NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Anis Shivani

GET UPDATES FROM Anis Shivani
 

Voice in Fiction: A Favorite MFA/Writing Program Shibboleth

Posted: 04/27/10 12:47 PM ET

At the L.A. Times Book Festival, all they're talking about is voice.

Teachers of writing instruct: "Discover your own voice. You're not a real writer until you've found your own voice. Once you find your voice you're on your way. It took me years to find my voice."

Agents say, "Let me read the first fifty (or five) pages of your novel, to see if I like the voice."

Editors say they loved your plot and characterization but couldn't fall in love with your voice.

What the fuck does voice mean? I'm clueless. This is just another of those fakeries writing teachers--or writers forced to sit on panels and not having the intellectual honesty to talk about the tough work of writing rather than writing as the festival or conference-goer wishes it--pull out of the hat when they have nothing else to talk about.

It's like talking about tonality in poetry. It has the same kind of meaninglessness.

Did James Joyce discover his voice with Dubliners? A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Ulysses? Finnegans Wake? Oh, I guess he shifted voice each time. What an asshole--definitely not a real writer. He didn't find his voice until he died, I guess. Maybe after Finnegans Wake he'd have found his voice.

What about Hemingway? He stayed true to his "voice" after his first successes. Maybe he shouldn't have.

I recently read Chang-rae Lee's four accomplished novels. He has a distinct voice in each of his four novels. Is he still discovering his voice? Is he an apprentice writer?

Voice is too vague to be useful for anything. I suppose it means each writer has a distinct style and he ought to stay true to it. Chekhov sounds like no other writer; early Chekhov we can legitimately dismiss as lesser writing, because he hadn't yet arrived at his style. The same goes for anyone else. The Faulkner style. The Graham Greene style. The Evelyn Waugh style. The David Lodge style. The Kingsley Amis style and the Martin Amis style. The Salman Rushdie style. And on and on.

On the other hand, did Salman Rushdie write Fury (his worst book)--as the "culmination" of his style? And his Grimus was not in his style, and hence unimportant. But what about The Enchantress of Florence? Are we really saying that his style in his new book is the same as in Midnight's Children? Hasn't he matured in the meantime? Style is about all he has read and written in the duration.

Talking about style is different--and much more difficult and off-putting. Style suggests endless experiment with technique, rigorous effort, deep training in the canon, elaboration and enhancement rather than sanguine discovery by subtraction, the possibility of change over time, crossover (positive and negative) effects between genres (Rushdie's essays versus his fiction), the linkages connecting one to the important developments in the reign of the language. The language itself changes--locally, globally--even in one's own lifetime, and that has everything to do with style.

Style, you see, is much less conducive to hyperventilation. You can't talk about how you spent twenty years soaking in Nabokov and Coetzee, but in the end arrived at something uniquely yours, yet utterly unimaginable without having absorbed these writers for decades. Your style is made up of the unique concoction of writers you most seriously absorbed. There is not some cuckoo-clock "voice" waiting inside you to pop out at 12:00 a.m., sounding like no other clock in the world.

Sometimes maybe you ought to sound exactly like someone else you admire--or even hate. Sometimes you ought to cheat, plagiarize, copy, steal. Sometimes that may be the best early training. And in cheating and stealing you may discover how hard style really is. Style doesn't await you every morning, finished, stamped with your name and honorific. It wants to escape you if you show so much as an iota of laziness. It is not yours to possess and claim as your own. It is shared property. You owe it to Shakespeare. You are nothing on your own. To think that you possess a voice of your own is delusional.

Voice you're supposedly born with, only to discover at some fortuitous moment in time, style you laboriously acquire over time--or really, something you can never finish acquiring, even if you're the greatest writer alive. Amy Tan has a voice editors and agents can recognize (or think they do); Coetzee has a style that baffles you from Disgrace to Slow Man. He has matured. Partly he has disowned who he used to be. As it should be.

Style is something editors--and writing teachers--are not qualified to critique; to critique someone's style requires you to be at least at the same level of accomplishment as the writer in question; but voice anyone can critique. How does one critique voice anyway? What does one say, except utter inanities? Your voice is too sarcastic. Your voice is too hallucinatory. Your voice is too boozy. But that's not how voice is critiqued. It's something, actually, beyond critique. You either have it or don't have it.

It's a subterfuge, allowing one to judge individual effort without making any real attempt to penetrate the infinite densities of style. It has the same philosophical value as the equally bullshit "Show don't tell" or "Write what you know."

Plot and characterization work integrally with language, and the writer finds the language to connect plot and characterization such that both seem utterly natural. It may mean having a minimalist style, or a maximalist style, but can't that change over time, from book to book, or even during the course of a book? Is Lawrence Durrell, aside from The Alexandria Quartet, not Lawrence Durrell? Is he a fraudster? Does D. H. Lawrence change over time? Virginia Woolf? Nabokov?

Even once a writer hits his stride with style, he experiments with it all his life. That is, if he has any guts at all. I remember the Dave Eggers of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Now I'm confronted with Zeitoun. I guess Dave lost his "voice" somewhere along the road. Oh wait, there were also some really different other books along the way, so he's been floundering all along, hasn't he?

Writers need to be told to put aside the idea that they can learn writing by being told fancy concepts. Like voice, or tone. Or neat dictums like finding your voice under your ass, where you've been sitting on it all along, or in your condom wrapper or Ikea knife set or Peelu toothpaste or wherever it's been hiding.

Voice is for one-trick ponies. Not for behemoths like George Orwell. From Burmese Days to Keep the Aspidistra Flying to Animal Farm to 1984 to his great essays, where is the voice of George Orwell?

I hope I never see the day when I've found my voice. How is it possible to ever find your voice? Voice is mystical. It puts the writer on a pedestal. No writer worth his salt ought to want that.

P.S. In MFA parlance, voice may actually mean a hypercharged, galloping, contextless spree--such as in Junot Diaz or Jonathan Safran Foer or Colson Whitehead--choked with metaphors, overwritten, edgy, hip, cool, self-conscious, rapid-fire, disguising any honesty and sincerity in writing, or rather, covering up for the lack of it. Antonya Nelson and Maile Meloy write more "mature" versions of this voice. That's what they really seem to mean, if they tell you, Honey, I don't think you've found your voice yet. That's the reigning voice, the Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem off-kilter irony, Philip K. Dick with a lobotomy, and you better get with the program, the Manhattan-Brooklyn affectedness, or else. Also, a lot of graphic novels seem to represent this voice. The voice and the picture are merging. And they say science fiction is a con.