I have not read, nor do I intend to read, Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics, so this post is only tangentially related to that book. But in a discussion of "style" prompted by her reading of the novel, Laura Miller makes this comment:
. . .I think the novel is flawed, but worth reading, while [a novelist and a book editor who had both read the first 40 pages or so and quit in exasperation] had not been able to get past Pessl's style, which does try way too hard to be inventive and clever. The editor suggested that if a writer doesn't have a "voice," or a pleasing style, right out of the box, there's no point in persevering. I argued that bookstores are already overflowing with novels by people who write beautifully but have nothing very interesting to say and that once you got past all the forced stylistic pirouettes, Pessl's novel actually makes you care what happens next. . . .
Miller wants to raise the perennial "style vs. substance" debate in order to elevate the latter over the former, but the problem with an assertion like the one above is that it's so very vague. Exactly what is a "voice" in fiction? Is it simply a "pleasing style"? But what makes it pleasing? For that matter, what makes it a style? Most obviously, "voice" is an illusion created by a first-person narrator the novelist wants us to accept as "speaking" in some tangible way, even though his/her words have been written down, either by the character him/herself or by the author ventriloquizing the character (the latter leaving open the question of how the words were recorded in the first place.) In this sense, "voice" is an aesthetic effect the full exploitation of which is a standard we apply in judging the success of a first-person narrative. Is this the sense in which Miller (and the editor she quotes) is using the term "voice"? It doesn't seem to be, since it is the "writer" who needs a voice "right out of the box." Where exactly do we find the writer's voice in a work of fiction?
It would perhaps be more accurate to speak of the writer's voice in a third-person narrative, except that third-person narrators can't really be identified directly with the writer (the narrator's voice being a construction almost as artificial as that of the first-person narrator), and, in today's literary climate at least, readers and reviewers often bridle at the third-person "voice" that is too intrusive or too "clever." Thus, I'm forced to conclude that by "voice" and "style," Miller means little beyond "fancy language," an indulgence she dismisses through the sardonic praise of "beautiful style," later amended to "exquisite style." (I don't really know what novelists Miller has in mind in her condescension toward "exquisite" styles. If she's thinking of the bland figurative prose found in most run-of-the mill literary fiction, I share her impatience, but if she's including the transformative styles of great writers like Stanley Elkin or John Hawkes or Richard Powers, I must say I think she doesn't know what she's talking about.)
Miller goes on to conflate style with "technique," quoting Pauline Kael on movie audiences who "don't notice or care about how well or how badly the movie is made." But how a movie or a novel is "made" can't be reduced to its "style." Technique includes form, point of view (and the manipulations thereof), as well as approaches to narrative development and character creation. And even here, surely readers and viewers are affected by skillful applications of technique, even if they can't identify them or weren't consciously aware of their operations while watching the film or reading the book. Most readers, even the "common reader," are aware of "how well or how badly" (especially the latter) a work is constructed on an intuitive level, just as readers in particular are aware of how a writer's style has affected them while not necessarily being able to pinpoint exactly how this has happened. Like Nick Hornby, Laura Miller reveals a palpable contempt for the very "common" readers she ostensibly defends.
And even if she is right that many readers "don't care" about the matters of technique and style she says critics often "overvalue," does this mean critics should abandon more purely literary standards for the vague and untroubled standards she attributes to her infantilized common readers? Are critics now merely in the business of safeguarding mass taste, confined to being the licensed distributors of processed pap?