The fad of literary 'voice' cheats readers of content


At writers' conferences around the country this summer, aspiring literary writers ask visiting literary editors the same question: "What do you look for in a manuscript?" And the answer, nine if not 10 times out of 10, includes variations on the word "voice": "A strong voice, a distinctive voice, a compelling voice." A writer's workshop in Manhattan advertises itself under the name The Writer's Voice.

"Voice" in today's literary world is what "style" might have been in the days of Matthew Arnold, or Oscar Wilde. Why is it, though, that editors today are so quick to exalt "voice" as the key to literary success, and so reluctant to use the word "style" in public?

"Style" they might toss around among themselves, within the professional guild, even using words like "stylish" and "stylized" with approval. Is voice the great American democratic substitute for style? "Style" sounds elitist, something difficult for some and easy for others, something one could work at and still fail to acquire. "Voice," on the other hand, is something we're all born with. We just need to let it out.

Perhaps this ideology is why contemporary American writing sometimes seems characterized by pure chattiness. (Not just American writing -- the garrulous British Bridget Jones's Diary is a prime example, as easy to munch on as popcorn, charming on one level and deeply boring on another.)

An enormous proportion of published works of fiction are written in the first person. But my concern is not just that choice of first person "voice," not just the "I" point of view. It's the "I" talking about itself in, you know, that extremely ordinary and rambling way just, like, totally as if you were stuck listening to someone's endless life story on the bus. And the ones published are just the select few, because this kind of writing is so easy to do badly, though the idea of "voice" suggests it should be effortless. It likely characterizes the vast majority of manuscripts left unpublished.

It's hard to say where this torrent of talk started. I think of the success, a few years back, of Alan Gurganus' Southern Confederate Widow Tells All, which I couldn't read precisely for fear of having my ear talked off. But Gurganus is only one of many Southern writers who have attempted to transcribe the porch-sitting talk of times gone by. What some refer to as "New Southern fiction" and others as "K-Mart fiction" is an entire genre full of yackety-yack.

This oral fixation is not just confined to the South. Novels and memoirs from all over the country seem to be narrated in between smacks of gum, or tokes of cigarettes or joints, or swigs of beer, or whatever, in that "I'm telling it to you straight tone of voice, no artifice here."

I think back to Catcher in the Rye, and the effect it had on me in high school. For weeks after I'd finished the book, Salinger's narrator's voice chattered on in my head like some kind of bodysnatcher, even as I put the lousy dishes in the phony dishwasher in my parents' miserable house -- only it wasn't me doing it, it was Holden Caulfield on his relentless anti-phoniness (anti-artifice) crusade.

In our moment, Dave Egger's simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-deflating narrative voice may be having a similar effect on high school students everywhere.

Eggers is interesting, though, because he's too self-conscious to pretend that talking in a book is the same as talking over a beer, and because, a bit like Caulfield, he's excruciatingly aware of artifice. Putting his A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius up against (oh, why not) a modern paragon of style like Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, makes the voice-dominant Genius seem supremely American, while the style-dominant Memory remains an artifact of a European past.

Yet both make a point of frequent forays across borders -- Eggers entertaining himself with jigs with style, confessions of artifice, and Nabokov using a direct, colloquial voice to give a jaunty sparkle to his crystalline remembrances, even allowing the reader to eavesdrop as he addresses his wife, Vera, reading the manuscript. Both wrote prefaces to the paperback editions of their memoirs, drawing even more attention to the constructedness of their work.

Nabokov's elegant style is, also, a voice -- a voice both of aristocratic privilege and of exquisite sensibility -- and Egger's runaway voice is also a style, as he explains it -- a moral attitude, both self-display and self-crucifixion.

Eggers comes out as a writer, as a prose stylist, venturing beyond his stance as member of an American aristocracy of ordinary-people-to-whom-bad-things-have-happened to lapse into some gorgeous lyrical prose. It's a little perverse to save some of your best writing for the interstices of a "normal" book, but these kinds of spaces relieve Eggers of the burden of "honest," as-if-spoken-aloud, narration that the sword of tragedy has hung over his head.

Once, there were arguments over "style" -- whether it was opposed to content, or identical with it (the medium as message), or in its ideal form, content-free, an expression of art for art's sake, defying interpretation. Before that, such arguments had to do with style as "artifice" in opposition to "nature."

Lionel Trilling wrote in his essay on Yeats' "Sailing to Byzantium," that after the Renaissance, enlightened Europeans looked back at the Byzantines as the avatars of artifice, for whom "the personal inspiration of the artist is subordinated to the control of tradition and convention ... to a complex aesthetic, derived from an elaborate theology, which repudiated the body in favor of the soul."

Maybe our own aesthetic of "voice" derives from an ideology that puts its faith entire in the body, and talk as its most natural self-expression. (In a mock-interview sequence, Eggers writes that talk is our cure for "existentially irrational, indefensible" anonymity, and "surely the cultural output of this time will reflect that -- there'll be a lot of talking, whole movies full of talking, talking about talking. ..." )

That suggests an ideology of personal inspiration, that writing should be as much like talking as possible -- even if one rambles like a voyager desperate for company. Thus, whether at writing conferences or in MFA programs or by osmosis, contemporary writers learn to write the way they talk, or the way they talk with the ante upped, as if trying to get classmates' attention as the class clown, or the teacher's attention as class brain.

This very quality of in-your-face-ness makes the best of such books popular with publishers and marketers and maybe even with readers. As busy as we all are, we want to know up front what we're getting. And on the first page of most of these books, you've already gotten it -- you can even say goodbye there, as at the end of a friendly conversation that leads to no exchange of phone numbers.

A voice-driven novel is by definition a novel that doesn't really need to be read. That doesn't mean you won't keep reading it, if the voice is catchy, but it'll be a bit like staying up to watch television and later wishing you hadn't. You can skip to the end to reassure yourself that Bridget Jones will, indeed, get married and have completed your reading experience.

"Voice" may be to "style" what "personality" is to "character" -- another antique distinction. A really good book, I believe (though it sounds old-fogeyish), still needs some of the latter. Instead of celebrating the attention-getting "voice," editors might make life more interesting if they only extended the description of what they're seeking to "a voice with something to say."

Alane Salierno Mason is a senior editor at W. W. Norton & Co. and occasional guest speaker at writing programs and conferences. Her essays appear in various periodicals and anthologies including The Best Spiritual Writing 2001. Her translation from the Italian of Elio Vittorini's Conversations in Sicily was recently published by New Directions.

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