Once a year I read Al Alvarez‘s The Writer’s Voice. I do this because in the second half of the year I teach a class in long form journalism to media studies honours and final-year BJourn students and it’s one of the few books available that actually talk about voice in writing. Alvarez thinks about what voice is and why it matters for writing, writers, reading and readers. So I go back to it again and again to take students through this part of the course. This year I thought I’d jot down my notes on what Alvarez has to say because the rereading always provokes me to think differently about what he says.
This time around what caught my attention was that reading is so very much a listening (and this feeds into my research interests in voice and listening — see my work on academia.edu and at the mediaandcitizenship blog). One really does hear a voice in one’s head when reading and what that voice sounds like — “its presence on the page” — is a quality that is more than the story being told. It might be voice that keeps one bonded to a particular author and not just extraordinary writing ability, technique or style (all of which Alvarez is clear are not quite the voice).
Alvarez remarks on how Freud created writing to listen to his patients and then and told stories of imagination and power about the psyche. Freud thought of himself as a scientist and was somewhat alarmed that he was telling stories as a method to put across his learning but Alvarez comments that Freud had a “tone of voice”, a “vigilance and persistence of curiosity”, a “refusal to disregard imagination” — “even in the cause of science” (2005: 23). This says Alvarez is quite different from those psychoanalysts who followed him with their disregard of voice and words (and imagination).
I’ve just also read Robert Nash‘s Liberating Scholarly Writing: the Power of Personal Narrative. In an early part of the book Nash talks about his academic career as one in which he shifted from a war with words and writing to becoming a lover of ideas and thoughts and treating them (and their readers) with a great deal more respect. Nash runs a programme at the University of Vermont where it’s possible to do a thesis in personal narrative by taking on a serious subject and writing it in the first person. Nash says if you wield words like weapons there is no love in your heart for writing. And Alvarez talks about Sylvia Plath’s impeccable apprenticeship with some of the time’s most feted poets which then gave way to her more emotionally-charged work when she struck out on her own. Listen to these words (quoted by Alvarez in the book):
This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The tree of the mind are black. The light is blue…
They made me think that too much control of words, too much mastery academically (over both research and poetry) is like that light of the mind, cold.
In addition to Alvarez I’ve gone back to wonderful stalwart Peter Elbow who continues to battle the critics who insist that there is no such thing as intrinsic voice or authentic voice. Yeah, we know that, but funny how when my whole class hands in a piece of work and they do so anonymously I can still tell which work belongs to which writer because I know each of their personalities (and voices) so well, so something sticks! And what could that sticky thing in their writing be called?
Here are my notes from Voice in Writing Again: Embracing Contraries in College English 70.2 (Nov, 2007): 168-88 in which he takes on his critics. Elbow’s approach is to continue to focus on voice because agency in writing and in life is important and the critical approach that sees writing as merely an effect of sociology/history/culture is disempowering. So in this piece of response he says voice is:
- a rhetorical power
- not a true self of the writer
- a central and operative dimension of a text
- so much more prevalent in writing which is internet or social media based (“so many more writers; so much more writing in the world; so much writing for strangers!” p3)
- voice is alive in naive forms; the concept is alive
Elbow responds to the either/or battle (critical versus generative) by arguing for both/and. Text and voice are both important as tools to dissect writing.
The components of a text-based reading are that it illuminates:
- discourse from which person is speaking, subject position
- grammatical and technical elements
- primacy of conscious choice to write in a specific way
- tropes, metaphors, irony, synecdoche etc
- passive versus active voice, 1st, 2nd or 3rd person etc
The value of a text-based reading is that you can:
- read for what is actually on the page rather than the persuasiveness and strength of the voice, and that it
- gives the ability to be analytical and critical
The components of a voice-based reading:
- words carry meaning
- the act of listening is important
- intonation and prosody help to enact meaning
- two senses of the self: sincerity and resonance (the weight, richness and presence)
- helps with rhetorical effectiveness
- tone carries meaning
- elements of the unconscious self
- metaphor and irony — recognising the effect
- pathos (emotions evoked) and ethos (character)
- respond to a natural voice (writer learns to edit for the reader’s response)
The value of voice-based reading is that it:
- allows you to experience the writing in relation to oneself
- has self-reflexive possibility
- is inspirational/resonating
- has an effect on the reader, and you can
- assess what kind of relationship you as a reader are called into with the text
Elbow does say (as Alvarez does too) that it’s important to realise that “a textual voice gives no window at all onto the real character of the author” (p5).
A nice new find this year has been Pat Schneider with her wonderful egalitarian approach to writing and writers. Of who deserves the name she simply says: a writer is someone who writes. Right on Pat! See this youtube video with her talking about the multiple types of voice possible for a writer. Pat outlines an interesting take on the debate with her typology of:
- original voice — the childhood one inflected by place of origin, which persists
- primary voice — the adult voice that is a combination of various influences (the original voice among them), this voice is a “rich mulch”
- acquired voices — of which there are many, depending on what array of practices the writer is working with.
The book I’ve been using to teach from this year on voice is Writing Alone and With Others.