Sunday, July 24, 2005

Writer’s voice

At Cinefan yesterday I met Trina Nileena Banerjee, fellow blogger and leading lady of the film Nisshabd, which was screened here. We spoke for only a short while but as I was leaving Trina said she had pictured me as being quite different, based on my blog. “I thought you’d be more intimidating,” she said, as I shuffled about awkwardly, studying my shoes.

She had a point – I’m more irreverent and articulate in my writing than in person – but I don’t see why people’s personalities should be expected to exactly match what and how they write. There’s usually a world of difference between the written voice and the spoken voice. In that context I’d urge you to read
this essay by Louis Menand, which I came across in the India Uncut archives. (Btw, Amit: the New Yorker link is no longer functional.)

A sampler:

Writing that has a voice is writing that has something like a personality. But whose personality is it? As with most things in art, there is no straight road from the product back to the person who made it. There are writers read and loved for their humor who are not especially funny people, and writers read and loved for their eloquence who, in conversation, swallow their words or 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 IQ: they just seem to have very little to do with one another. Charming people can produce prose of sneering sententiousness, and cranky neurotics can, to their readers, seem to be inexhaustibly delightful. Personal drabness, through some obscure neural kink, can deliver verbal blooms. Readers who meet writers whose voice they have fallen in love with usually need to make a small adjustment in order to hang on to their infatuation.

At another level, much of the acrimony in the blogosphere (nasty exchanges between blogger and commenter) arises from the disconnect between what a blogger writes and what he/she is like in the real world. Speaking from personal experience, for instance, I often write things in a facetious vein that some readers end up taking very seriously. If these people knew me in person, over a period of time, they’d probably feel less offended: they’d know, for instance, that my rants against PR people are, more than anything else, lame attempts to be funny; that I have close friends in PR (and in marketing, and advertising – two other professions I’m not very charitable to); and that, when in a certain kind of “hold a mirror up to the world” mood, I can be equally disparaging towards my own profession, journalism, or towards some of the things I love doing myself – like spending long hours at film festivals, or reading and reviewing three books a week.

Long-time friends will almost never post an angry, strongly worded comment, even if they completely disagree with something you’ve written. Partly of course that’s because they can just pick up the phone and talk to you about it, or send you a personal mail; but it’s also because, having known you over a period of time, they’re less likely to think of you as a threat to their entire moral universe just because you’ve expressed one opinion (or two, or five) that counters their own beliefs. But with commenters who don’t know the blogger, it’s different – it’s easy for them to misread even one sentence as a summary judgement on them and their way of thinking, and consequently their very existence.

Anyway, I rambleth on, despite promising myself that I’d try to keep my next few posts short. Read that Louis Menand essay – it’s really very good, and you don’t have to look at it in the context of blogging at all.

(P.S. Have cross-posted this at Indi Cubed.)


  1. On the subject of a writer's voice and style, do also see A. Alvarez's 'The Writer's Voice'. It's excellent.

  2. The Louis Menand piece was lovely - thanks.
    I've often found that the other way round is true as well - reading (and being very surprised by) something written by someone I know, or thought I did. Singing voice is right.

  3. I've heard comments like that too from the few online people I've met. I'm milder, less articulate, and less fun in general, I think. Though they tend to be surprised by the accent (were you?)

    I think you were pretty similar in real life to how I pictured you though.:)

    (And nice essay - thanks!)

  4. "But with commenters who don’t know the blogger, it’s different – it’s easy for them to misread even one sentence as a summary judgement on them and their way of thinking, and consequently their very existence."


    this is what i think about many bloggers - one word against them, they come charging with all their quills raised and banish the poor commenter from their mighty blogdom. some throw a hissy fit and say "no more comments" and retract to their cosy "it's me, my world, my opinons" nook.

    ah, well.