India Uncut

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The writer, the voice

Yesterday five bloggers met. I was delighted to have dinner with Yazad Jal, Ravikiran Rao and Gaurav Sabnis, with Dilip D’Souza joining us for a pre-dinner coffee. I was meeting Yazad and Ravikiran for the first time, and had met Gaurav briefly once before, at a quiz. Yet, although they were strangers to me, I had a sense of knowing them well, having read their blogs for months now. Is knowing the writing different from knowing the writer?

In a brilliant essay in the New Yorker, Louis Menand writes:
Writing that has a voice is writing that has something like a personality. But whose personality is it? As with all art, there is no straight road from the product back to the producer. There are writers loved for their humor who are not funny people, and writers admired for their eloquence who swallow their words, never look you in the eye, and can’t seem to finish a sentence. Wisdom on the page correlates with wisdom in the writer about as frequently as a high batting average correlates with a high I.Q.: they just seem to have very little to do with one another. Witty and charming people can produce prose of sneering sententiousness, and fretful neurotics can, to their readers, seem as though they must be delightful to live with. Personal drabness, through some obscure neural kink, can deliver verbal blooms. Readers who meet a writer whose voice they have fallen in love with usually need to make a small adjustment afterward in order to hang on to the infatuation.

The uncertainty about what it means for writing to have a voice arises from the metaphor itself. Writers often claim that they never write something that they would not say. It is hard to know how this could be literally true. Speech is somatic, a bodily function, and it is accompanied by physical inflections—tone of voice, winks, smiles, raised eyebrows, hand gestures—that are not reproducible in writing. Spoken language is repetitive, fragmentary, contradictory, limited in vocabulary, loaded down with space holders (“like,” “um,” “you know”)—all the things writing teachers tell students not to do. And yet people can generally make themselves understood right away. As a medium, writing is a million times weaker than speech. It’s a hieroglyph competing with a symphony.

Being in the business of writing, I meet writers often, and find myself having to shift my perception of the writer after actually meeting him or her. Interestingly, I’ve found that in the case of writers with a distinctive style (or voice), after that initial “small adjustment”, the writer and the writing fit tend to fit together. One of my colleagues in Cricinfo, Dileep Premachandran, turned out to be quite different physically from the imposing figure I expected when I met him, but whenever I read his delightful prose now, I hear his voice in my mind’s ear. And quite the same thing happens with another of my colleagues with a distinctive style, Chandrahas Choudhury. The writing and the writer, in each case, are of a piece, something that is not true of lesser, or less experienced, writers.

So how did my meeting last night change my impressions of the bloggers I was dining with? Well, they did not look as I had expected them to, but as the evening wore on, I found it easy to connect them with what they write. Yazad was intense, passionately answering all the (undoubtedly naïve) questions I put to him about libertarianism, while Ravikiran was thoughtful and softspoken, with not a word out of place – quite as in The Examined Life. Gaurav was candid and straightforward, just as his writing is. I woke up this morning and hopped over to their blogs to see if I could now hear their voices in my mind’s ear as I read them. I found, to my delight, that I could. The people and the writing were now one to me, and it enhances my reading so much.

We really must keep meeting like this.
amit varma, 1:06 PM| write to me | permalink | homepage

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