In a comment to my post on dialogue in the novel, Fabio asks an excellent question: “What makes one character’s ‘voice’ fit, and the other’s fake?”
The word fit, of course, summons the literary principle of decorum. Once upon a time it was held that speech should be appropriate to the occasion or a person’s station (another obsolete concept). Neither writers nor critics believe in decorum any longer. The closest thing is the technical demand that a character exhibit consistency (or at least not be inconsistent). Classically, decorum was a moral concept, but then literature was considered the dramatic representation of virtues and vices. Perhaps the most authoritative source was Horace’s Ars Poetica:
quo sit amore parens, quo frater amandus et hospes,
quod sit conscripti, quod iudicis officium, quae
partes in bellum missi ducis, ille profecto
reddere personae scit convenientia cuique.
Respicere exemplar vitae morumque iubebo
doctum imitatorem et vivas hinc ducere voces. (ll. 312–18)
The uppermost principle in contemporary fiction is that speech must sound right. The quality of eavesdropping, in which the chitchat on the page sounds just like what might be overheard any day under natural conditions, is prized above everything else. But there are problems with such a conception of “dialogue” in fiction.
First of all, the most lifelike speech in American fiction is characteristically the least eloquent and meaningful. In some writers (Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie), naturalness is equated with inarticulateness; in most others (whose dialogue rarely achieves any distinctiveness, precisely because it is the imitation of standard idiom), the men and women are most emphatic and intelligible about practical concerns, especially love and other kinds of friction between adults. Here is a pretty good example, taken almost at random, from a novelist whose dialogue typically rises above the norm. It is taken from Paul Auster’s Sunset Park:
Plans to do what? Miles asks.
To see your parents, for one thing.
Is that any of your business?
Yes, unfortunately it is. I’ve been your source for a long time now, and I think I want to retire.
You already have. The moment I stepped off the bus today, you were given your gold watch. For years of devoted service. You know how grateful I am to you, don’t you?
I don’t want your gratitude, Miles. I just don’t want to see you fuck up your life anymore. It hasn’t been easy on them, you know.
I know. Don’t think I don’t know.
Well, are you going to see them or not?
I want to, I’m hoping to . . .
The bigger problem is the set speech in which a character must finally say something definitive. In Being Polite to Hitler, Robb Forman Dew has a character explain why he becomes involved in the effort to pass the Ohio Civil Rights Bill in 1959, even when he knew that “the issue wasn’t going to enhance [his] authority” or brighten his political future in the state:
“So there we were! In a godforsaken muddy swamp of a place and I looked around. Every one of us was sure that the next flight would be the one when we’d get blown to bits. But God forbid you eat in the same mess hall as any of those black pilots!”
A declamation like Sam Holloway’s is the counterfeit of reflection. Its self-congratulatory quality, in which a man says both that racists are unaware of their society’s bigotry but also that he was uniquely aware, undermine what Dew is trying to do. She wants to arrange speech that is representative of a larger and more comprehensive point of view—the point of view belonging to her circle and class. The trouble, as I said before, is that the opposition to her point of view is without form and void.
Just imagine! There were men who defended the segregation of the U.S. Army during the Second World War. And their defense might even be worth listening to: they had reasons in addition to motives. But don’t ask Robb Forman Dew to imagine what their reasons could possibly be. She can’t imagine them, or she won’t. And if the segregation of the military is wholly indefensible then Sam Holloway’s dignity and courage in opposing it (at this late date) turn to ash. His speech has little purpose beyond establishing that, for Dew, there are simply two kinds of people. There are the self-aware, like Sam, and there are the racists, thickly unaware of their society’s bigotry. No dialogue between them is possible.
Small wonder most contemporary American novelists prefer the vacuousness of interpersonal twittle-twattle. Apparently that is the only point of view they trust themselves to know with any authenticity.