The Voice Trap: On the Perils of Authorial Parochialism

October 8, 2015 | 10 books mentioned 10 7 min read


In 1998, David Foster Wallace published an essay titled “Neither Adult Nor Entertainment”[1] in Premiere magazine using not one but two pseudonyms. Though he was apparently outted against his will as its sole author, it seems strange to imagine he thought he could pull off the deception. Here’s the New York Daily News on the story: “The man of many words Bandana-wearing writer David Foster Wallace didn’t appreciate our scoop last week that he was the secret author of an article in the new Premiere about the porn business. It wasn’t that hard to unmask Foster…since the piece was littered with the same long-winded footnotes…used in his much-praised 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest. Even with such obvious clues, Foster doesn’t think it was his writing style that exposed him, but rather that someone at Premiere ratted him out.”

coverI didn’t read the Premiere article upon its release, but I don’t think I would have needed a rat to tell me who wrote it. As with most members of the relatively tiny literary community, had I been paying any attention I think it would have been pretty obvious. His voice is just that distinctive. It’s the same with any number of oft-parroted literary figures: Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Vonnegut, Charles Bukowski, Lorrie Moore, Cormac McCarthy.

It works for other art forms too, of course. Show me a photo by Robert Mapplethorpe or Diane Arbus, an interminable camera movement by Bela Tarr, an Aaron Sorkin “walk and talk” sequence, play me a track from an AC/DC album, and I’ll know, I’ll know, I’ll know without even having to think about it. Some people just have Voice.

Among this generation of writers, there could be no Voice more recognizable and imitated than that of George Saunders. And with good reason, too. A style that singular, brilliant, and incredibly New Yorker-friendly is rarer than a lottery win.

covercovercoverLike everyone, I was wild about Saunders’s first collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. And, like everyone, I was absolutely crazy about his second collection, Pastoralia. When his third, In Persuasion Nation, was released in 2007, I bought it in hardback and gobbled it up just as eagerly as the first two, this time experiencing a just a hint of disappointment. Something seemed off, or — more to the point — not off enough. I liked the new stories, sure, but they filled me with an unsettling sense of familiarity. They just seemed so…well, so similar to his others.

I closed the book, slid it into its place on the shelf, and said to myself, Enough Saunders. I get it. I get the funny, invented brand names and phony trademarks, the quirky intersection of erudition and stupidity on display in his characters inner (and outer) monologues. I get his “deadpan science fiction gloss,” as The New York Times labeled it. I just get it. However much I admired his work, it had started to seem like a magic trick I’d seen a hundred times. And the magic was wearing off.

coverI’ve been faithful in my Saunders hiatus since then. That is until recently, when, as part of a story exchange with a friend — picture a lazier version of a book club — I agreed to read and discuss “Victory Lap,” from the much-lauded 2013 collection Tenth of December, first published, of course, in The New Yorker. I wasn’t particularly excited about the selection, but I figured at the very worst reading a new Saunders story would essentially be like rereading one of his old ones.

I wanted to be wrong. But you know what? That’s exactly what it was like.

Here’s a passage, in case you haven’t read Saunders in a while. We’re in the mind of a 14-year-old boy here:

Hey, today was Tuesday, a Major Treat day. The five (5) new Work Points for placing the geode, plus his existing two (2) Work Points, totalled seven (7) Work Points, which, added to his eight (8) accrued Usual Chore Points, made fifteen (15) Total Treat Points, which could garner him a Major Treat (for example, two handfuls of yogurt-covered raisins), plus twenty free-choice TV minutes, although the particular show would have to be negotiated with Dad at time of cash-in.

One thing you will not be watching, Scout, is ‘America’s Most Outspoken Dirt Bikers.’

Classic Saunders, right? There’s something undeniably great about having Voice like that, a voice you can’t escape, like Tom Waits. Or Cher. And, career-wise, the upside must be huge. Recognition. The feeling of attachment that fans have to artistic output they feel they know because it shares an essential sameness with the work that came before. And it’s good, too. I mean, fundamentally, Saunders is a terrific writer, a great observer, a clever entertainer.

But that sameness — it’s there, and it’s nagging. There’s a downside to that much voice. An unsurprisingness. A feeling of sloggy repetition and even self-parody. At what point, after all, does Voice become a slump?

Reading “Victory Lap,” I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if Saunders did something completely different for his next book. Wouldn’t it be interesting if he wrote a historical novel or a techno-thriller, or even if he just played it straight and wrote about real feelings and people in a way that wasn’t couched in such predictable peculiarity, in a way that wasn’t so obviously him? Wouldn’t it be exciting to see him let down those droves of hard-won fans by swerving off in a completely unexpected direction?

It’s a lot to ask, I realize. And he certainly doesn’t need to change. In fact, I might be the only one calling for it, given the MacArthur Fellowship he’s been awarded and the spot he once landed on TIME’s list of the 100 “most influential people in the world.” Not to mention that I’m understating things dramatically by saying that the coverage of Tenth of December was ubiquitous and almost rabidly positive. Lest I be misunderstood, I completely appreciate everyone’s excitement over his work. I understand that he’s a Great Writer, and, according to everyone who has met him, an inspiring teacher and a hell of a nice guy.

Still, it would be a pleasure to see him take a risk. Just as I would have loved a chance to see what David Foster Wallace might have come up with deprived of his usual toolbox of idiosyncratic tricks and techniques.

Raymond Carver successfully navigated one of these big authorial shifts, as D.T. Max reported in his 1998 New York Times piece, “The Carver Chronicles,” writing:

There is an evident gap between the early style of ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,’ Carver’s first two major collections, and his later work in ‘Cathedral’ and ‘Where I’m Calling From.’ In subject matter, the stories share a great deal…But the early collections, which [Gordon] Lish edited, are stripped to the bone. They are minimalist in style with an almost abstract feel…The later two collections are fuller, touched by optimism, even sentimentality.

The toolbox of which Carver famously deprived himself for his final collections was the often-oppressive editorial intervention of Gordon Lish, who arguably sapped the fullness from Carver’s early stories favoring a style much sparer than the author himself intended. After something of a battle between them, Carver wrested (or Lish ceded) control of his work, and the result is that his last collection swells where his early stories flatten. Again from D.T. Max at The Times: “Once Carver ended his professional relationship with Lish, he never looked back. He didn’t need to. ‘Cathedral’ was his most celebrated work yet.”

covercoverJ.K. Rowling is another author who appears to have managed an enormous and worthy transition in her career and authorial voice, following up the insane success of the Harry Potter series with The Casual Vacancy, a full-on adult novel in a completely different voice, and a bestseller despite mixed reviews. For her next book, she zagged yet again, releasing a crime novel called The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Interesting to note that Rowling chose to publish the latter pseudonymously, as Robert Galbraith. It’s not unusual for writers to use pen names when dabbling in genres other than the ones that clinched their fame, presumably for the same reason that writers fall into a reliance on certain “voices” or styles to begin with — because the last thing writers want is to let down their fickle audiences. And what most readers want is more of the same.

To be fair, this, too, is understandable. Nicholson Baker’s fiction always reads like Nicholson Baker, and I love reading his books. Same for Raymond Chandler, Anton Chekhov, E.E. Cummings, Marcel Proust, and a slew of other writers with incredible and incredibly-reliable voices. That said, I’d love to see what Proust might have done in another voice, in, say, science fiction or with the story of a pair of street urchins. Or how Chandler might have written differently to tell the story of a great romance, stretching beyond his comfort zone where something entirely fresh might be born.

Maybe early writerly instruction is partly to blame for all this authorial parochialism. Aren’t we all told from the beginning that we must “find our voices?” What no one ever says is that once you wander into that swamp, you might do well to toil your way out of it again. It’s rare that you hear anyone praise authors for avoiding a reliance on a particular voice to begin with, as writers like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Richard Yates did, or as an author like Jennifer Egan continues to do.

The careers of musicians might be instructive, the way they can change from one album to the next, as Madonna has famously done in all her various manifestations. Singer Joshua Tillman (a.k.a. Father John Misty) abandoned his solo recording career as J. Tillman and his years of success with the indie-folkster band Fleet Foxes to try something completely different, an incarnation Stereogum dubbed “his shamanic lounge-lizard Father John Misty guise.” The result has been an incredible couple of albums and what will undoubtedly go down as the most interesting and creative period of his career.

Bob Dylan should perhaps be everyone’s idol on this score. I often think about the gamble he took by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Everything went haywire afterwards, and he must have questioned everything. But that act did more than merely change his career, it changed culture. It’s no wonder that some artists aren’t inclined to veer into unknown territory, but the courageous ones prove that Voice is never more powerful than the moment an artist forsakes it.

[1] The piece was later republished as “Big Red Son” in his collection Consider the Lobster.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

has written about books for many places. His first novel, Arcade, is out now.


  1. I’m not entirely in agreement but it’s nice to see a rigorous, intellectual essay and one not ruined by academese or identity politics. Congrats to the author and to the Rumpus for not publishing another hysterical shriek about “racism” or “sexism” or some other largely conquered evil. Smith draws attention to an important literary paradox and gives real readers something to think about. I would be curious to see if he thinks this voice-obsession is particularly an American epidemic.
    I tend to think it is. The Brits (the other major nation with writers who publish originally in English, it’s hard to judge “voice” in translated work) are generally regarded as better at pulling off an American accent than vice-versa in their actors. In their fiction writers I believe they are similarly divorced from voice (Orwell and Greene are excellent examples and I think clearly better than Egan at avoiding “voice”-heavy narration; Yates while masterful has a bit of sneering disdain — though well deployed for the most part — as well that is hard to fully purge).
    Bob Dylan is an interesting comparison but I think the actorly voice is a better analogy than music because despite Dylan’s many identities and changing voice over time, his voice has always pretty uniformly been classically “unpretty” or, to look at the positive spin, as he has sung himself: “I’ve got the blood of the land in my voice ” Although there is some conscious malleability of annunciation for effect across his canon, it seems like what Smith is talking about there, and with Father John Misty and Rowling, is personas.
    What the best bands do, IMO, is somehow always manage to sound like themselves, but every song managers to NOT sound the same. And while DFW and Cormac do have signature styles, their early and later works are every bit as distinctive, if not more so, than Carver’s early-to-late transition.

  2. A writer’s voice or style is his signature, unique writing DNA. It follows the writer even into genre switches.

  3. Quoting from Sean H above, “racism” or “sexism” or some other largely conquered evil.”

    Is that so? You actually believe that Sean H?

    But the topic is authorial voice.

    I turn to a wide variety of authors because of their voices; I want to hear a certain voice when I am in a certain mood.

    Likewise, I turn away from some authors because of their voices; and I do not want to hear certain kinds of voices at certain other times.

    How this is a problem, I do not know. I know, however, that I would not want to hear the voice of Daffy Duck when considering the words of Marcel Proust.

  4. “I do not want to hear certain kinds of voices at certain other times.”
    It’s about you? No, sorry, it’s about the author. Whether you read him/her is irrelevant.

    The implied suggestion of the writer of the article is to my mind that authors should develop, should acquire a different voice with time and experience. That is not at all unreasonable. It’s what we expect of any human, so why should authors retain one voice?

    OTOH given how hard writers struggle to achieve what they feel – and their publishers tell them – is the successful, saleable voice, it would seem an unreasonable demand to want them to change it.

  5. Yes, I think racism in particular is largely conquered. Where we are in 2015 is a lot closer to utopic perfection than to hellish slavery and institutionalized oppression. The life of the average person of color literally gets better every single day in America. College classrooms fill with persons of color, as do the employment ranks of Fortune 500 companies and the numbers of people who qualify as millionaires and of course the number of interracial marriages and interracial children increases and multiplies, increases and multiplies.
    Gender will take longer to conquer, especially if we foolishly act like gender can simply be chosen, that it isn’t a deeply genetic divide that separates men and women, and I even think we’re rightfully invested in making things “better STILL,” but that doesn’t mean they’re not largely a heck of a lot better than the days of deeply influential sexism and racism pervading every aspect of daily American life.

  6. “Approximately 12–13% of the American population is African-American, but they make up 60% of the almost 2.1 million male inmates in jail or prison (U.S. Department of Justice, 2009).”

    “Whites now have 12 times the wealth of blacks and nearly 10 times more than Hispanics (in 2013). But in 1995, the spread was only 7 times for blacks and 6 times for Hispanics.”

    It is easier to get a job as a white man who just got out of prison than a black man with no criminal record. Obviously black people are better off now than under slavery but to say racism has been ‘conquered’ is absolute nonsense. Are you trolling or just clueless?

  7. Not trolling, sir/ma’am. I’m quite familiar with prison populations, I’ve read Michelle Alexander’s book and taught it at a major university. I’ve read plenty of other work about mass incarceration in America (in particular I recommend American Furies and Newjack).
    I said “largely conquered” not “totally conquered.” I’m all for even less racism in America and in the world.
    Should non-violent drug offenders be let out of prison en masse tomorrow, regardless of race? Absolutely. But the violent offenders who are in jail, black, white, Hispanic or otherwise, are exactly where they deserve to be. If you’re a person of color and you rape, murder, assault or commit a violent robbery, I don’t want to hear about “systemic racism,” you’re a criminal and you belong behind bars for a long time.
    And to paraphrase Chris Rock, the vast majority of poor people in America are white. Just because a tiny percentage of white people (the 1%, if you will) are really rich, doesn’t mean that the average white person is rich or even middle class.

  8. BTW, I wish someone would discuss or augment or expand upon the substance of my literary critique instead of narrowly concentrating on a perceivedly unpopular political comment. The Millions is a site capable of providing a livelier and more intellectually diverse comments section that needn’t resort to name calling, oversimplification or the “You’re a racist because I disagree with you” rhetoric that pervades so many online comments sections.

  9. Referencing markhg:

    “It’s about you? No, sorry, it’s about the author. Whether you read him/her is irrelevant.”

    On the contrary. Without the reader, the author has no voice at all, having not been read.

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