Friday, October 21, 2016

''That Continual Hmmmmm'', a literary oped by Sven Birkerts

That Continual Hmmmmm
by Sven Birkerts 

I'm fascinated by the waxing and waning of words and usages and of the concepts that underlie them. What is it that first puts a notion on everybody's lips, and then later makes it eye-roll material as soon as it hits some indeterminate expiration date? Who decides? Is it just a matter of saturation? If that were true, our political life would have expired long ago. Maybe it did.

The word on my mind today is "voice," and it's there because after years and years of not daring (or wanting) to use it - it had become such a cliché in the writing world: you need to find your voice, what is the voice doing in this piece? - it suddenly sounded plausible again. Just recently someone asked me to talk about voice in essay-writing and I didn't even flinch.

And now it's in my thoughts. When I asked myself what I wanted to write in this newsletter, it showed up again. Voice.

On September 1st the submissions gates, closed since the end of May, opened again. Really, they burst wide. It happens every year, but I somehow forget, and then comes the morning when I feel like the manager at Best Buy unlocking the door for the Black Friday sale. The submissions are there in the hundreds. My laptop all but vibrates from the pent-up content. And the work begins. Happy work, I should add. Because after a quiet summer I'm rested, ready to listen.

Did you get that? I didn't say "read." I said listen. Because that, I realize, is what I am doing. I open a file and move my eyes along the words, but the eye is conduit to the ear. I am focusing my attention as the sounds arrive. I am waiting to be reached by a ... voice.

It's a tricky business to say what I mean here. Obviously not every string of words and phrases arrives as a voice. In fact, very few do. And of those, fewer still come in on the frequency that we think of as ours - AGNI's. I'm talking less about good and bad - though there is much to be said there, too - and more about a piece of writing being in accord with an aesthetic. Which is...? Which is what a journal, any journal, is finally about. Its aesthetic is what gives it its reason for being. That aesthetic is a worldview as it is represented in an artistic medium. It is what is being expressed and, every bit as important, how it is being expressed.

But even this feels like such a tentative sketch of a definition. How to get in closer? Ten different journals can espouse the same basic ideas about our world today and have as many different aesthetics. This business is all about gradations and the distinction needs to be made sharper.

I suppose it comes down to questions of emphasis - where in our assessment of reality we let the accents fall. And this, in turn - how not? -  comes down to the collective personality and temperament of the screeners and editors.

We work together - and keep working together - because we share essential affinities. These are manifest in our responses and judgments. They are implicit in the way we talk about stories, essays, and poems. It is, I know, the same with the readers and editors at other journals - whether it's The Virginia Quarterly Review or The Paris Review. And as they say in Paris: Vive la difference!

All of which brings me back to the opened gate, the influx of submissions, and the mysterious process that is listening for voice.

Voice is, most simply, identity as transmitted through words and their tones; it is a distinct vibration that communicates the feeling of an authentic other life. Voice need not be confiding or confessional. What matters is the authenticity, that it come across as self-consistent and unique. Not the sound of an admired other, or of a prevailing tendency or a workshop consensus, but the expression of an independent sensibility experiencing of the world.

There is sure to be some dissent here. I know that my definition is partial and somewhat off-the-cuff. But it's what strikes me now, in this reading season, as I draw a breath and look away from the unbroken column of submissions on my screen. As I try to figure out what it is, when I've been going No, No, No, No, that makes me pause and say Hmmm. What elicits that low hum of interest?

I can say it's very seldom a complication of story - that comes later - nor is it usually the delivery of some unexpected universal truth. Far more likely it's a sound that seems real: a sound belonging to a voice that does not seem calculated, that is not forcing the issue (whatever the issue is) for effect, but rather letting it reveal itself. That voice can be talking about the most unlikely things. Indeed, I can be more readily seduced by the right description of a knife cutting the rind off a melon than by the rendered screams of a feuding couple. Not to say that those can't be the most wonderful grist - of course they can - but they succeed only when the scene is set and the tone is right, and for that the writer needs...

I'm taking my instances from fiction, but the principle applies with all the written genres. It's a "know it when I see it" business, but this does not mean it happens by chance. Rather, it is a subtle sub-threshold event in which the tuned-up readerly instincts recognize and react to the many elements - rhythm, tone, syntax, and diction among them - that make up a voice. The reader's first - but also determining - response reminds me of what Keats said about axioms in philosophy: that they "are not axioms until they are proved upon our pulses."

This is what my ongoing search for the Hmmm is about. Though it demands hours of often thankless reading, it repays with the sudden surprise of connection, which I will insist is the pleasure of an immediate encounter and confirmation that the system works, that the right words in the right order can still deliver.

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