Finding the Author's Voice in Romance Novels

June 11, 2013

Canova with Tresham by Hugh Douglas Hamilton, 1789.  From Andrew Hopkins Art.
In literature, voice is the term critics use to address the attitude of the writer.  Separate from the narrator or the tone of the work, voice is a combination of a writer's style and worldview that makes him or her distinct.

Imagine your basic trip to the supermarket.  Here's mine.  I grab my purse and reusable bags.  I drive three miles to Trader Joe's.  I take out my list and move systematically through the crowded aisles until I have everything I need.  Then I pay for my groceries and go home.

Voice is what emerges if that same story were to be told by different authors.  How would Chuck Palahniuk tell it?  What details would Stephen King include?  Nicholas Sparks?  How would the style of these authors shine through the basic plot?

In The Atlantic today, senior editor Ta-Nahesi Coates briefly discusses the the role of the author's voice in good fiction
...[I] n fiction, if you like the person telling you the story—which is to say the voice, not the author—you generally will let them tell you a story.  Pride And Prejudice, for me, is all about voice. I don't find Mr. Darcy gripping at all, except when Austen's narrator is describing him. It is as though she is letting me on a secret. Ditto for Edith Wharton in The Age of Innocence. The voice belongs to society insider, one who believes in all of its trappings but also loves to gossip about its hypocrisies. It is as if the voice is saying to you—"If you don't have anything good to say, come sit by me." Same with Moby Dick and the vagabond intellectual Ishmael. Same with The Great Gatsby and its everyman, Nick Carraway.
Ta-Nehisi Coates.  From wikipedia.org.
I agree with Coates' first sentence in this excerpt.  As readers, we often go the distance with a novel because the voice telling us the story is so similar to how we see ourselves or so outrageously different that we willingly go forward, as we would with an enthusiastic or charismatic tour guide.  Whether the storyteller has limited POV, like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird or Pip in Great Expectations, or whether the storyteller has something to hide, like Humbert Humbert in Lolita, we become captivated by the storyteller.  We follow the storyteller, and we see the story through.

Coates is an instructor of writing at MIT, so I feel rather daring splitting hairs on this point, but in all of these examples, we're discussing narrator, not voice.  Most romance novels that I've read don't have a first-person narrator speaking as "I"--e.g. "I walked upstairs and opened my bedroom door.  Duke Anselmo lay naked on the bed, his engorged member gleaming in his fist.  I felt disgust welling in my throat in the form of acidic bile, so I turned around and left."  

From businessweek.com.
The only romance-y novel I've read in first person POV has been Bridget Jones' Diary, and with such a flawed and vulnerable narrator, the story took on the cast of Bridget's own heartrending insecurities and longings.  Most romance authors sit firmly in the POV called third person limited, in which a faceless narrator (not the author and not a character in the story) reveals the thoughts and feelings of one character at a time.  Sometimes there's head-hopping between the protagonists, sometimes not.

But what about voice?  How does a romance novelist working in a genre with so many restrictions reveal her own style and attitudes?  By definition, romance novelists share the world view that love and sex are important, and that the only stories worth telling are those that end happily.  In general, there's much, much affection for Alpha males and the gently-flawed heroines who ensnare them.  But again, what about voice? 

Again, I am new to the genre and while I read two or three romance titles a week, I'm nowhere near the numbers of other, more dedicated readers.  I read for both pleasure and for very nefarious reasons:  to spy on the good writers in terms of plot structure, building suspense, and characterization.  And sometimes, even in an attempt to emulate what I find to be very strong voices.

Romance novelists on the whole appear to be a self-effacing group, letting their voices come out to play only when no one else in the story is speaking.  As such, I hear their voices the strongest during the sex scenes.

From sherrythomas.com.
Here's an excerpt from Sherry Thomas' His at Night.
He was a god above her, powerful, beautiful, larger than life. The light brought out the latent gold of his hair. The shadows contoured the perfect form of his body. Light and shadows converged in his eyes, bright lust, dark anger, and something else. Something else entirely. She recognized it because she’d seen it in the mirror so many times: a bleak, austere loneliness.
Thomas writes delicious, high-heat historicals set in the Victorian era.  I adore her tortured, lonesome protagonists.  And adore the excerpt above, in which two lovers mirror each other's secret loneliness.  In it, I hear echoes of Byron's "She Walks in Beauty":
She walks in beauty, like the night
   Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
   Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
   Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
From Angus & Robertson.
In Cleis Press' Best Women's Erotica 2013, editor Violet Blue kicks off the collection with a short story by Eliani Torres, a freelance editor whose work I look forward to exploring.  Called "Salamander," the story recounts the sexual encounter between a woman and her first one-night stand, a blonde man named Sal whom she picked up at the park.

The title already clues me into the author's Cheshire-cat voice.  Why "Salamander"?  Slippery amphibious creature, able to navigate both water and land?  Mythological creature, believed to be born from fire?  As a defense mechanism, a salamander gives up parts of itself when it's threatened.  It's fun to think about the woman and her connection to the title.  I like metaphors.  Metaphors are Disneyland.

Anyhow, here's an excerpt.
She could not believe the beauty in this unfamiliar face, in eyes clearer and kinder than she had expected, in the tremble of his straining arms, and in his subtle vanities--determined to please her, he'd shake his head at himself when he could tell he'd missed something of her--it all made her forget where on their bodies they were touching and where they were not.  She could taste all the wants and the delays of her life, with one sharp inhalation, and then another, if he only held her crumpled against him, if he only doubled her knees back against her chest.
Any author can describe the mechanics of sex and the reactions of the body to stimulation, capitalizing on the naughtiness of saying rude words like "cock" and "pussy."  But it's the author's voice that elevates such scenes to poignancy, delivering an additional emotional blow to the balls of the heart.  Loneliness, longing: these are what drive desire.  And it takes a strong voice to express this idea.