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Literary Voice, Part 1: Some Writers Like to Be Invisible, Others Just the Opposite


AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: giving writing a voice.

RS: English Professor Ben Yagoda at the University of Delaware defines "voice" this way:

BEN YAGODA: "Apart from subject matter, what makes that writer's work identifiable when you don't know who the author is. And sometimes that's easy if it's a Hemingway or Gertrude Stein or maybe Faulkner. Sometimes it's a little more difficult. Some shout out their own names as you read their work, and others are a little more invisible."

AA: Ben Yagoda calls that type of writing the "middle style." He points out that it is advocated in one of the most influential books on writing, "The Elements of Style" by Strunk and White.

RS: Now Ben Yagoda has written his own book that explores writing with, one might say, more of an attitude. The book is called "The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing."

BEN YAGODA: "It's a hard subject to talk about, to write about, and in seeking to write about it, I decided I would go out and go to the source. So I did about 45 interviews with writers who have what I think of a strong personal style. And, in doing those interviews, one of the things I found out was, to a surprising extent, they don't think about this and/or aren't aware of their own style. So it's one of those things that comes out fairly naturally. If you really set about trying to create a style, it's a little forced and artificial.

"A parallel of comparison is a jazz soloist, an instrumentalist. When you think of John Coltrane or Charlie Parker or Lester Young or any saxophone player, jazz aficionados, once they hear one or at the most two notes from any of those folks, can instantly identify it. But I don't that John Coltrane sat around saying 'How am I going to come up with a style that's distinctive?'"

RS: "Well, how about for the rest of us who are not natural jazz players or perhaps not ever going to be a distinctive writer -- "

AA: "A brand-name writer."

BEN YAGODA: "Right. Well, you know, I have an answer for the rest of us, and I put myself in that category as well. I think that it's a sort of never-ending process, becoming aware of one's own style, voice, tics, habits, whatever you might want to call it. It's not something that shouts out like Hemingway, but it's little subtle things that maybe you yourself are the only person who's aware of them.

"The example that I give for myself is using parentheses. My first drafts of whatever I write are usually filled with dozens and dozens of parentheses for every eight or nine pages. And I like using parentheses because it reflects the way I see the world. I like to pursue digressions and see both sides of things, and that really reflects my way of thinking and seeing. And that's a cool thing about style.

"On the other hand, I know that if I leave them all in on the first draft, it can become tedious and overbearing. So when I rewrite and revise, I often take out about half the parentheses. So there are still more of them in one of my pieces of writing than average. But you know what? I may be the only person who's aware of it."

RS: "How do you even become aware?"

AA: "Well, right, I mean, are you writing for yourself or are you writing for the reader?"

BEN YAGODA: "Well, you know, the thing I've described about your style, I've described that as writing for yourself. On the other hand, depending on what you're writing, whether it's an essay or a short story, certainly if you don't communicate to a reader, it's pretty much worthless."

RS: Next week, we'll continue our conversation with Ben Yagoda, an English professor at the University of Delaware and author of "The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing."

AA: You can find earlier interviews we've done with Ben Yagoda on our Web site, voanews.com/wordmaster. And our e-mail address is word@voanews.com. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.

MUSIC: "Blue Train"/Title song from John Coltrane's 1957 album

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