Who Has a Voice?
What does it mean to have a voice, one that from the first line grabs you and remains with you long after the last one? A strong, unique voice aligned with all the elements of life? Such is the question I have been mulling over of late. Are we born with it or does life experiences have a way to beat it out of us? Rimbaud, Fitzgerald, Salinger, certainly make the case for the former. While for the rest of us, depending how well we handle our journey, the answer points to the latter. This is the Munro, McCarthy and Saramago schools. Banal question, you may remark. My interest is not devoid of recent cumbersome observations. I’m having more and more difficulty spotting original and substantive voices.
I’m on the front lines to talk about the issue. Books rain all around me. Thanks to the nature of my work, I receive truckloads of books. They originate from all walks of life, in all genres, styles, and formats. I review them, talk about them on my TV program, and even get to interview their authors. If you love the world of ideas and learning, you could say I’m a pig in a puddle.
This inspiring place has felt rather dry of late. The voices I hear sound rather muted. Have I grown immune to new literary trends by over-exposure? Are my hearing and intellectual faculties dwindling without warning with the passage of time? My doctor would claim that I suffer from an acute literary depression. Was it self-inflicted? Have my intellectual expectations gone too demanding? Am I speaking in a language irrelevant for the age? Crisis is perhaps that word that spring to mind.
I pondered over the word. You would think, given the major technological shift in the publishing world, by opening the sluices for a tsunami of new self-published authors and original stories, that strong voices would gush forth. The cover of this fairy tale, however, is not as bright as hoped for. It is stained with the yawn of hackneyed déjà-vus. Great voices stem from great writers and are as rare as ever to come by.
Having the ability and possibility to write a book does not endow anyone necessarily with a voice. So much of what I read fits the perfect layout of writing mechanics: mellifluous flow of ideas, well-structured chapters and paragraphs, logical stories, cathartic moments, etc.. And yet, these books fail to hit my radar and leave me, frankly unsatiated. Technology is not the culprit. But the entrepreneurial spirit and the market’s demands appear to level the creative and originality efforts. Why was it important to write this story? What is its theme? What are you trying to say? What is missing over and over is the voice. And no amount of technological liberation can fake it. I may be out-of-sync with the present, thinking that somewhere someone was plotting the next literary revolution. Instead, it is all formulaic personal accounts using the liberation as a public confessional.
The widespread availability of writing instruments allows to circumnavigate the apprenticeship. There was a time when becoming an artist would take time, illustrated by the anecdote about a wealthy woman commissioning Picasso a painting. He sits down, draws three or four lines with a couple of strokes on a blank canvass, then turns round to the buyer and says: “That will be $500,000.” The woman frowns at the price tag. “But it took you only fifteen seconds,” she protests. “No madam,” answered Picasso, “it took me 40 years.” The first draft of the “Old Man and the Sea,” was more than 400 pages long. Only a well-oiled Hemingway with millions of miles in his creative engine could make his voice so unique in so few words. Writing a novel because one can is not the same as writing because one has something to say, and in a way that no one else can.
Having a voice is not the same as having a style. Many writers have a style, often with dazzling effects, which often come without a statement. It seems this is what we are focusing on these days. Mistaking styles for voices. I’m always skeptical of twenty-something overnight sensations. There is a hollow quality in mimicking past authors whose voices were shaped by the lives they lived. Major literary award winners are not immune to this trend. Pleasant strolls in the park where the grass is synthetic and the cabin air-conditioned.
All is not just bad brooding. Below my educated sarcastic shell lays a humanist at heart. So every morning I take my chill pill and read lots of moving stories, often thinking that they cannot possibly be real. I try hard to make sense of them in a conceptual framework to see if I can detect a trend. Instead of judging a book at a time, I should judge them by the truckloads, without discrimination. This approach would make me realize what has become obvious in this permissive techno-social-media-revolutionary world. Self-published or not, many books coming out these days seem to echo only one story. They tell the story of how isolated and suffering we all have been in silence. We are all screaming to be heard and seen. I’m not immune to it. Look at me! I just spent the last ten minutes telling you about my problems. “Oh humanity what a din!