- Fiction's Inexhaustible Voice: Speech and Writing in Faulkner, and: The Crossing of the Ways: William Faulkner, the South, and the Modern World, and: Fiction, Film, and Faulkner: The Art on Adaptation
Of the three books on Faulkner under review here, Fiction's Inexhaustible Voice is by far the most ambitious, the most rigorous, and the most enlightening. Stephen M. Ross's intention was to elucidate the nature and define the functions of "voice" in Faulkner, and he has achieved his purpose admirably. All but the deafest readers have of course responded with varying degrees of awareness to the voiced or vocal quality of Faulkner's prose. Very few, however, have tried to translate their spontaneous response into consistent critical reflection. What is "voice" in Faulkner's fiction? How does it function? What are its effects? Strangely enough, in four decades of Faulkner criticism these questions have never been dealt with seriously. Ross is the first critic to give them careful consideration, and, what is even more to his credit, he is the first to propose a general framework permitting discussions of "voice" to move beyond impressionism. For "voice" in literature is something more easily felt than explained, and the word itself has established itself in the [End Page 748] language of criticism as a suggestive trope (a metaphor of expressivity) rather than a workable concept. As Ross himself is prompt to note, "to speak of voice in written fiction is to speak from within the riddle of representation." There is probably no way of solving this riddle, but one can try to see how it unfolds and refolds in a specific oeuvre, and this is precisely what Ross has done for Faulkner.
Fiction's Inexhaustible Voice consists of four essays, each of which is devoted to a distinct mode of voice: "phenomenal" voice (voice as an object of description), "mimetic" voice (the various, more or less "direct" renderings of speech), "psychic" voice (the verbalization of unspoken thought), and "oratorical" voice. Ross's typology of voice is likely to be followed by others, adding finer distinctions and tending toward more elaborate formalization, but his is unquestionably a useful classification, and its application to Faulkner's fiction provides impressive evidence of its relevance and fecundity.
Ross's investigation of voice shifts critical attention from "what" and "why" to "how." Instead of offering further hermeneutic speculation, it leads us to a closer examination of the pragmatics of Faulkner's discourse. In his endeavor to define modes of voice, to describe their textual orchestration and their effects upon the reader, Ross indeed breaks new ground and raises questions about the problematic relations of speech, thought, and writing in Faulkner's fiction that have seldom been raised before. Whether he discusses Faulkner's handling of southern dialect, his appropriation of southern oratory, or his use of mingled speech, whether he brings to light the recurrent pattern of the "meditative scene" or scrutinizes specific passages such as the Easter sermon in The Sound and the Fury, Ross's comments are throughout fresh, subtle, and to the point. Under his sharp lens, even a seemingly minor matter like punctuation or italics becomes relevant to the analysis of Faulkner's craft and art. Never in a hurry to get at ultimate meanings, he attends with unfailing altertness to the tangible play of the signifiers, intent on discovering the silent and yet eloquent word arrangements through which a voice, a dialogue, or a polyphony is rendered on the page. Written with clarity and cogency, combining aesthetic sensibility and theoretical awareness with critical intelligence of the highest order, Fiction's Inexhaustible Voice is an important book that will appeal not only to readers of Faulkner but to anyone interested in the fascinating question of literary voice.