So What Is ‘Voice’ Anyhow?

Yesterday I heard Francine Prose speak about writing apropos of her forthcoming novel My New American Life, and among the many other insightful things she said was this: “One of the things people are always talking about in writing is ‘finding one’s voice,’ and I have to say I have no idea what they’re talking about.” Since I too am guilty of invoking the concept “voice” quite a lot in my discussions of translation, her remark gave me pause, because it made me realize I wasn’t quite certain I knew what I meant by it either. As Prose went on to elaborate, one of the pleasures of fiction writing for her is that it allows the writer to inhabit other minds (fictional ones, admittedly) for a while, letting the writer “out of the prison of the self for a brief period of time.” Different characters and narrative personas written by a single author can sound quite different from one another, so what does it mean to speak of the author’s voice? More importantly, perhaps, what does it mean to tell young writers in fiction workshops that they’d better find their voices if they want to succeed?

I think the first thing to note is that there are a lot of writers who do pretty much always sound distinctively like themselves. Think Kafka, think Borges, think Hemingway or Stein. You can hear a random passage from one of their books and quickly know it’s them, just as you can hear a snatch of music on the radio and think “sounds like Hayden” or “hm, I bet that’s Copeland.” But does the same hold true of more recent writing? I suspect that our notion of authorial “voice” is inherited from a generation of writers (and writing teachers) who cut their teeth on modernism, which was all about shifting the focus of the reader’s attention from the subject matter to the manner of the telling, i.e. inventing the notion of the stylistically distinctive narrative voice that serves as a plausible stand-in for the author’s own way of speaking and represents the author’s views and sensibility. Nowadays, I would submit, the book – as opposed to the oeuvre as a whole – has become a more important unit of measure in our understanding of literature. We don’t expect a writer’s books to all necessarily sound alike. Sure, they’ll probably all have certain features in common, because they were written by more or less the same person (pace Borges), but I’d say this commonality is likely to be less marked and explicit now than in books written 80 or 90 years ago.

At the same time, I do think it makes sense to talk about voice in a particular book with its particular narrative context. Someone in the audience at Prose’s lecture yesterday suggested that “voice” was perhaps just a more appealing word for “style” (a word, he said, we might now think of as “too French”). I wonder whether “tone” isn’t an even better approximation. For me, the easiest way to get a fix on voice is in a negative sense, when for example we are reading something and find a sentence that sticks out because it doesn’t quite seem to fit with everything else around it. We must have some idea of what the voice of the text is to think that in a particular sentence the author (or translator) “got the voice wrong.” So in that case, “voice” names the narrative’s consistency of tone and style that makes us know we’re reading one particular work and not just a collage of sentences culled from various other books. And it’s certainly important for a particular text to sound like itself, even if a writer’s oeuvre as a whole doesn’t.

In short, I’d say we tend to use the word “voice” in two different senses without quite being aware we are doing so, which can lead to confusion. Voice can name either the distinctive style and vision of a particular writer who happens to write in such a way that her/his books are readily recognizable as works by that author. Or it may name the consistency of style and tone within one particular work that makes it feel of a piece in and of itself. The translator should be attentive to voices of both sorts.

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