“Voice” is the aspect of a literary work which conveys the distinct power and flavor of the narrator’s personality. Voice is different from style, although it depends on style for its realization. Here is the writer Holly Lisle attempting to capture the idea of voice:
. . . .you have to put yourself on your page. This is what is known in the writing business as developing your voice. Voice isn’t merely style. Style would be easy by comparison. Style is watching your use of adjectives and doing a few flashy things with alliteration. Style without voice is hollow. Voice is style, plus theme, plus personal observations, plus passion, plus belief, plus desire. Voice is bleeding onto the page, and it can be a powerful, frightening, naked experience.
Voice is difficult to define, and evidently even more difficult to teach and cultivate. They say the writer has to “find her voice.”
In Philip Roth’s novel The Ghostwriter, Nathan Zuckerman, a novice writer, has submitted with trepidation his four published stories to his hero E. I. Lonoff—“the great man—”for judgment. Zuckerman is thrilled when Lonoff eventually remarks:
“Look, I told Hope this morning: Zuckerman has the most compelling voice I’ve encountered in years, certainly for somebody starting out.”
“I don’t mean style—”raising a finger to make the distinction. “I mean voice: something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head. don’t worry too much about ‘wrong.’ Just keep going. You’ll get there.”
However resistant to definition, voice is unmistakable when you hear it. Here are the opening of two renowned novels. The voices of the narrators are remarkably different, yet each immediately takes possession of the reader:
Herman Melville, Moby Dick:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
I first read Prabhupada’s presentation of Canto One of Srimad Bhagavatam in 1971. At that time the work was available only in the three volumes of the League of Devotee edition that Prabhupada had published in India and brought with him to America in 1965.
It was in these volumes that I encountered Prabhupada’s voice.
The rest of this article can be read here.
[ ac-bhaktivedanta-swami-prabhupada ]