm not trying to copy someone else.
Also, I think that when we really admire a writer, as we come into our own as writers and start to find our own authorial voices, we avoid anything that sounds like our writing heroes, even if we don't know we're doing it. I want to write like Hemingway, but I don't want to have written something that's a rip-off of Hemingway or anyone else. I think Davin won't write like Tolstoy because Davin is trying to write like Davin. Possibly, what each of us wants is to have the command of craft that our favorites have, to command the same affect upon readers these guys pulled off. But not so much to sound like them. Maybe.
I know that reading a lot of Shakespeare has given me a new appreciation of the way words sound together, and of the games you can play with double-meanings in dialogue. I know that Hemingway has given me an appreciation of clarity and simply saying what you mean. Flannery O'Connor had a great economical way of describing action that I admire and try to emulate. Melville enjoyed the sound of his own voice and really understood the concept of telling details. Dostoyevski and Gunter Grass and A.S. Byatt know how to show people at their best and their worst, to create deep characters that remain with readers. I've tried to learn from all of these people, but I don't think I sound like any of them. If there was one thing I would like to still learn, it would be maybe Ivan Turgenov's way of relaxing into the prose and making the reader see the broad sweep of the landscape surrounding the action, all with a couple of sentences.
So we come to the questions du jour: Who are your favorite writers? Do you try to write like them or not? What's the one thing you'd like to learn from another writer?