If someone came up to you and asked why literary voice seems more important for narrators in fiction than in nonfiction, how would you respond? Could you respond? I can, and I recently did. Here's what I said.
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You know, I had to think about how to answer this one for a couple of days. Why? First, because your use of the word "seems" implies that this is your personal observation and not empirical fact, which of course is true. Second, if voice does actually seem more important for narrators in novels than in other literary forms—not only to you but to everyone—that tells me there are a lot of poor writers in this world. And I know that to be true from my own observations.
I say this because good writers—great writers—don't turn their literary voices off and on at will. Great writers have only one literary voice, and it's strong, consistent, and commanding. It draws the reader in and ensnares him. It mesmerizes and delights. It fascinates and enlightens. So, why shouldn't a writer use that same strong voice in all forms of writing, from memoir to history, romance to literary, biography to self-help? In fact, in whatever he writes?
Answers? Anybody? Anybody?
The truth is that great writers spend their lifetimes developing, honing, and strengthening their literary voices. Lesser writers don't. Oh, sure. They may accidentally stumble across their true voices. I've seen that happen most often with semi-autobiographical novels, with which writers are often most comfortable because they're writing from experience. But once that book is done and the lesser writer moves out of his or her comfort zone, his voice disappears, and he is incapable of calling it up again. In fact, he's often incapable even of recognizing the fact that his voice has deserted him. Or, more accurately, he has deserted it.
I discovered that about myself first—and then about others later—early in my writing life. I was editing a monthly national magazine at the time, and one of our columnists was a travel writer who also worked as travel editor for the Los Angeles Times. I used to love reading his material and cherished every word. Finally, I asked myself why that was. And the answer?
Because his literary voice was the same as mine. Identical. He wrote the way he talked (I shared Martinis with him on several occasions)—and, not coincidentally, the way I talked. Strong, resolute, confident. The big difference between us was that he had the same strong voice in his writing from one piece to another, one genre to another. When I found my literary voice, it was strictly by accident. And it didn't last.
One day, I'd be right on target. The next, my writing wandered all over the place. That's because I hadn't trained myself yet to recognize when my voice was "on" and when it was "off." I couldn't tell, that is, until I began forcing myself to rewrite some of my shallow-voice stuff, honing it over and over, concentrating on how those weak words would sound if I spoke them out loud in my strong, natural speaking voice—projecting them with dynamic inflection as an actor does. And then I'd actually read the weak passages aloud, replacing the "weak" writing with the words I would use if I were speaking, until my strong literary voice was back. Very important. By hearing with your ears what your writing sounds like, you can recognize more easily if it's your voice talking … or someone else's.
In time (and I'm talking about years, now), I became more skilled at weeding out my false gods and concentrating on my one true savior. Better still, I could tell in an instant when I had gotten sloppy or lazy and lost my literary voice, and then I could get it back.
"This isn't me," I'd tell myself. "I can't send junk like this out to an editor!"
A strong literary voice took me years to define and master. Oh, sure. I'm still able to write in other people's voices simply by emulating them, which makes me pretty comfortable writing weird dialects in varying vernaculars, male and female, because I always know in the end which voice is mine and when I need to return to it.
And how to do so.
Admittedly, some writers are born writing with strong literary voices--the same voices with which they speak and project. Most are not. Sadly, few writers working today know the difference. Fewer still can call their voices up at the drop of a dime.
And that, I think, is why writers often stumble upon a strong voice when writing autobiographical fiction and then completely abandon it when their attention turns to something less creative and more plebeian, such as reportage and nonfiction. That's a sin. It's a waste of good talent. And it's one of the reasons we have so much junk writing on the market today—whether in that Great American Novel or the morning newspaper.
So, the next time you wonder about why so much nonfiction is written in such sloppy, haphazard, weak literary voices, remember what I said. And if the writer of that inferior nonfiction just happens to be you, remember what you need to do to get your strong literary voice back.
And then do it.
Until that time ...
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new e-Book series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. His blogs appear on his Website at www.djherda.org. You can also check out his columns, "The Author-Ethicist" and "Fury and the Beast," at Substack. They're free; they're entertaining; they're informative, and they run weekly. Well, almost weekly. Occasionally weekly. Sometimes weekly. (Hey, he does his best!)