In articles on writing, in agents calls to prospective authors, in creative writing courses everyone talks about characters needing a strong voice. You really want to see the characters in the way they talk, you want hear a voice you’ve never heard before. I get it, because when you read a strong voice it really sounds like you’ve captured something unique.
But I’m beginning to wonder if these strong character voices in literature are little more than the gilt edging on a book made from cheap materials. Oh, sure, it looks pretty, but how long is it going to last?
Can I blame our current trends in pop music for lowering our expectations? The radio (however you conceive it today) is full of a lot of hit songs that are catchy and bouncy and full of strong voices but musically they’re about as unique as a cheap ballpoint pen; they’re functional, disposable, interchangeable, and forgettable.
There was a time — pull up a rocker, the cranky old man is about to come out — when popular music moved from manufactured hits to artists looking to be more creative. Bands evolved into creative units looking to expand their musical vocabularies, a path blazed by the Beatles and followed by many. And when the Beatles broke up and become solo artists the era of the singer-songwriter blossomed. There are many things to be said — good and bad — about the music that came out of the “classic” era of classic rock, but for a period of time what’s clear is that music was a marriage of vocal, lyrical, AND musical ideas. True, Led Zeppelin was simply amplified blues and Jethro Tull towed old English folk sensibilities into their songs, but there were ideas that went beyond their singer’s voices. Crosby, Stills, Nash and (occasionally) Young didn’t invent vocal harmony, but they didn’t rest entirely on that magical melding of sounds; listen to the structure of their songs, their free-form progressions, and you realize that much of what they did would have been unique even without their stellar vocal approach.
The point is, there was more to pop music than a voice.
But today we have reality TV shows that celebrate the cult of voice as being above all things in music, throwing out the notion of original music by having people sing known songs and not dealing with anything more daring that a slightly different arrangement. As TV goes it’s cheap to produce, and besides a back-up band all you really need is a microphone for the singer, no messy band gear to set up. It is, in a sense, all surface with little substance.
And this is where I’m starting to have problems with this idea of voice.
In the Cult of Voice in pop culture an action hero with a reliable catch phrase is more memorable than a well-crafted monologue. Wise-cracking teens (who are much more articulate and quick-witted than real teens) dance their way through epically-told tales of romance and death fetish (zombies, vampires, etc.). But the author with a unique narrative approach, a story with three-dimensional characters with baroque dialogue, those are not the voices the gatekeepers are looking for, move along.
In a recent #kidlitchat on twitter a question was raised: in today’s climate would Shel Silverstein be published today? I immediately said ‘no.’ I wonder if many of the no-considered classics in children’s literature, or classic rock for that matter, would have survived our contemporary need for strong voices above unique ideas or a bold authorial style. If Vonnegut were just starting out, would he make it? Could Anais Nin unseat “Fifty Shades of Grey” on style alone? Is it possible that Roald Dahl could only have existed in his time?
I know I’ve garbled this subject, with music and TV and book references, but all the same I cannot help feeling like so much of what is published is voice-over-storytelling.
A correction is in order, a new balance. Writers need to dig deep down and let their freak flag fly. Hopefully the business side of the storytelling factory can hear the story above the din of empty voices.