FYI, I WILL be referring to “voice” that way — in disdain-quotes — throughout this piece. What are disdain quotes? They’re like regular quotes, except they should be seen as a set of fingers gingerly holding a dirty diaper.
When we’re developing as writers — developing in the craft way, not the boobies way — one of the things we hear most from mentors is this word “voice.” As in: “This piece has an interesting ‘voice’.” Or: “Hm. For me, this lacks ‘voice’.” And: “How about you and your ‘voice’ come to my office and give me a back rub?” “Voice,” we’re told, is what distinguishes “beginner fiction” from the good stuff. And I think that’s largely true, except that, as I realized recently while teaching a workshop, “voice” is the world’s worst word for this.
For one thing, the word itself has been devalued. We tell our kids that they all have a “voice” and that they matter, which is simply not true. There’s a TV show called The Voice. The grownup high-schoolers on Glee are constantly reminding each other that they have a “voice,” meaning they have opinions and concerns and beliefs and what better way to share those things than to try and cram them like wet bunting into the cracks of a Shania Twain song?
For another thing, the concept of “voice” is often lacking. Here’s what is meant by “voice” in prose, via most of the discussions I’ve seen:
- The unique characteristics of a writer’s word choices, dialogue, etc., as flavored by a particular sensibility.
By this definition, lots of Men’s Health and New York Post articles have a strong “voice.” The Post thinks everyone is either a pervert or hero, and Men’s Health doesn’t see why there has to be a difference. But let’s stick to someone who knows he’s writing fiction. George Saunders is a great, easy-to-grasp example of “voice.” His characters have a certain way of speaking, and Saunders-as-narrator writes in a sharp, clever way that deliberately and hilariously undercuts his characters’ naivete and delusion. A George Saunders story is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s read even a few lines of his work. Easy enough to see this as Saunders’ “voice,” right?
But there’s why I don’t like “voice”: It’s a surface word. It involves one sense. Meanwhile, there’s so much else that, to most readers, might also comprise the idea of voice:
- A writer’s thematic concerns
- Overarching point of view regarding his/her themes and characters
- His/her structural choices (i.e., the way the story is presented)
George Saunders’ stories are filled with palpable concern for the world and for humankind’s abilities to rise above its own worst instincts, a concern usually refracted through a near-sci-fi version of our society. And also, they’re funny in multiple ways. All of that would combine to form Saunders’ actual “voice,” if we were using that shitty word. (By the way, not familiar with the work of George Saunders? Go read “Sea Oak.” NOW.)
So “voice” might be a passable way to describe George Saunders. Except every work of fiction, like every human, has a “voice.” Even boring work has a “voice.” In those cases, we’ll say “this doesn’t really have a distinctive ‘voice’” — but that’s not the same as no “voice.” It’s just not a very good “voice.” It’s a boring “voice.”
However, what about something that not everyone has? By which I mean: Personality. You notice how Personality has no disdain-quotes around it? This should tell you I like this word. Further proof is that I’ve capitalized it. I’m really brown-nosing Personality, aren’t I? Yes, and you should, too.
Because Personality is rare and can’t be faked and should be aspired-to. In writing, and in life.
Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins were the two most important English novelists of the Victorian era, right? Er, no. They were contemporaries and colleagues of a sort, but Collins’ work, while crucial in its own way, and while certainly dark and interesting, does not have much Personality. Dickens? Slathered in Personality. Slobbered in it. Too much, sometimes. But it’s why people still read Dickens, and not just when they’re in school and have to.
Personality is an almost tactile thing. Think of the person who walks into a party and the barometric pressure of the room changes. Think of how you feel when someone with real Personality (not just charisma) is talking to you. You feel special, lucky. It’s why people love reading Stephen King, good books and bad. Because even the bad Stephen King books still have Personality. (Except Cujo.) King has, in his career, become a master of the close third person, but he’s always been a master of Narrative Personality. It’s that feeling of “Come on in, friend, let me drive you around and tell you a story.” And you get in, every time, because he’s that goddamn persuasive.
During the eighties, there were thousands of King knock-offs publishing horror paperbacks. I read plenty of them, and some even had the hallmarks of King’s books — horror presented as realism (vs. Gothic), working-class people, swearing and sex, terrible things happening to children, cliffhanger chapters — but none had the Personality of Stephen King. And I don’t think any of those writers amounted to much. They certainly didn’t become the kinds of writers a reader had to read, each and every time. That’s the genius of Stephen King. Not his facility with character and incident (though those are nothing to sneeze at), but that he gets Personality on the page.
Why do people read Lolita? Why would you read about a kidnapper and pedophile? Why would you read it more than once? Because of Nabokov. Because he makes himself known instantly, not through the words of Humbert Humbert, but from between them. The whole narrative is challenging you to read not only what’s on the page, but what’s behind what’s on the page. The book has enormous amounts of things to say about sexuality and adulthood and childhood and maleness and femaleness, and almost none of it is contained in the words printed on the paper. It becomes a communion between you, the reader, and Nabokov, who, incidentally, is long dead. You’re communing with a dead man. And it’s great. That’s because (and I’m sure he would hate this appraisal, but he’s dead and can’t stop me) Nabokov was good enough to be able to fill the book with his Personality alongside (and beneath and in shadow behind) Humbert Humbert’s. And this is why you can read the book and not be disgusted. It’s never salacious, because you feel Nabokov’s hand on your shoulder, telling you: “I know. He’s awful. But trust me.”
Reader Pete (a former student, actually) posted a comment not long ago asking why I like Grace Paley so much. And it’s true: Her stories are hit-and-miss, from a technical standpoint. And I prefer the earlier, fully-formed stories to the later, fragmented, self-referential stuff. Yet I love everything Grace Paley ever wrote. Why? Because I love her Personality. And that is in every one of her stories. Amy Bloom, too. I will read everything Amy Bloom writes because I love the way her mind works, and because I can see that mind working on the page. Hell, I can practically see her eyebrows arching and curling with every choice her characters make. Jane Austen’s novels have Personality.
Here’s another reason for massive rewrites, by the way: I get a lot of student work that’s clearly first draft stuff, and it almost never has much Personality on the page. It may have lots of what someone would call “voice,” but it’s not a whole being yet, and it is most certainly not ready to mingle at the party.
This is one of the tricky byproducts of an ongoing workshop, where you’re forever bringing in first or early drafts. You have to understand what you’re writing about — not what story is from A to B to C, but to know what it’s really ABOUT, the story within the story — in order to give it that almost sentient state that shall, at least in a just world, be hereafter known as Personality, and never that other thing.
Or Zazz. We can call it Zazz if you want. I’m flexible.