In Della’s class we were discussing the subject of “voice” in a novel. The topic centred on the author’s writing voice, not the characters’ dialogue idiom. We spent some time on what was meant by writer’s voice. My own definition of voice is quite simply put: it is the way of writing which identifies that writer with his/her work. Other people have their own definitions and it’s worth studying them.
Had we been discussing art we would have had little difficulty in understanding the concept of recognising the way different artists portray the world, each in his or her own unique styles. We can all recognise an L S Lowry when we see it. He painted in oils like thousands of other artists, but he had a very distinctive painting voice.
By the same token, there is something inherently distinctive in the writing voice of (say) Dashiell Hammett. Had The Maltese Falcon been written by Agatha Christie it would have taken on a very different voice, a very different way of putting the story across. And yet both authors wrote crime novels, so it’s not a matter of genre. It’s a matter of voice.
I suspect that a writer’s voice, especially a good strong voice, comes from deep within the psyche. People who have studied Hammett’s work think he saw his own face in Sam Spade, even though he could never have lived up to Spade’s behaviour. Spade was a strong character. Hammett was bedevilled by heavy drinking and debt as well as poor health. Was Spade the alter ego Hammett would like to have been? It seems likely. If so it was an alter ego that captured the attention of the reading public. And Spade helped Hammett develop a very strong writing voice.