Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Style is never simply technical choice, but evolves from how a writer sees the world...(To embrace) a readily identifiable prose style without being aware of its tyranny and inevitability of voice...(is to embrace) a ready-made point of view. Linsey Abrams, "A Maximalist Novelist Looks at Some Minimalist Fiction."

E. Ethelbert Miller asks, "Writers talk about finding their voice?  When did you find yours?"  

In the late 1960s when I was a Journalism major, I had a professor who was fond of giving his students a copy of a decades-old newspaper article, with the author's name removed, and asking them to identify who wrote it. Just as art history students are tested on recognizing an anonymous painting, and music students on naming a composer based on an unidentified scrap of his music, so too, this professor expected us to determine the newspaper man who did this piece by its style and voice alone. A couple of class members rose to the occasion. (I was one of them but only because I had a friend who took this class before me and told me the answer.) The piece in question was an old news article by Ernest Hemingway. If you knew his fiction, you were certain to recognize the personality and linguistic decisions in this newspaper story.

For many readers and writers "voice" is a dimension of writing that proves to be elusive, intangible, and difficult to define. Often some people will just say, as they do of pornography, "I know it when I see it." But when we don't see it, which is usually the case with student fiction and much of published writing, we must judge that work of fiction to be unvoiced or voiceless, and therefore lacking in one of literature's more subtle and important dimensions. But, yes, this subject is difficult to discuss, for in order to do so we must talk about an artist's individual vision, his unique approach to language, and viewpoint in fiction.

Jean-Paul Sartre was spot-on in Saint Genet when he observed that "The word is the Other." In his analysis, he pointed out that, "Language is a nature when I discover it within myself and outside of myself with its resistances and laws which escape me: words have affinities and customs which I must observe, must learn..." Language precedes us. We find it "out there" in the social world, and we must learn its rules, its logic and the way that, as Sartre says, "words sometimes display surprising independence, marrying in defiance of all laws and thus producing puns and oracles within language; thus the word is miraculous." 

In developing a voice what the writer does is transform or personalize the expressive instrument---language---adapting and individuating it to fit his experience, his vision of the world. Voice and vision, these are two sides of the same phenomenon. And I would venture to say voice is absent in apprentice writing precisely because the writer has yet to develop for himself (or herself) a vision of how the world works.

There are writers possessing a very strong temperament, and for them the specificity of their individual voices is one of the delights of their fiction, just as much as their stories (for their voices are the vehicles by which their stories are delivered with panache). For that reason they never change voices from one book to another. Just as with their speaking voice, their literary voice has its individual tics, quirks, and eccentricities. An example? At the moment I'm thinking of P.G. Wodehouse, Kurt Vonnegut, and perhaps I'll throw in D.H. Lawrence, too, but you can easily add other authors to this list of the kind of writer I'm talking about. It's possible, even likely probable, that my non-fiction falls into this category, especially when I'm writing about Buddhism. But, as a storyteller, I tend to deliberately practice what some have called "narrative ventriloquism," or changing my voice to fit the story being told. Think of this as being like the way a puppet-master switches voices for a Punch and Judy performance. Or, if you like, just think of it as putting on a mask for the duration of a fiction.

Changing voices is de rigueur for writing first-person stories, if the teller of the tale is not the author himself or herself. (Every actor not just playing himself on stage is adept at this form of shape-shifting; and I could open up this discussion to say a few words about how the very ability to put on a mask is itself an indication that we do not have a static, unchanging, enduring "self" but instead the ontological condition of emptiness or shūnyatā as Buddhists say---would acting even be possible if the self was a substance or essentialist or an unchanging Parmenidian entity?--- but we should leave that lecture for another time.) Consider the opening---tone, diction, personality---of the nameless Professor who opens my story “Alēthia”:
        "God willing, I'm going to tell you a love story. A skeptical old man, whose great forehead and gray forked beard most favor (when I flatter myself) those of that towering sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, I am hardly a man to conjure a fabulation so odd in its transfiguration of things, so strange, so terrifying (thus it now seems to me) that it belongs on the pale lips of the poetic genius who wrote Essentials and that hallucinatory prose-poem called Cane."

Now compare that opening to the one for my story "Exchange Value," where the narrator is a teenager named Cooter living on Chicago's South Side:
         "Me and my brother, Loftis, came in by the old lady's window. There was some kinda boobytrap---boxes of broken glass---that shoulda warned us Miss Bailey wasn't the easy mark we made her to be."

Obviously, neither one of these voices---one from the Academy, the other from the street---can be called my normal voice. Yet ironically (and in a way that Sartre called "miraculous"), they briefly became my voice and temperament during the time of each fiction's composition. (Potentially, we all have many voices within us. Think for just a moment about the black scholar, a Ph.D., who can lecture on nanotechnology one moment, then cuss you out the next moment if you make the mistake of stepping on his shoes.) This is how first-person in fiction operates. I should also point out something else. In my post dated September 6, 2011, entitled "One Minute Past Midnight," I mentioned that a minor character in my most recently written, third-person story speaks in Cockney slang. Were he to become the narrator for that story, then I, as a writer, would have to compose every sentence so that each becomes a window onto his unique world of experience.

All of the above should be obvious for when one writes in first-person. But that same sense of voice and personality should resonate, I believe, in third-person narratives as well. In the tale-telling tradition, this is fairly easy to do, as in the opening for my story, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," for it employs a traditional and familiar stock voice:

           "There was time, long ago, when many sorcerers lived in South Carolina, men not long from slavery who remembered the white magic of the Ekpe Cults and Cameroons, and by far the greatest of these wizards was a blacksmith named Rubin Bailey."

But a third-person voice that isn't stock can also cling to every sentence---and word choice--as in my story, "The Education of Mingo." The following example describes farmer Moses Green's efforts to "educate" a slave named Mingo. 
         "Now Moses Green was not a man for doing things halfway. Education, as he dimly understood it, was as serious as a heart attack. You had to have a model, a good Christian gentleman like Moses himself, to wash a Moor white in a single generation. As he taught Mingo farming and table etiquette, ciphering with knotted string, and how to cook ashcakes, Moses constantly revised himself. He tried not to cuss, although any mention of Martin Van Buren or Free-Soilers made his stomach chew itself; or sop cornbread in his coffee; or pick his nose at public market."

Here we have third-person narration limited to Moses Green. It is as if we as readers are perched on his shoulder, seeing everything from his point of view. And so the narration at times (or most times) is flavored with his speech patterns and diction, just as it would be in his dialogue. We've hardly exhausted the discussion of voice in this post. But I hope some of these reflections and examples are helpful.

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