The Inconvenient Truth about Voice

This post, from Dan Holloway, originally appeared on the Year Zero Writers’ Collective site on 12/5/09 and is reprinted here in its entirety with his permission.

(with thanks to @cinemamanche for his lovely description of voice as the aroma of a text)

Voice is one of the great mysteries of writing, and the bearer of a couple of inconvenient truths for any author. It’s the one thing you can’t do without; but no one will tell you how to get better at it.

So what is voice?

Put it like this. What do Stanley Kubrick, Radiohead, DBC Pierre, Frank Gehry, Bob Dylan, Elfriede Jelinek, Morissey, Anish Kapoor, and the Coen Brothers have in common? Apart from that night ten years ago, outside the Brixton Academy, when… The answer is obvious – and it should end the topic right there. But somehow it never does. What I want to do with this article is figure out why an article like this needs to be so long.

The answer , in case it’s not self-evident (or in case there really was a night 10 years ago…), is that most people with a basic knowledge of the field in question – be it film, music, literature, architecture or art – if shown a piece of hitherto unseen work by one of them, would instantly be able to tell you who’d made it. And that, in fewer than 200 words, is all there really is to say about “voice”.

And yet we keep talking about it. Everywhere writers meet there is almost as much hot air and verbiage about voice as there is jealous bile about the latest vampire hit. Why? Simple, really. Editors, agents, publishers. They all agree on this one (and possibly only) point – voice is the essential ingredient a writer must possess. The “experts” also seem to agree on one other point – that of the key elements of writing – including characterisation, pacing, plotting – the one that can’t be taught is voice.

I want to look briefly at why It is that these two things make voice so controversial, and then ask the questions – is voice really essential? Where does it come from? What do we mean by saying it can’t be taught?

It’s obvious why saying voice is the one essential quality for a writer should make it controversial, especially when “experts” seem to go out of their way to be obfuscatory about what they mean by it. It’s true that in much genre fiction voice is slightly different, because there are genre norms, and what is valued most is often that elusive quality of “transparency” – an author who doesn’t intrude on their world. But I don’t want to get too het up on that distinction because if one does it can become an excuse for “literary” authors like us here to start sticking their nose into their text and, unless you’re making a point of that a la Kundera, it’s no more acceptable here than in genre fiction. A novel should (Ooh, I used the “s” would – spank me), even if it’s cross-referential, be a self-contained world in which the reader can lose themselves.

“Voice can’t be taught.” Publishers, agents, and editors seem, in my experience, to say this in the sense of “if someone comes to us and they can’t plot very well we can, and will, work with them on it. But if they have no voice, there’s nowt we can do.” There’s a very obvious reason why this is controversial, and it has to do, I’m afraid, with political correctness. I had a girlfriend once who took (more than) umbrage at my supervisor’s assertion that first class academic work could not be quantified but was evident when he was faced with it. Her complaint, that it wasn’t fair because it gave people nothing to aim for, that it discriminated against the hard-working and perpetuated an elite, was understandable. The need for fairness is one of our deepest yearnings.

But in this case, I’m afraid the complaint is utterly irrelevant. Artistic merit is nothing about rewarding hard work. It’s about, well, artistic merit. And that, I’m afraid, is unquantifiable but evident when you’re confronted with it. Which means that the thousands of writers who “write beautifully”(how often on sites like Authonomy do we hear reviewers say “this is beautifully written it should be published”?) are naturally going to feel aggrieved, but their beautiful writing is, frankly, very little to do with the artistic value of their book. If it was, the Tate would be full of Royal Doulton special edition plates.

So that’s why voice is controversial. But hang on. There’s a deeper question. Are people right that it matters at all? Well, it sounds like a dogma, and dogmas are things we at Year Zero dislike, er, dogmatically. And to an extent it IS nonsense. The value of much art lies in what it does for the people and communities that produce it – it gives hope, aspiration, self-esteem, vision – a sense of future, and to be honest, no aesthetic bollocks I spout in the next 500 words is going to trump that. As a punk ideologist and humanist, voice means precisely bugger all in art.

Except. Well, except look at those things – self-esteem, hope, vision. What do they mean? How are they real to an individual unless those hopes are specific? Unless the art produced has meaning to the community/individual? And a lot of that is about distinctive voice. So there IS, kind of, a crossover with “art for art’s sake”. And so there ought to be, because we’re not JUST absinthe drinking dilettantes.

Nonetheless, I’m part of Year Zero because I DO care about the arty nonsense. I want my writing to be the best it can. I want to push boundaries, connect with readers in unique ways, produce a body of work that (a subject for another blog) “matters”. And that means I need voice.

Which brings me to how to develop voice if it really is unteachable, and how to know if I have it because, if I don’t, I might as well leave the Zeroes now.

I want to start with Malcolm Gladwell’s oft-cited rule of 10,000 hours. His work on this is really at the heart of all the “learn the rules to break them” vs natural genius debates. He showed that most of the people we think of as geniuses – in the arts and in sport – actually did nothing of any real brilliance or originality until they’d put in 10,000 hours of practice.

What does this mean? Well, it means the “I don’t need rules, I’m a genius” brigade really are, as we thought all along, just lazy and will probably never produce anything any good. It also means something very useful. It means, if I understand correctly, that a natural aptitude for following the rules well is a good indicator that you may at a future stage develop an original voice. So that “beautifully-written” prose isn’t valueless. But it’s an indicator of what might be to come and not of the work in which it is displayed.

So what, practically, does that mean? Well, it means it’s a great thing to experiment. Which we kind of knew already. Why does it mean that? Well, first because it will accelerate the progress through your apprenticeship (question: why, when we hire a plumber, or go to a doctor, do we consider it essential they have served a full apprenticeship but as writers we expect to have a hit with our first novel?). If you spend them all on just one area of writing, it’s unlikely you’ll emerge fully formed. It’s also important that you find what suits you, pick up new tricks, borrow from here, pastiche from there until slowly something begins to emerge that’s you.

So it turns out there are not two but three inconvenient truths about voice. It IS essential. And it IS something that’s unquantifiable and unteachable in itself. he good news is that one can work on it, practising the basics until one’s voice emerges. The third inconvenient truth is that the practice will take a lot of time and angst and sweat and pain. Just like anything else worth doing.

Do discuss at will and leisure – I’d also like to hear your examples of great, original voices – in any form of the arts.

[Publetariat Editor’s note: you may prefer to join the discussion over on the Year Zero site, where Dan and the Year Zero community will be sure to see your remarks, rather than commenting here on Publetariat]

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