Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Losing Your Voice

As writers, we hear a lot about "voice", the mysterious quality that somehow differentiates our work from someone else's. Because it is a vague and ineffable thing, voice is often used as shorthand to proclaim one person's work and denigrate another's. The publishing industry is desperate to find "original voices", but much like the movie industry it doesn't know what these are until it finds one. Just this week I made one of my writing friends feel bad (and myself too) by telling them that I didn't think they had a strong enough voice. I still think I was right to say there was a problem, but I so, so wish there had been a better way of expressing it.

How much does your literary voice correspond to your actual voice? The way we talk has a strong effect on our personal image both internally and externally (some of us - like me - tend to have a direct connection between brain and mouth with not enough filtering in-between). We might all like to hide behind our writing, but we also feel we know people from their words, that we connect with them on a personal level. Depending on what they write, this can either lead to rapture or disappointment when we meet them in the flesh...

I was delighted to hear about Roger Ebert getting his voice back, albeit in synthesised form. For those who don't know him, Ebert was the pre-eminent US film critic of the pre-internet age and still packs quite a punch in the microblogging era. He used to co-host a massively popular movie review show on American TV until thyroid cancer treatment in 2006 robbed him of his speaking voice. I've always had a soft spot for Ebert's reviews because he shows a streak of generosity and a willingness to like a movie that so many other, more sour-faced critics lack. That said, he also isn't afraid to smack down those poorly conceived and wilfully lazy films that Hollywood churns out on a weekly basis.

After his surgery, Ebert retreated behind his words, continuing his weekly film reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times, writing books and articles. One might argue that of all the things Ebert could lose, speaking was the least important - he could still indulge his lifelong passion to watch films and write wisely about them. He still had a voice, even if he didn't have an ... erm ... voice. But on a personal level, it was clearly hellish - to be someone who relied on their quick wits to make a career and then be forced to type everything laboriously on a laptop and hear it read out in a flat alien voice? That isn't anyone's idea of fun.

Everything we read, everything we write is in some way a study of human relationships, and communication is what makes us who we are. What would your writing be like if you became an actual hermit? (and not just hid in the shed because it was your turn to cook dinner). Would dropping out of Facebook actually make you more productive, or would it just make you miserable? I don't know if mute people only dream in shades of grey, but it sure is a nice idea for a book...



  1. Nick.

    I think you need to distinguish here between attitude and style.

    I don't think we can or should hide our attitude - our take on things. This is what makes us distinctive writers. But I think the way this is expressed can vary according to the media and the audience. I'm writing a novel for teenager boys. My style is terse. My last one was for slightly younger girls - it was more chatty. I have another on the go for slightly older readers - it is a bit more prosaic. In all cases the style is constructed by my attitude or perspective filtered through the part of my personality I want to exaggerate for the purpose of this work, filtered through the voice or mind of the character in the book about whom I am writing. What I hope it is not is a style adopted as a patronising gesture, or because I think it will sell.

    For extreme examples of what I mean, read the various stories in Alan Moore's short story collection Voice Of The Fire, or David Mitchell's novel of Russian dolls, Cloud Atlas. You will wonder how the same writer can so authentically write in such different styles.

  2. Hi Nick,

    One of the kids I have worked with was a selective mute and would only speak freely at home. Yes people judge us by what we say, and for some that is too much to bear and staying silent is more comfortable.