Voice and Identity in Fiction

Voice in a novel is perhaps easiest to characterize when the novel is written in first person. First person narration is quite popular because it puts the reader directly inside the main character’s head. While I love first person narration for its ability to let me actually hear the character talk, I find that the style tends to be overused and often executed badly. Voice is a little more difficult to characterize when the novel is written in third person. Here, the main character’s life and thoughts tend to trickle in slowly. I recently read a couple of novels by Cormac McCarthy (All The Pretty Horses, The Crossing). Voice in his novels is even more difficult to characterize because he writes in third person and does not give the reader any insights into what the characters are feeling. Instead, he relies on subtle and vivid descriptions of setting and plot to evoke his characters and give them life.

A search for identity seems to be the dominant theme in American literature. Characters are in constant search of who they are within the greater scope of society. Furthermore, this search for identity is often in contrast with the myth of individualism that American society fosters. I say that it’s a myth not because individualism doesn’t exist but because societies are composed of communities and communities are not created by a whole bunch of iconoclasts (individuals, in the true sense). As a result, characters in American literature are in constant tension with their individual communities even if they’re not being oppressed by society as a whole.

Regina Barreca’s They used to call me Snow White… But I drifted

I really enjoyed Regina Barreca’s analysis of approaches to literature in They used to call me Snow White… But I drifted. In the piece, Barreca points out that many women writers are considered secondhand because their subject matter has limited appeal. The same can probably be said about writers who write about the experiences of particular races. As a result, their work is put into categories of African-American, Chicano writing, etc. If we assume that these categories are not simply created by publishers to sell more books then we have to address why these categories exist. These categories remind me of the various types of genre fiction: western, mystery, romance, science fiction, horror writing etc. There are writers who work within these genres but their work is not necessarily considered genre. For example, Cormac McCarthy’s novel, Blood Meridian, can be easily classified as a Western but the work is so good that it transcends the genre and is actually a work of literary fiction. Similarly, Flannery O’Connor’s short story, Everything that rises must converge, can easily be classified as women’s writing because the author is a woman but it’s so good that it transcends the category and is actually work of literary fiction. Finally, Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man can also easily be considered African-American writing but again the work is so good it transcends the category and becomes a work of literary fiction. Therefore, I would argue that it’s not that women or ethnic writers are considered second hand but rather that some of these writers are just not as good (the way that some genre writing is not as good). And the ones that are become literary fiction.