Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Does an authorial voice really exist?

Yesterday, Anne Gallagher, Michelle, Scott and I tried an experiment that involved having readers try to match the writer to the writing for 4 short excerpts. (If you still want to guess, feel free to comment on the post before reading further.) The idea to do this stemmed from a discussion over at Scott's place about voice. We had several ideas running. The first was that the narrator's voice may vary with the story, but does writing also have an underlying "authorial voice" or style that a writer can't necessarily hide? Does this authorial voice always peek through? Is it limited by, say, the writer's own vocabulary, intellect, and experiences?

I was surprised to see the wide range of guesses we got. Only one person, Alex, got the right answer (woohoo!), although Scott and Michelle would have also guessed correctly. (Anne, would you have gotten it right as well?)

The correct answer is:

1. Scott
2. Anne
3. Michelle
4. Domey

Honestly, I was surprised by what a hard time everyone had on it, including myself. My own guess was wrong, as I switched Scott's and Anne's samples. I realize, then, that the elements I look at in someone's writing are not necessarily what other people, including the writers themselves, look at.

My reasoning behind my guesses will probably seem odd, as your reasoning will probably sound odd to me...although we would love it if you would describe that reasoning. For me, I easily identified Michelle as the writer of 3 because of the description "long, thin body lying limp" and the word "fluttered". I didn't need to read much further than that. Naturally, I knew which one I wrote. I had a harder time trying to decide between Anne and Scott for the first two samples, and I finally decided Scott didn't write the first one because of the use of the words "foolishly" and "foolish", a form of repetition that I personally use a lot, but one I wouldn't have guessed Scott would like. I credited it to Anne.

As I was trying to decide, I also considered things like sentence structure, as well as logic. I am more familiar with Scott's writing than Anne's, and I have seen a certain extended logical thought process in Scott's writing exemplified by lines such as "Algiers is a dangerous city, especially for men who take employment with the French oppressors". But, I detected the same kind of logic in the extended metaphor in the second paragraph of sample 2.

What this makes me realize in myself is that what I consider to be that "authorial voice" has to do with vocabulary, sentence structure, explanations of logic, and rhythms. I didn't pay much attention to subject matter, or to character. But, of course, the criteria are apparently different for everyone, given the different answers. And, so, I'm still left wondering, What makes up an authorial voice, and is there really such a thing?

Granted, this experiment had some flaws to it. The writing samples are short, and if the authorial voice has more to do with the limits of the writers ability--which I tend to think it does--then the short sample probably doesn't yet reach the boundaries of those limits. What would happen if you read multiple books by any of us? I'd bet those limits would become much more obvious.

And, how exactly did we choose our samples? I bet if any of us had wanted to, we could have picked writing samples that were more misleading and/or random. I can't speak for the others, but I'll say that for me, there was no value in that. I decided to choose two writing samples that I felt reflected polished work in its final state. Often times my early drafts are much more tainted by other writers' voices, and I hoped that these samples of mine were rid of such things...although I still see some McCarthy in my second sample. What was important to me was to show what I considered to be my best work in the hopes that people would reveal commonalities in it that I didn't necessarily see before or that people would reaffirm that the elements I consider to be mine were actually apparent. Neither one seemed to be the case.

The other complication is that voice comes on many levels. As we discussed at Scott's blog, there's always the narrative voice or the narrator's voice. This probably varies with the story. If there's also an authorial voice, the extent to which that authorial voice makes itself visible will also vary. In my own work, I personally try to hide that, aiming more for the invisible author. I would have said that in the books I've read by Scott, his authorial voice is more visible, more poetic. Michelle is more visible and poetic to me as well. I would have said Anne was less visible, based on these samples.

Do we care? Well, you tell me. If you were the one to put two samples up, would you prefer that readers could pick your work out right away or that they couldn't? I'm very much on the fence with this question. I do like the idea that I can write broadly. One of my favorite compliments is hearing someone say that they thought one of my stories was written by a woman or by someone other than who I am. At the same time, I was honestly a little disappointed that only three people assigned the 4th sample correctly to me. Those stats, in case you are interested are below:

For sample 1:
6 people correctly assigned it to Scott.
4 people assigned it to Domey.
3 people assigned it to Anne.
0 people assigned it to Michelle.

For sample 2:
5 people assigned it to Michelle.
4 people assigned it correctly to Anne.
4 people assigned it to Scott.
0 people assigned it to Domey.

For sample 3:
6 people assigned it to Domey.
4 people assigned it correctly to Michelle.
2 people assigned it to Anne.
1 person assigned it to Scott.

For sample 4:
4 people assigned it to Anne.
4 people assigned it to Michelle.
3 people assigned it correctly to Domey.
2 people assigned it to Scott.

One strong point in terms of identifying the components that make up voice might be to look at the writers who were ruled out of certain samples. No one thought Michelle wrote 1. No one thought Domey wrote 2. Obviously, there are elements there that people don't associate with these writers.

What about spread? Is there significance to there being slightly less spread in sample 1 versus sample 4? Does 1 maybe have a more prominent voice compared to 4? Is the author of 1 more visible than the author of 4?

I also wonder if factors like credibility came into play. Did people assign their favorite passage to the writer they respect the most? Their least favorite to the writer they respect the least? Did our personalities have anything to do with it? Did our past blog posts have anything to do with it? Can I possibly ask any more questions?

So, tell us your thoughts!


  1. The scientist in you is coming out :)...

    Authorial voice is harder to pinpoint than character voice usually, particularly with such a small sample size, but there are certainly authors who excel (e.g., Stephen King - both character and author)... as you stated, it's often about structure, rhythm, turns of phrase... though now I'm wondering if 'great voice' authors participated in a similar experiment, how recognizable they'd be.

  2. I think there are very few authors who have such a distinctive voice they would be easily identifiable in an exercise like this. The only one that immediately comes to mind is Cormac McCarthy.

    I only got 1 right...Michelle. Here's what I was thinking:

    1. Domey. I thought this smaple had more of a stream-of-consciousness feel, and his named sample did too. Plus he mentions TO THE LIGHTHOUSE a lot, which is a SOC narrative.

    2. Scott. I was torn between Scott and Anne for this, but the semi-colon made me think of Scott's prose: he was the only one who used a semi-colon in the names samples.

    3. This one just seemed like Michelle, from the subject matter to the sentence structure.

    4. Anne. The primary reasoning was the shorter paragraphs.

    This was a fun exercise, I'd like to participate in other experiments like this!

  3. This experiment was absolutely fascinating to me. Here was my logic:

    <1> I had a hard time with this one and 2 because they felt the same to me in tone. To me, tone is what I usually look for in authorial voice. They both seemed a certain distance from the narrator. However, I finally landed on Scott writing 1 because of word choice. I couldn't see Anne, for some reason, using the poetic Ali, Ali, Ali, and a sentence like "Algiers is a dangerous city, especially for men who take employment with the French oppressors." That simply felt like Scott to me. I have also read more of Scott's work than Anne's, though, so that could have something to do with it.

    <2> This one had the name "Richard" in it. That really felt more like a name Anne would pick based on other things I have read of hers. Anne writes romances, and the extended metaphor in her piece felt like it belonged more in a romance piece than the subjects Scott usually writes about.

    <3> Is obviously mine. Interesting how a lot of people picked up on it. Is my writing that obvious?

    <4> I must confess I had read this before, so I knew it was Davin's.


    My final observation? I didn't use ANY of the first named examples to try and figure out the anonymous samples. To me, that says something important. If I didn't know the authors and their little nuances, I might not have been able to choose as easily. I might have relied more on the named examples. Or maybe that wouldn't have gotten me anywhere.

    I think voice is something that comes without us knowing it. It's not something a writer can consciously hone. If they try to do that, they'll end up with one big mess that sounds like a computer spit it out. If there IS voice at all which exists beyond narrator voice and subject matter, I believe it comes from writing and reading over an extended period of time.

  4. I did not get any of them right, except my own, of course.

    I based my answers on the 'style' of writer I thought each to be, taking into consideration sentence structure and vocabulary, and to some extent, content. I never would have thought Domey would write about aliens. (I know you have traveled extensively, so I automatically assumed you used Algiers as a setting. I never took your scientific background into consideration. And not to say that Michelle hasn't traveled, but I know she's been writing fairy tales and somehow made that leap to science fiction. Don't ask me why.)

    My guesses are as follows


    I also found it interesting that I (and one other person)assigned Scott to Michelle's writing. Does this mean, they both write in the same 'style' or with the same 'voice'? Are they really similar or is it just that particular sample of writing that is similar?

    However no one assigned Michelle to Scott's writing at all.

    This was a nifty experiment and I will have to think more about what makes voice, or if there is even such a thing. Thanks again for letting me participate.

  5. Bane, I was wondering the same thing about 'great voice' authors or maybe authors that have been writing for a very long period of time and have come into their own.

    Rick, thanks for explaining your logic. What's interesting is that your ideas totally make sense to me. We'll call upon you if we end up doing something else like this, and hopefully we will!

    Michelle, it's interesting that we pick up on little things like "Ali Ali Ali", huh? I used that line to try to help me too. I also get that the first set of examples wouldn't be as good an indicator as actually knowing the writers on a personal level.

  6. Anne, I do think it's telling when several people didn't match up some writers to some samples. I think that's probably what brings us closest to identifying voice if such a thing exists.

  7. Fascinating! What a cool experiment. I was sure I had gotten it right, but I flipped the Anne and Michelle pieces. This Lit Lab "experiment" really got me to step back and think about voice and tone and style. What makes each of us the writer we are? Or think we are? We think our fingerprints are all over our sentences, but maybe it's more complicated than that. Really great idea, guys!

  8. I was still trying to figure out who wrote what and forgot to come back and tell. (Though I probably would have gotten them wrong anyway.)

    The only one I was fairly certain about was 2, which I (correctly) assigned to Anne. I have no way to prove this, but you'll just have to believe me. My reasoning was the amount of adjectives and adverbs (as well as the type). Anne's and 2 had the same 'feel'.

    The rest I had no clue about, but then again, I hadn't had much experience reading any of the four writers.

    Anyway, very awesome experiment.

  9. I'm batting .250 this round.

    1 - I picked for Domey b/c it was internal and symbolic and feminine and honest with sentence length middle of the road.

    2 - I was torn on this b/t Michelle and Scott "GodFather" Bailey. I ended up picking for Scott b/c 3 was a better fit for Michelle.

    3 - This went to Michelle b/c it 'felt' like her. What does that mean? Sentences are lengthy, recursive without convolution. There's a grace to the language that encourages the reader. To be fair, I've had the most exposure to Michelle's fiction of you four.

    4 - I picked for Anne b/c of similar sentence length to the named samples. :-/

  10. TJN, That's a really good point. I assumed that my writing sample would be much more obvious. The fact that it isn't gives me a clue into what I could do differently if I wanted to be more recognizable. I'd say that in every sample there are sentences that stand out over others. I need to decide if I want to blend those in more or maybe bring the rest of the writing up to them. Maybe my voice would be more distinctive that way.

    Jake, I was trying to pay attention to things like adjectives as well. I'll say that they did come into play, but I guess I let other elements outweigh them. Do those priorities reveal something about what I value in my own writing? Probably.

  11. I didn't analyze the samples the way you did: sentence structure, word choice etc. I primarily went with my gut. I got Scott and Anne right, but switched Domey and Michelle.

    Because I knew I was participating in an experiment, and because the samples were short, as you mentioned, I am sure my decision-making process was skewed.

    Regardless, the experiment is a successful one, because now we get to find out the thoughts behind other writers' decisions--how we decide who wrote what is really a very similar process to how we decide to string words together.

    I do believe there is such a thing as authorial voice, but it may be a lot more subtle and takes a lot more exposure to get the sense of it. If we read 5 Alice Munro books and 5 Jane Smiley books, I think we'd recognize their voices.

  12. Woo hoo! What's my prize for getting them all right? There WAS a PRIZE, wasn't there?!!???

    Seriously, folks, it was mostly intuitive. For one thing, I've been reading the Lit Lab for a long time, and I can nearly always tell who is writing a post before I check the name at the end. So I must be clued in to some kind of voice/style thing for you three. The only one I didn't have a "feel" for was the second one, so I thought it had to be Anne.


  13. B. Nagel, thanks for explaining your logic to us. I'm finding it interesting to read about how the wrong matches were made and what sort of descriptors are used to justify those decisions. For you, it sounds like you used a mix of things.

    Yat Yee, "how we decide who wrote what is really a very similar process to how we decide to string words together. " This is an interesting thought. I think I agree with you in the sense that how we decided tells us what elements stand out in our mind. If we can see those elements, it means they exist for us when we are writing. There may be other techniques and decisions that a writer is making that we are blind to. And, I agree with what you say about Munro and Smiley.

  14. Alex, um, yeah, of course, absolutely there is a prize! Absolutely. We, um, we always planned to have a prize. Yeah, that's right. Scott or Michelle will have it in the mail to you ASAP. :P

    I do wish you could say what was in your decision making process. Intuition is so foggy an answer!

  15. Domey: "Intuition" may seem foggy, but it tends to work quite well for me. Not so useful for this discussion, though. SO okay, I'll give it a shot.

    #1. Sounded historical. Scott tends to write historical. "Well, it had not been much of a glass." Slight sardonic note. Scott.

    #2. As I said, didn't seem familiar to me overall. Anne.

    #3. Domestic scene, close family relationship, faintly dreamlike. Seemed like Michelle.

    #4. Something odd may be about to happen (the half man, half animal cry). I associate odd events with Domey.

    So you see, it was a lot of subject matter decision plus foggy intuition.

    -Alex, awaiting her fabulous prize

  16. Alex, see, this makes perfect sense to me. I can't speak for the others, but what you said about my writing matches what I see in my own writing. Thanks for elaborating.

    Scott and Michelle, do get the prize out, please. Alex, it's so fabulous, I can't stand it. It's almost like a dream prize, one that is so good it disappears before you can get a really good grasp on it.

  17. I can't say how my cohorts chose their samples; I only asked for two bits, each about 250 words long. I know that I wasn't particularly interested in contrast in mine, so all I did was find the oldest decent piece of writing I could (circa 2005) and the newest (WIP, 2011). The excerpt from the WIP wasn't the one I wanted to use, but my first choice has some grammatical issues (hey, it's just a first draft) I didn't feel like dealing with on Monday night when I put the post together. So there's all that.

    I'm not sure this particular test tells us much, because the example pieces are so short (but it was fun to do). Anyway, I have doubts about the existence of "voice" and especially the development of an author's "personal/unique voice." Most of my doubt is founded on the belief that a unique authorial voice is neither desirable nor important.

    A month or two ago I re-read Antonia Byatt's fine novel "Possession." I've read this a number of times, and every time I come to it, Byatt's writing seems different, not as I remembered it, and this difference is in me and it's based on how my ideas about writing have changed and what other authors I've read since the last time I read "Possession." So there's that, the idea that perception of authorial voice is as much in the reader as it is on the page.

    I think a lot of people are looking hard for their own "voice" because agents and editors throw the word around a lot. I don't think the word has any real meaning. All of this is ironic, of course, because apparently my sample was most easily identified as being by me. But there weren't a lot of people voting, so maybe it's just within acceptable levels of randomness and means nothing. I don't know.

  18. The prize is, in fact, a dream. The next time you have a really vivid, excellent dream that makes you happy, rest assured that it was your prize for getting 4 out of 4 in the "Heather versus Eels" test! Yes, you're welcome.

  19. Scott, I forgot to mention that I also chose samples that were at least a couple of years apart. Does your opinion that an authorial voice is undesirable mean that you'd prefer if readers couldn't tell which books you wrote without looking at the name on the cover? I was thinking more about this last night, and I'm the opposite. I do want people to know. I think it has to do with choices. I go back to my favorite writers because I crave them, and I come to the conclusion that this only works if there's something consistent about their writing.

  20. I am with Domey in that I think a recognizable, not necessarily meaning predictable, voice is desirable. But it's another one of those goals where we can't pursue it for its own sake. It's a by-product of who we are and what we do. It is troublesome and somewhat fake to try to figure out one's own voice to duplicate. But writers, when writing as authentically as we can, will inevitably land within some parameters of writing style and all that.

    Bach and Handel, Haydn and Mozart: each pair lived during similar times and write similar styles of music within similar conventions. Yet they sound different.

    Or maybe I'm saying this right now because I'm listening to a keyboard fugue someone composed using Lady Gaga's theme from Bad Romance. It's a good fugue, BTW.

  21. Domey, I really don't know. Certainly I want something to be the same from book to book by authors I love, but I can't say what that something is. There's a real difference between any two books by Peter Carey, for example, but not so much between the books of Gunter Grass (though I've only read him in translation). Joyce's Ulysses has a bunch of narrative voices and I would be hard pressed to point to what the "authorial voice" is.

    I don't know if I want my readers to recognize my writing from book to book. It's not something I really think or care about. I want to dazzle and surprise and move my readers, but at the same time (or maybe more importantly) I want to set new and more difficult challenges for myself as a writer. If I can amaze myself, I figure, maybe I can amaze a reader or two. Bedazzlement and amazement: that's what it's all about. The finished work, not the finished artist.

  22. Brilliant, moving, funny WITH bedazzlement and amazement.

  23. Yat Yee, For me, I do feel like I can pursue my own voice. To do so, I try to be more sensitive to my responses to my own writing. Much of the process involves clearing things away. If I can tell that a certain story is influenced by another writer, I try to subtract those components as much as I can and replace them with my own interpretation of images in my mind. In other words, I try to come up with my own way of saying something based on my imagination rather than my knowledge of how other writers do it. I also try to find areas in my writing that feel unpleasing to me and clear those away. I think, in that sense, what I would call voice is more of a reaction to mistakes I've made rather than the creation of something. But I think that's a totally valid approach.

    There is also the creative side of it. I notice that I really like when separate pieces come together to form a greater whole, so I focus on that in my writing by making sure there are pieces that don't initially connect.

    This is a bit rambly.

  24. Scott, it's fair enough to me to call that consistency "something" rather than "voice". In my mind it's all the same, which is probably just me being sloppy. I do see something important in the artist. To me, that's what keeps me writing rather than only reading. I feel like I'm searching for something within myself.

  25. DOmey: I get what you mean by clearing away stuff that is influenced by other writers. And obviously, I think that's a good thing. But when I say it's not desirable to pursue a voice, I mean something shallower, like, "Hmmm, I think I'll create a literary voice, with long sentences of elegant words, but mix it up with short, startling observations."

    I consider what you do as being conscious of being your own writer, which in turn, leads to a unique voice. You're pursuing excellence in writing the way only you can, with your life experiences and reading preferences. The voice thing is a result.

  26. Ah, Yat Yee, that's makes a lot of sense. Thanks for clarifying! (I'm listening to Radiohead, by the way.)

  27. I used a lot of twisted and backward logic. But I guess, what I was almost confident about was:
    Scott wrote 1) and neither Scott nor Domey wrote 2.
    This was interesting because i realized that I assign gender not only to the voice of the protaganist but also to the piece. For example, 1 and 3 seemed feminine (i mean the flow of the excerpt) to me and 2 and 4 seemed male..Again by feminine I might just mean poetic but I also mean that if I had to personify the movement of the words they would be female..

    Excerp1 1: When I started reading the piece I almost thought it might be Michelle, but 'foolishly scented' sounded like Scott..Also subject wise 'Algiers is a dangerous city' sounded like Scott..Also 'Well, it hadn't been much of a glass'..(I really loved all these bits, including the 'Ali Ali Ali')

    Excerpt 2: Even though the protaganist was male, I felt like it hadn't been written by a man (even though i called the flow male)..Therefore, by elimination , I thought either Anne or Michelle wrote this. My first instinct was Anne, but I wasn't sure which was Domey's and Michelle's..I thought 3 could be Domey's- but 4 didn't sound like Michelle at all.

    Maybe the flow of the piece is what most people called author's voice but i can totally see how that can (and should?) change based on what is being written..Even word and metaphor choices could be dictated by the protagonist (and the feel that the author wants to infuse the piece with)- I am not sure of that though..

    Also, it is probably easier to spot a writer while reading a longer piece that short pieces like these?


  28. I had an intriguing experience once re: "Voice". A friend and I co-wrote some stories - she'd write a scene, then I'd write one, and we never re-wrote each other's. We set one long unfinished piece aside for about a year. When I came back to it, in many cases I could not tell which of us had written which scene.

    So either our "voices" had totally merged, or we both had voices that were undistinctive. Not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but the stories seemed to flow well.

    Scott and Domey: I had a fabulous dream last night, so I must have already known I'd aced it. Did I ever mention how psychic I am?


  29. Domey, more and more I just love the process, the problemsolvingness of it all. My experience of writing is a lot like the one you outlined to Yat-Yee, of clearing things away. Though at the same time I'm also gathering things to me. But hopefully what I'm gathering are ideas about story, not mannerisms in writing. What I want is to be personally invisible in my books. I want readers to see the story and for the narrative (by which I mean a great deal more than "story") to be fresh in each book and for the experience to surprise and blow them away. I want them to think, "that was a brilliant book," not "Bailey's a brilliant writer." Though the latter wouldn't be bad, I rush to say. But still, I want the focus of my writing to point away from me and at the narratives I build. I don't want to think about me-as-writer at all. The narrative is all.

    My complaint with the pursuit of voice is that writers too often speak of voice as something separate from narratives. Like, "Once I find my voice, I'll be able to apply it to all my future novels and those novels will be great," like voice is a power tool or a suit of clothes or something. Voice comes about by being sensitive to the needs of the narrative you're working on. Voice isn't something that stands alone that a writer carries around inside them and uses on writing. Or if it is, it's likely not a voice I want to listen to.

  30. The book I'm writing now is in 3rd-person omniscient POV (which is supposed to be declasse these days but whatevs). I like this POV because it contains within it every possible POV, and in a single scene I feel free to move from a distant journalistic voice to a very intimate, first-person voice of a single character. As this narrative/emotional distance changes, I try to make sure that things like rhythm, vocabulary, phrasing, sentence length and literalness of the writing changes to reflect the inner monologues of the characters. So the narrative has no single voice, but there are no clear boundaries between the many levels of voice in the piece. How I write a passage is determined by the needs of that particular passage. When the 69 year-old Mr Taylor is in the garden thinking about the philosophy book his son has sent him, the writing is not at all like the writing in the sample passage I gave yesterday with the "Ali Ali Ali" bit. But maybe readers would know both passages were written by me. I really don't know. I really don't. But as I say, I see voice as part of the narrative, not really as part of the author. Look how much I'm beginning to repeat myself. Think I'll go somewhere else now.

  31. Lavanya, the more I think about it, the more I agree with the idea that these samples were too short to be very reliable. But, I also agree that this has illuminated some things that readers pay attention to while they're reading. Thanks for explaining your decision-making!

    Mizmak, I wonder if intention also has something to do with it. I feel like I can copy some writers if I want to, and in a collaboration I may have tried harder to do such copying. Did you know that Scott, Michelle, and I, along with several other writers once wrote a short story together? The goal was to have twenty different people all work on it, but I think in the end I only managed to get 17 or so. I personally like the story (we got it published in Opium Magazine), but I have a feeling a lot of people--maybe even everyone--was disappointed by the outcome.

  32. Scott, I'm always astounded by how different we a good way.

  33. I can see my response falling negative in both cases. I want to believe I can write sundry forms of fiction, while also delighting in fans being able to identify me because of connection.

    For general readers, I presume that substance would be as determinate a factor as style. I believe Neil Gaiman and Stephen King write in very similar style to Richard Matheson, but Gaiman would never be mistaken for the author of Duel. Some authors are more likely to rely on simile and alliteration. Were you to feed all the possible stylistic tricks into a computer, it might be able to make the spread in interpreting the correct author from a field. At worst the computer and the readers could say what evidence led them to their incorrect conclusions.

  34. how funny; but I think I originally had them in the correct order. It was really hard to pick out the specific voice though. The formal 3rd person pov was misleading.

    My process went through a lot the same as yours Domey. I've seen less of your fiction writing than the other three however, so I did have to guess theirs first.

    I guessed #1 for Anne for the repetition also, and the sense of logic. #3 felt a little more sentimental than the others, and so I finally decided it was more your style than Michelle's. Her narratives are more dramatic.

    I suppose I factored in knowledge of the specific authors as well as the excerpts themselves :)

    It was a fun experiment.

    Congrats to Alex for getting them correct :)


  35. This is a really interesting question and something I've been thinking about lately. I have a few novelist friends I've been beta reading for for ages. Just recently, we started exchanging short stories as well. I found it so interesting to find that I could hear their distinct author voices even in work that was so different than their novels. So yeah, I def think it exists, though it probably varies from author to author.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.