It is hard to define, ain’t it?? Not unlike obscenity in the “knows it when I sees it” characteristic. As Cathy said above, it’s a fluid combination of many factors, including (but not limited to):
* diction, i.e. not just particular word choices, but a leaning in one direction or another in terms of the types of words chosen.
* syntactical style – from the spare SVO declarative of Hemingway to the wandering, discursive, interminable periods of James.
* tone – conversational? Imperative? Didactic? Philosophical? Highfalutin’? Just a bloke?
When a writer masters a voice and sticks with it, the writing definitely becomes identifiable. Wharton is an excellent example from Cindy’s presentation, and the tabletalk in the Corner Booth afterwards brought up Wodehouse, Chandler and a couple of others. In PGW’s case, it was critical to his livelihood for readers to feel comfortable in his stories, so the voice became a “brand marker,” as it did for Chandler and many others. Practically patented, these voices became, and any imitators needed to beware. Unlike Hemingway of course whose “voice” spawned a cottage industry of parodists.
More on voice, please.
I like what John (“the Younger”) said last Wednesday, that voice is the personality of a story. I’ll reiterate what I said in the excellent session Cindy led — thank you, Cindy — that in some respects the narrator becomes a character in the story, even when the narrator is 3rd person omniscient. Someone — Jeff? — expanded on this notion by adding that the narrator plays a hidden role but one appreciated by the reader. How much do they know? What is their connection to the characters and events? Are they an objective observer, or one with a stake in the events? Does the reader trust them, that their version of the story is definitive and reliable? An example that comes to mind (just because I heard it again this past week) was a 1960s song by Sam the Sham & the Pharaohs, “Li’l Red Riding Hood,” which retells the popular Grimm Brothers fairy tale from the wolf’s perspective. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_FA85RO89HA)
Voice speaks to all this, both how the story is told but also the relationship the reader can expect from the narrator. This is just as true for non-fiction. A work of non-fiction is an argument, so the voice needs to be clear, trustworthy, reliable, and authoritative. As Dean mentions above, good authors have a distinct, recognizable voice — hopefully one that attracts rather than repels readers. Your voice becomes part of your brand as a writer.
When writers have a distinctive voice it is a bit like having a brand. Illustrators and designers have a “style” which makes them unique and recognizable. This also makes people seek out those illustrators or designers for specific projects that match their specific styles. Do you think that when an author has a recognized voice, they are limited to novels that might fit with that voice? Of course, most novelists have themes, genres, story traits that they stick to because that’s what they are interested in. But with a distinctive writer’s voice would they have to think about how the voice complemented each novel/story, or would it just fit whatever they wrote because *they* are the one writing it?
I think a lot depends on the nature of the writing. For genre writers, establishing a recognizable voice can be a huge plus – helps to build a fan base, which sells series work. I think though that a writer who’s established a voice for a particular series or genre can overcome pigeon-holing by varying it and working with another voice for – say – a different character series. It’s different (perhaps, what do I know?) for non-fiction. Bill Bryson, for example, sells a LOT of copy based almost solely on people enjoying his voice. In the cases where he varies it, the writing often falls flat. I thought “Walk in the Woods” was terrific, but I didn’t enjoy his piece on the history of the English language at all. And then there are people like Stephen Pinker whose voice, it seems to me, goes out of its way to be more incomprehensible than necessary.