Voice

I like it when a writer has a recognizable ‘voice’. I think a very strong analogy can be made between a writer’s voice and a singer’s voice. The best singers are not just technically accomplished, but have a very strong singing personality. Part of that can be due to natural gifts (the God-given sound of their voice, flexibility and precision that go beyond what can be learned), but a good part of it can be acquired. 

Awhile back I wrote about a couple of essays about singing which claimed that, to really sing, you first have to nail all the technical aspects of singing—and then proceed to forget all you’ve learned about singing as you actually sing, trusting your body and mind to execute all those technical tasks properly while you concentrate on communicating with your listeners. As with writing, a singer needs to have both something to say and the ability to say it clearly and engagingly. If you have something to say but can’t say it, or if you can say things beautifully but have nothing to say, you’ll never be much of a singer or a writer.

Pete Wernick, the banjo player, helped me understand this about singing, in large part through his own example. Being a Jew from New York, Brooklyn born and raised, he didn’t have much to fall back on when he first got interested in bluegrass as a teenager. And his voice is nothing to write home about. But it struck him early on that every bluegrass musician of any note was a singer (at least harmony), and he decided he needed to get with the program, so he learned to sing the baritone parts (common among banjo players) and, more important, found a way of singing that was an acceptable compromise between his natural tone and pronunciation and what was common in bluegrass circles among those who had grown up with the music. He doesn’t sing lead often, but sometimes he needs to because of the song (e.g. one he wrote about his parents, and one he wrote about a horrible plane crash he survived), and when those times come around he is more than up to the task.

Pete also tells about Jody Stecher, who is considered one of the best bluegrass/old-time singers around but is also a Jew who grew up in Brooklyn. Stecher says that occasionally he gets well-intentioned complaints from listeners about his singing style; they think it somehow obscures his "natural" voice, which they wish they could hear. But he says that "hillbilly" is the only way he knows to sing this kind of music. As acquired and intentional as his style is, it has become his natural voice.

Both in singing and in writing, I think the danger lies not in having a distinctive voice, but in coming to love the sound of it. The distinctive components of a voice, sung or written, can enhance what is being said greatly, and even add their own special stand-alone pleasures, but enjoying those components for their own sake is something that ought to be done in moderation. In some sense I love the unique sounds of Mark Knopfler’s guitar and Peter Gabriel’s voice, and writers like Neil Postman can occasionally thrill me with their absolute control.

But just like Homer, Postman and Gabriel and Knopfler have been known to nod, and then all their distinctiveness is reduced to a pile of flashy techniques employed to no good end, and once the fun has worn off there’s no particular joy in hearing or reading it again. Unfortunately, there are folks who end up being seduced by their own voices, who decide that what is important is not what they have to say but the fact that they are saying it, in their own special way. It ends up destroying them.

I won’t go so far as to say that lack of voice makes for bad writing, but I do think that a writer throws away a vital tool if he controls his writing so closely that it has no personality at all. There’s an important difference between merely presenting the facts and teaching, and I think voice is an important component of teaching. For one thing, it gives the teacher freedom to interpret, since it gives me a handle on how to regard the interpretation. Much of what I know about how to read Neil Postman or Doug Wilson or ultra-liberal Naomi Klein or ultra-conservative Gary North comes from recognizing their voice; I hear their worldview in how they say things, and it helps me judge what they say.

I don’t deny the pleasures of listening to fine voices, or that it can be edifying to see how a good writer says things when you’re trying to learn to say things for yourself. I know and enjoy other writers whose content is intentionally inconsequential, going more for a pleasurable and reflective mood, or just for a good laugh.

But I suspect a good writer would think he’d wasted his time if the only thing his readers took from a piece of writing was the pleasure of his turns of phrase? A good writer employs stylistic skills, winsomeness or precision or clarity or directness, in order to help ordinary people understand difficult and thorny matters. 

It’s too much to expect even the best writer to reach every reader. And there’s certainly no shame in saying that even though a writer didn’t reach you with the content of his book, the style made it an enjoyable read. But even there we can see hints of danger. If a writer gathers an audience that is loyal to him less for the things he says than for the way he says them, it is a great temptation for him to begin writing any random thing, knowing that as long as he says it in his own unique way the fans will stick with him.

Writing becomes product, and there is money to be made in churning it out. I think it’s reasonable to regret that, say, C.S. Lewis didn’t write more books than he did. But there are plenty of other popular writers who once wrote important books but then continued to churn material out long after they said everything they had to say. There are easy examples here, but the one that pains me the most is Neil Postman, whose last two books (after he decided to only write constructively) are quintessential Postman stylistically, but of little consequence otherwise.

A consistent, controlled voice can gain the trust of your readers and help them to drop their guard against difficult things you might say. Although Elisabeth Elliot is a gifted writer, I don’t think there is anything magic about her ability to present hard truths in a way that engages rather than offends her readers. I think the trick is that she never surprises her readers. Even when she is writing about things that couldn’t possibly offend, you can easily tell that she is very direct. A reader learns soon enough that any medicine she has to spoon out will not be embedded in jam or sugar. Those who can’t handle the truth will quickly move on. Those who stick around are aware that they may encounter unvarnished truth; many stick around for exactly that reason.

In the blog world, I’ll cite the Deputy Headmistress as a prime example of this. Early on I was sometimes surprised by the fierceness with which she expresses her opinions, but mostly because I wasn’t accustomed to hearing such talk from a woman on the internet. But her voice is extremely consistent, earnest and thoughtful and attentive to detail, and even when she’s going on about things I don’t care much about (e.g. politics or FLDS) or where we disagree (e.g. economics) I know what to expect from her writing, and it is easy for me to respect what she says and consider it carefully.

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