Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What is the "Writer's Voice"?

What exactly do people mean when they talk about "voice"? In writing terms, that is.

The subject came up recently at work when it was proposed to replace the term "point-of-view" - in a list of literary techniques to be covered in one of our Creative Writing papers - with the expression "voice."

Now, for me, trying to teach writing in terms of "voice" is the equivalent of adding a few of the basic tenets of Alchemy to one's Chemistry lesson. It isn't that I don't like Alchemy (or Black Magic in general, for that matter). In fact, if I were teaching a course in the history of Poetics and Literary Theory generally, I'd certainly devote a good deal of time to the discussion of "voice." But I see it as more integral to the growth of the discipline than an item of practical, quantifiable information (unlike image, point-of-view, personification and other useful literary critical concepts).

However, nobody else seemed to get what I was waffling on about. They said that "voice" didn't have to have anything to do with ideas of "the writer's authentic voice" or any of that Black-Mountain-poetry stuff. It was a perfectly legitimate narratological term: "the voice in which the writer chooses to write."

But is it? To find out, I started off with that repository of all idees recues [aka "common knowledge"]: Wikipedia.

On their page of voice definitions, I found a list of the principal ways in which the word could be used:

First, general definitions:
  • Human voice
  • Voice control or voice activation
  • Writer's voice
  • Voice acting
  • Voice vote
  • Voice message

Second, in music:
  • Vocal music
  • Voice register
    • Vocal range, referring to soprano, alto, tenor, bass
    • Voice type, referring to operatic and classical soloists
  • Voice (polyphony), a melodic strand in a polyphonic texture
  • A monophonic signal in sound synthesis

Third, in linguistics:
  • Voice (phonetics)
  • Grammatical voice (passive, active etc.)

That was basically it.

Clearly the only one of these of any use to us is the second.

This is what the page devoted to it had to say:

Writer's voice is a literary term used to describe the individual writing style of an author. Voice is a combination of a writer's use of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works). Voice can also be referred to as the specific fingerprint of an author, as every author has a different writing style.

In creative writing, students are often encouraged to experiment with different literary styles and techniques in order to help them better develop their "voice." Voice varies with the individual author, but, particularly in American culture, having a strong voice is considered positive and beneficial to both the writer and his or her audience.

I think that's a pretty fair summary of the way the word is generally used.

Paragraph one is, I think, talking about something which we might equally easily call a writer's style, though the implication in context is that this is a more comprehensive term, covering other aspects of their characteristic signature and literary "fingerprint."

Paragraph two is the one which really interests me, though. I can't count the number of writers I've met who were angsting about the unearthing of this "personal voice" which some Creative Writing teacher or other has convinced them was the central component of success in the field. It always seemed to me to have a strong affinity with the Pentecostal gift of tongues: a kind of self-baptism in the zeitgeist which would descend upon you when you least expected it.

[Kathy Acker: Young Lust (1989)]

The late, lamented Kathy Acker has some wryly amusing things to say about the quest for a "personal voice" in her essay "Humility," written after she'd been sued for plagiarism by the late, not-so-lamented Harold Robbins:

In late teens and early twenties, entered New York City poetry world. Prominent Black Mountain poets, mainly male, taught or attempted to teach her that a writer becomes a writer when and only when he finds his own voice.
Since wanted to be a writer, tried hard to find her own voice. Couldn't. But still loved to write. Loved to play with language. Language was material like clay or paint. Loved to play with verbal material ...
I can't make language, but in this world, I can play and be played.

So where is 'my voice'?

Wanted to be a writer.

Since couldn't find 'her voice', decided she'd first have to learn what a Black Mountain poet meant by 'his voice'.

What did he do when he wrote? A writer who had found his own voice presented a viewpoint. Created meaning. The writer took a certain amount of language, verbal material, forced that language to stop radiating in multiple, even unnumerable directions, to radiate in only one direction so there could be his meaning.

The writer's voice wasn't exactly this meaning. The writer's voice was a process, how he had forced the language to obey him, his will. The writer's voice is the voice of the writer-as-God.

Writer thought, Don't want to be God; have never wanted to be God. All these male poets want to be the top poet, as if, since they can't be a dictator in the political realm, can be dictator of this world.

Want to play. Be left alone to play. Want to be a sailor who journeys at every edge and even into the unknown. See strange sights, see. If I can't keep on seeing wonders, I'm in prison. Claustrophobia's sister to my worst nightmare: lobotomy, the total loss of perceptual power, of seeing new. If had to force language to be uni-directional, I'd be helping my own prison to be constructed.

There are enough prisons outside, outside language.

Decided, no. Decided that to find her own voice would be negotiating against her joy. That's what the culture seemed to be trying to tell her to do.

Wanted only to write. Was writing. Would keep on writing without finding 'her own voice'. To hell with the Black Mountain poets even though they had taught her a lot.

Decided that since what she wanted to do was just to write, not to find her own voice, could and would write by using anyone's voice, anyone's text, whatever materials she wanted to use.
Wildness was writing and writing was wildness.

"There are already enough prisons outside language." Acker's equation of the "writer's voice" with the desire to be God, i.e. a creator ("maker") rather than just a user of language, seems to me a cogent one. Of course our characteristic language choices are idiosyncratic, particular- we each have a "voice" already: not simply the timbre of the way we speak, but the kinds of things we say (our personal idiolect, if you prefer a more technical term).

But enshrining a particular version of this voice as our "writer's voice" does seem a bit like adding yet another layer of mystification to the writer''s "priest-like task / of pure ablution round earth's human shores" (Keats)). In any case, why bother to look for it if it's already there?

Jorge Luis Borges said he spent years trying to convey the tone and atmosphere of the barrios of Buenos Aires. Then one day he gave up and wrote a detective story, "Death and the Compass," in the manner of Poe or Chesterton, in which he deliberately eschewed local references. "After the story was published, my friends told me that at last they had found the flavour of the outskirts of Buenos Aires in my writing." ("The Argentine Writer and Tradition" [1951])

In other words, if you're getting too worried about what might or might not constitute your "authentic voice", why not just turn round and start questioning what you're writing about instead?

Acker's strange, third-person essay continues:

There were two kinds of writing in her culture: good literature and schlock. Novels which won literary prizes were good literature; science fiction and horror novels, pornography were schlock. Good literature concerned important issues, had a high moral content, and, most important, was written according to well-established rules of taste, elegance, and conservatism. Schlock's content was sex horror violence and other aspects of human existence abhorrent to all but the lowest of the low, the socially and morally unacceptable. This trash was made as quickly as possible, either with no regard for the regulations of politeness or else with regard to the crudest, most vulgar techniques possible. Well-educated, intelligent, and concerned people read good literature. Perhaps because the masses were gaining political therefore economic and social control, not only of literary production, good literature was read by an elite diminishing in size and cultural strength.

Decided to use or to write both good literature and schlock. To mix them up in terms of content and formally, offended everyone.

Writing in which all kinds of writing mingled seemed, not immoral, but amoral, even to the masses. Played in every playground she found; no one can do that in a class or hierarchical society.

(In literature classes in university, had learned that anyone can say or write anything about anything if he or she does so cleverly enough. That cleverness, one of the formal rules of good literature, can be a method of social and political manipulation. Decided to use language stupidly.) In order to use and be other voices as stupidly as possible, decided to copy down simply other texts.

Copy them down while, maybe, mashing them up because wasn't going to stop playing in any playground. Because loved wildness.

Having fun with texts is having fun with everything and everyone. Since didn't have one point of view or centralized perspective, was free to find out how texts she used and was worked. In their contexts which were (parts of) culture.

Liked best of all mushing up texts. Began constructing her first story by placing mashed-up texts by and about Henry Kissinger next to True Romance texts. What was the true romance of America? Changed these True Romance texts only by heightening the sexual crudity of their style. Into this mush, placed four pages out of Harold Robbins', one of her heroes', newest hottest bestsellers. Had first made Jacqueline Onassis the star of Robbins' text.

Twenty years later, a feminist publishing house republished the last third of the novel in which this mash occurred.

- Kathy Acker, HUMILITY, from The Seven Cardinal Virtues, ed. Alison Fell (London: Serpent's Tail, 1990): 113-31.

So precisely what I'm not saying here is that everyone should go off and emulate Kathy Acker by cutting up schlocky novels and exposing their beating hearts to the purifying rays of post-structuralism. Not at all. I think it worked for her precisely because she turned her eyes outwards - away from all the self-help, personal-building mantras about the "inner you" - to the basic building blocks of the society she lived in. Acker is perhaps more appropriately seen as an avatar of Charles Dickens than of Jorge Luis Borges, Raynmond Queneau & other dedicated game-players.

It also got her into a lot of trouble, though (just as it did Dickens in his day). Game-players and court jesters are generally more welcome to society at large. But really, either approach is fine: the rapier or the bludgeon. Just as long as you have some kind of an end in view.

Personally, I don't care what you write about - as long as you write about something. If you've never given any thought either to your subject matter (the myriad things there are to write about) or the make-up of your target audience/s, then I don't think concepts such as "voice" are going to be of much help.

What they do contribute to, in my doubtless prejudiced view, is a quietist, depoliticised writing, on bland, twice-chewed-over subjects, designed not to rock the boat or get your readers to think (let alone feel) anything new. Yawn.

Why not write about everything that interests you? Why not (like Borges) deliberately eschew your own lovingly-polished tricks of style? Try to start again every time you pick up a pen (or sit down at a screen)? Forget all those self-aggrandising, cult-of-personality techniques for making yourself famous?

I guarantee it won't be long before people start telling you what a pronounced personal style (they may even, heaven forbid, use the v-word!) you have. The only thing is, you'll be quite unaware of the fact - your eyes will be elsewhere, on all those fascinating things you were dying to write about in the first place ...

[Francis Barraud: Nipper & His Master's Voice]


The Whiteboard said...

A useful rave. It's interesting that thing about fingerprints and verification. The verification word today for this comment is "friaism". I must say, I do remember a time when I felt I'd found my voice - my way of speaking. And I have definitely tried to hold onto that.

Dr Jack Ross said...

Yeah, well, if you can't rant & rave a bit on your own blog, where can you ... etc., as I always say.

I just think that this "voice" thing has become a bit too mystical - mainly thanks to the proliferation of Creative Writing courses (especially the quickfix weekend variety) - and often has the effect of stopping people trying something new because they don't think it matches their predetermined vital statistics.

They tell me my writing shows signs of a characteristic voice, too, and I'm sure they're right. I do think it's the wrong direction to divert your energies towards, though ("In poetry / what counts is not the content / but the form" as Montale commented in his ironic poem about a Fascist collaborator, "Un poeta").

by kd said...

Death to the Mystic Vox!

I like Acker's playing/writing equation. It's liberating to try on many different voices and sometimes the whole point of writing is to escape your own tics/skin.

Richard said...

Interesting Jack - what would be a good book to read by Acker? - I tried one (from the Auckland Public library) and it wasn't very good... but I do like her edgy comments here. Once saw her on video from the library interviewing Burroughs. Alan Sondheim knew her very well and was influenced by her.

I don't think about voice or anything - I just write.

Dr Jack Ross said...


For me the classic Acker text is Blood and Guts in High School (1978). She seems to pull out all the stops in that one. Her other books (Don Quixote, Empire of the Senseless - even Pussy King of the Pirates) all have their various proponents, but I think it's fair to say that if you don't like what she's up to in Blood and Guts then you won't really respond to any of her work.

Unknown said...

I've been trying to improve my writing, and what popped into my mind? "What I need is to work on my voice." I found your article to be very informative and though provoking. Also, I've never heard of Kathy Acker (my literary education skewed conservative), but I'm intrigued by the quotes. Thank you for turning me on to her.