Also I had an e-mail from Fairfax the other day telling me they'll be a few tweaks to the blogging format over the weekend. It won't go anywhere near addressing all the issues we raised but it's a start. I think the first thing they're looking at doing is changing the number of comments that can be viewed in the thread to save people having to click through multiple screens to get to the end of the discussion. At least that's what it looked like from the e-mail. I guess we'll see.
So, on to today's topic.
I wanted to talk mostly about voice today, because it's an issue that came up in the comment thread of a previous writing blog. A couple of people weren't entirely sure what voice was, and others didn't know and how to find their own voice. So we'll start with voice first.
Perhaps a little personal history to illustrate. I wrote Leviathan to escape the gravitational pull of Felafel. In many ways Leviathan was a return to first principles for me. For 10 years before I wrote Felafel I had written feature stories for magazines, i.e. nonfiction. There were certain magazines such as the Independent Monthly which had a very formal, very old-fashioned 'house style'. Although the articles were all bylined there was very little difference between the in the forms of expression they used. A Helen Garner article would read very much like a Peter Robb article or even one of my articles. That was not an ironclad rule, especially where I was concerned, but it was a general principle. We wrote in a formal 'high' style which you can see reproduced in any number of British or American magazines currently available. The New Yorker is the obvious example.
At the same time as I was writing for the Independent, I was also filing copy of Penthouse, Playboy, Rolling Stone, Inside Sport, Wisden and occasionally for the broadsheet newspapers and their weekend supplements. Again the copy I submitted to each magazine was subtly different depending on the house style. Good Weekend for instance was very similar in style to the Independent, in that generally speaking it did not allow for any great rhetorical flourishes of slanguage, swearing, neologisms and so on. That doesn't mean the stories were boring. Some great writers worked on that supplement and produced some quite beautiful pieces of work, but they did so with very plain and simple rhetoric.
Rolling Stone on the other hand was a different matter. Rolling Stone was the magazine where Hunter S. Thompson came to prominence. It was the magazine with PJ O'Rourke published some of his earlier, funnier political pieces. It was not a magazine afraid of correspondents with strong individual voices. In fact so strong were some of those voices, such as Thompson's, that you can hear them echoing through the copy of a generation of writers who followed them.
If we look at a couple of quotes from Thompson and O'Rourke we can begin to see just how striking the sound of their voices on the page could be, compared to more conventional journalists.
Thompson: “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason.”
O’Rourke: “After all, what is your host’s purpose in having a party? Surely not for you to enjoy yourself; if that were their sole purpose, they’d simply have sent champagne and women over to your place by taxi.”
In these two short bits of text we do not find every point of difference between two writers who otherwise share many points of commonality, but we do find two very different voices. In Thompson’s case he speaks from the black shriveled heart of a true believer turned cynic. His writing often lands on the page like hammer blows pounding his chosen target to a bloody pulp. To do that he chooses his words like a boxer chooses his blows, comparing good men to dogs, presenting us with the alien almost inhuman environment of “a long plastic hallway” populated not by business people or television executives but by “thieves” and “pimps”. His words are harsh because the thoughts he wishes to express are harsh.
The O’Rourke quote on the other hand comes from a piece about hosting a dinner party in his first edition of collected works, Republican Party Reptile. In that particular piece O’Rourke achieves his comedic effect by writing in the very refined, almost prissy style of a 1920s guide to etiquette. You can hear him in your head as you read and he sounds like someone wearing a cravat and nursing a frosted martini. That is the form he has chosen; the content however is subversive of the form; positing a moral universe in which cravat wearing ethics teachers drop pants at the first opportunity and snort cocaine off hooker’s boobs. (Incidentally, that distancing effect, a rapid wrenching away of meaning and subtext from the formal text creates an immediate sense of tension which is resolved when the reader laughs. It is one of the basic techniques of comedic writing.)
Given that magazines have different house styles, but that authors also have their own styles, how do we resolve the question that then arises; which style takes primacy?
There is no easy way to answer this, but being brutal about it, it’s a question of power. If the magazine has commissioned the writer the chances are they are buying that writers byline as much as they are his or her copy. In that sense even if they have a house style they will be willing to allow the writer a degree of freedom on the page, possibly total freedom depending on who they have commissioned. You don’t pay PJ O’Rourke to write stock standard op-ed political columns, for instance. You pay him to write jokes, his very particular brand of jokes.
This question arises for me on a regular basis, because of the features I write for The Monthly. Writing for them feels very much like writing for the old Independent Monthly to me. The house style is formal and literate. It should be possible to take a paragraph from one story and compare it to a paragraph from another story without being able to tell who wrote which piece. The author’s voice is impersonal. On the other hand, if you look hard enough in each piece, particularly the long feature articles written by senior correspondents, you will occasionally see small stylistic flourishes which set them apart from each other.
For instance in this month's edition you will find interviews with Mr. Flinthart and Mr. Bedak, both of which appear in a 3000 word feature written by me about the future of the National Party. At one point in the story they are referred to as Flinthart of Tasmania, and Bedak of Book Book. This sort of faux classic Boys Own adventure phraseology is something I’ll throw into a story every now and then just to break up the atmosphere if it’s all feeling a bit formal and learned. There is a similar small ironic distance between the form of the words and the intent of the author as I mentioned in the O’Rourke extract above. Thompson does something similar quite often when he uses biblical turns of phrase in his work. Indeed somewhere in one of his collections he talks about always keeping a Bible nearby him for inspiration when he writes.
Voice is then something which can be amplified or turned down. You’ll find my voice at its loudest and often most unpleasant in my blogs for Fairfax. Because blogging is almost conversational form of writing, it makes sense that the voice of the blog author should sound almost like spoken word. It doesn’t have to be, of course. A blog can be written as formally as a PhD thesis. But mostly they are not, mostly they sound like the writer is talking to you. Their voice comes through clearly.
In a previous writing blog somebody, possibly Jennicki, asked how difficult it is to switch from one form of writing to another. From Blunt Instrument to The Monthly.
With practice it’s not that difficult at all. It’s akin to switching between languages. It all depends on how fluent you are. If you’re still at the learning stage it can be very difficult indeed, but if you have been speaking a dozen languages, or writing in half a dozen voices all your life you can switch between them without any conscious effort at all.
So, the final question. How do you find your voice?
The same way you found your real voice when you were learning to speak, slowly at first, awkwardly, while making lots of mistakes, some of them quite embarrassing.
In a sense you shouldn’t go looking for your voice, you should just let it come to you. In the same way that our accents and our manner of speaking are largely determined by the home in which we learn to speak, your written voice will be determined by those places in which you dwell when you were learning to write. You will find your voice through listening to the voices of those writers and authors you most admire. Does this mean you will imitate them slavishly? If you are a teenage would-be author, almost certainly. But that will pass. And the more you read, the more influences you allow to play upon your own style, the richer and more interesting it will probably be.