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On the Importance of the Authorial Voice

In his book The Art of Perspective, part of Graywolf Press’s series of craft books on writing (which I’ve written about a few times before on this blog), Christopher Castellani notes near the end of a chapter on E.M. Forster how novels today rarely have the authorial omniscience that Forster’s do, and instead rely on what he calls a “prismatic” approach: diving in and out of various character’s subjectivities, and ultimately using this mosaic of perspectives to create a kind of meaning that in the past might have been provided by an authorial authority, as is the case in Howard’s End or A Passage to India. Castellani acknowledges that our unwillingness to provide such a single, moral vision reflects our postmodern world’s loss of faith in order, but he admits that it makes him miss the novels of earlier eras like the nineteenth century, when novels were “more confident in their visions” and “more comfortable with the burden of omniscience.”

I completely understand what Castellani means. As much as I can intellectually enjoy reading a fragmented, challenging narrative that reflects the fractured nature of our contemporary world, there’s something uniquely profound about a novel like Howard’s End, in which the author isn’t afraid to interrupt the narrative and holds forth with passages like this one:

The feudal ownership of land did bring dignity, whereas the modern ownership of moveables is reducing us again to a nomad horde. We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty.

Today, many of us wouldn’t even feel comfortable writing a passage like that in our rough drafts — we would think it too “opinionated” or “polemical” — and if we did manage to write it, our workshops would encourage us to get rid of it and convey the idea through the narrative, with more subtlety. Yet whenever I read a passage like that, I feel a thrill in my spine, an admiration for a writer who has the gall to tell us exactly what he (or at least, his narrator) believes.

I would, though, push back on the idea that the lack of an authorial voice is a product of a “postmodern” style. I can understand why this makes sense on a theoretical level; after all, if postmodernism is, as Lyotard defines it, simply an “incredulity towards metanarratives,” then removing the confident, moral vision of the author is a naturally postmodern move. Yet so many of the best postmodernists, such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, and Zadie Smith, all have such singular authorial voices: Pynchon’s madcap and paranoid, DeLillo’s bleak and ironic, Rushdie’s garrulous and baroque, and Smith’s wild and zany. Far from removing the authorial presence, these authors actually highlight it through an unhinged wildness (what James Wood dismissed, wrongly, as “hysterical realism”). After all, the flip side of the postmodern coin is to call attention to the consturctedness of all narratives — and what better way to do that than to emphasize the author’s voice rather than diminish it? In White Teeth, Smith’s striking, witty voice constantly reminds us of the unreality of her odd characters. To some readers (like James Wood), this might make them seem “unrealistic” but to me it makes the novel come together in a beautiful affirmation of postmodern literary style.

And so, I’d argue that contemporary literature’s unwillingness to emphasize an authoritative authorial voice is not simply a reflection of our society’s postmodern values but actually, and ironically, the result of attempts to be too realistic. In the last 20 years, postmodernish novels like White Teeth have fallen out of fashion in favor of more realistic novels with “spare” prose (James Wood got his wish, I guess). But often, I’ve found many of these novels to be lacking something — in their attempts to create a perfectly “realistic” work, in which the prose matches the character’s perspective, these novels lose the presence of their authors, and thus lose the bold vivacity of writers like Forster or the postmodernists mentioned above. A contemporary novel I was recently reading suffered from this: there was no strong authorial voice, largely because the author was trying to subsume the prose in the central character’s emotions (the novel was written as a close third). But the result, I felt, was a series of flat descriptions that might have been lyrical and beautiful in isolation but that didn’t come together into a cohesive whole and lacked a sharp, bold authorial voice to pull them together. By contrast, a writer like Pynchon or DeLillo or Rushdie or Smith never lets you forget that they are the ones writing that prose, even if they’re simply describing a hill. In the battle between a realistic character perspective and an authorial voice, the authorial voice always — always — wins.

Of course, this doesn’t mean realistic novels always lack an authorial voice. As Castellani showed, Forster’s novels are permeated by his visionary, moral presence; and yet they’re also considered some of best examples of literary realism, especially Howard’s End, which depicts Margaret and Helen in all their emotional complexity and makes them feel as real as real people (or really, as I’ve suggested in a previous blog post, arguably more real). Forster dips into each of their subjectives as the novel requires, giving us wonderful passages of free indirect discourse that allow us, as Castellani describes, to witness, for example, a concert from the lens of Helen’s romanticism.

Yet the realism and the subjectivity never come at the expense of an authorial vision. The whole time we read, it’s clear that Forster is trying to say something. And so, as controversial as it sounds, I’d call on writers today to be more willing to say things—to not be afraid to infuse what they write with their authorial perspectives, even if it might lead them to be called “polemical” in a workshop. Yes, we live in a fractured, post-truth world, but so did the postmodernists—and they still gave us novels that, for all their questioning of old certainties, never forgot the power of a singular voice and vision.