Sunday, January 8, 2012

On the writer's voice

What do Borges, Bowen, Kawabata, and Nabokov have in common?  They are acclaimed writers, all four born in 1899.  And what do Shakespeare and Cervantes have in common?  Both are undisputed literary giants who passed away in the same year, 1616.  Certainly, we may be awed by the amazing alignment of the stars.  But astrology aside, the single most striking feature that they all share is their distinct voice.  Faulkner, Hemingway, Woolf, Hesse, Chekhov, Cortázar, and Capote had it, and so did Mallea, Breton, Poe, Baudelaire, and Mansfield.  We recognize it when we hear it with our mind’s ear, and miss it when a work lacks it.  But, what is the writer’s voice?

I take four books from my bookcase and read aloud:

“Vi en el reloj de la pequeña estación que eran las once de la noche pasadas.  Fui caminando hasta el hotel.  Sentí, como otras veces, la resignación y el alivio que nos infunden los lugares muy conocidos.  El ancho portón estaba abierto; la quinta, a oscuras.  Entré en el vestíbulo, cuyos espejos pálidos repetían las plantas del salón.  Curiosamente el dueño no me reconoció y me tendió el registro.  Tomé la pluma que estaba sujeta al pupitre, la mojé en el tintero de bronce y al inclinarme sobre el libro abierto, ocurrió la primera sorpresa de las muchas que me depararía esa noche.  Mi nombre, Jorge Luis Borges, ya estaba escrito, y la tinta, todavía fresca.” —J. L. Borges (excerpt from “Agosto 25, 1983”)

“She dropped the letter onto the bedsprings, then picked it up to see the writing again—her lips, beneath the remains of lipstick, beginning to go white. She felt so much the change in her own face that she went to the mirror, polished a clear patch in it, and looked at once urgently and stealthily in. She was confronted by a woman of forty-four, with eyes starting out under a hat brim that had been rather carelessly pulled down. She had not put on any more powder since she left the shop where she ate her solitary tea. The pearls her husband had given her on their marriage hung loose round her now rather thinner throat, slipping in the V of the pink wool jumper her sister knitted last autumn as they sat round the fire. Mrs. Drover’s most normal expression was one of controlled worry, but of assent. Since the birth of the third of her little boys, attended by a quite serious illness, she had had an intermittent muscular flicker to the left of her mouth, but in spite of this she could always sustain a manner that was at once energetic and calm. ” —Elizabeth Bowen (excerpt from “The Demon Lover”)

“He had the illusion that the Inamura girl was walking in the shade of the trees, the pink kerchief and its thousand white cranes under her arm.  He could see the cranes and the kerchief vividly.  He sensed something fresh and clean.  His chest rose—the girl might even now be arriving at his door.” —Yasunari Kawabata (excerpt from Thousand Cranes)

“I was, and still am, despite mes malheours, an exceptionally handsome male; slow-moving, tall, with soft dark hair and a gloomy but all the more seductive cast of demeanor.  Exceptional virility often reflects in the subject’s displayable features a sullen and congested something that pertains to what he has to conceal.” —Vladimir Nabokov (excerpt from Lolita)

Without a doubt these authors have—aside from a fecund imagination—a remarkable command of the language.  In fact, proficiency in the use of language helps to free the writer’s voice.  Language is used as an instrument for conveying ideas, while setting the proper tone.  Readers are enthralled by these writers’ display of simplicity, mystery, irony, alluring descriptions, or even pedantry.  Nevertheless, the voice goes far beyond the author’s ideas, word choice, syntax, and literary tricks; it is, indeed, the timbre of a speaking voice, a total human presence.  The persona in a novel or poem is part and parcel of the work and comes alive during the course of the creation. 

No aspiring writer can deny that finding his true voice is a hard task.  The reason is simple: the writers’ raw materials are words.  By contrast, painters use brushstrokes on canvas, each of them unique.  Just a cursory glance at the following paintings will show you how apparent Van Gogh’s, Monet’s, Turner’s, and Quinquela’s styles are:

Keelman Heaving in Coals by Moonlight, Turner

Sunrise, Monet

Starry Night, Van Gogh

Los barcos, Quinquela Martín

Again, these painters show dexterity with the materials at hand, just as notable authors do with words.

Now, let’s consider the realm of music and ballet.  Composers’ and choreographers’ styles can be as distinct as painters’.  Think about Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Falla, Bach, Liszt, Chopin, and Prokofiev as well as Petipa, Béjart, and Balanchine, to name just a few.  Their compositions and choreographies carry a hallmark, easily identifiable by those who are well versed in classical music and dance.  Nonetheless, when it comes to identifying interpreters’ renditions of their works, the difference may not be so evident on occasion. Naturally, the trained ear and the trained eye will recognize a myriad of nuances in every single case, as can be appreciated in the following pieces:

Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, 1st Movement, by Yehudi Menuhin: 

Cesar Franck’s Violin Sonata in A Major, 1st Movement, by Jascha Heifetz:

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Spring Waters, Choreography: Messerer, Dancers: Bylova and Nikonov

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Spring Waters, Choreography: Messerer, Dancers: Tikhomirova and Merkuriev

I sip my tea and think some more about a writer’s most distinct feature: his voice.  Put simply, style is the manner of a piece of writing; voice is its soul, what sets an author’s writing apart from others.  It serves a specific purpose in each work because it is directly related to the narrator or the persona of the piece.  The same author may sometimes produce a vibrant, overpowering voice; while his voice may turn gloomy or dismal under different circumstances.  Just as actors embody a different character in each film, a good writer is supple enough to adjust his voice to the character who is speaking in his work. 

A convincing voice is honest, as opposed to fake.  The work is fictional, but the experience must be authentic.  Developing a voice demands courage, intelligence, and self-knowledge.  For a writer to discover his true voice is to discover himself.


  1. Gracias por hacer que el horizonte cultural de quienes desconocemos algunas piezas de arte y literatura se amplie y se embelleza con tus comentarios.

  2. Well-written, Laura. You have made some good points. Yes, the author's voice must shine through the story. And it must, as you said, be authentic. If we are not believable in our writing, who wants to read what we write? I enjoyed the way you incorporated art and music. I am also an artist and I love classical music. I do play piano (not very well), though not much any more. I played an organ in church for a few years (that was quite a few years ago). And I have written some music as well. So the post was definitely to my liking.

  3. Laura, thanks for mentioning also that the writer's voice can flex and shade for different circumstances. I've often wondered whether people who talk about your voice being "authentic" were dismissing the idea of changing style and diction to suit the circumstances (like Meryl Streep who can change so much from one role to another that she is almost unrecognizable as the same person).

    I'd like your thoughts, though, on another point. Where you talk about a writer's voice needing to be unique and recognizable, there are a number of writers who very, very skillfully make their "voice" (style, diction whatever) invisible so that the reader would never be able to distinguish them by voice. I have an MFA in creative writing
    (sorry, not bragging, just establishing credentials), so I've heard some very accomplished and well-regarded writers say that these writers, too, have achieved a high standard of "voice" just by making theirs so...well...I guess you might call it...hmm, bland?

    How would you deal with this as a style of "voice?"

    1. Melissa,

      Thank you for leaving a comment. I see your point and think that Meryl Streep's performance is an excellent example to illustrate the topic under discussion.

      To me, style and voice are different things. Some acclaimed writers have a remarkable style but have not achieved a distinct voice. The voice is like the writer's presence in his work, which can be applied to literature and to other artistic expressions as well. Many artists are very skillful at what they do, but their art has no soul, like the dancer whose technique is perfect but has no presence on stage and cannot convey any feeling.

      Probably you've read The Stranger by Albert Camus. In this novel the writer's voice is "bland" as you put it, simply because it has to reflect the main character, Meursault, a nihilist. Other works by Camus are quite different regarding style and voice. Hemingway's style is unadorned, too, but no one can deny that he had a voice.

      Literary genres, such as dirty realism and minimalism, strip the plot of all unnecessary details and adornments, so writers follow certain "guidelines" to write under these genres, but that doesn't mean that they don't have a voice.