“Voice” is the aspect of a literary work which conveys the distinct power and flavor of the narrator’s personality. Voice is different from style, although it depends on style for its realization. Here is the writer Holly Lisle attempting to capture the idea of voice:
. . . .you have to put yourself on your page. This is what is known in the writing business as developing your voice. Voice isn’t merely style. Style would be easy by comparison. Style is watching your use of adjectives and doing a few flashy things with alliteration. Style without voice is hollow. Voice is style, plus theme, plus personal observations, plus passion, plus belief, plus desire. Voice is bleeding onto the page, and it can be a powerful, frightening, naked experience.
Voice is difficult to define, and evidently even more difficult to teach and cultivate. They say the writer has to “find her voice.”
In Philip Roth’s novel The Ghostwriter, Nathan Zuckerman, a novice writer, has submitted with trepidation his four published stories to his hero E. I. Lonoff—“the great man”—for judgment. Zuckerman is thrilled when Lonoff eventually remarks:
“Look, I told Hope this morning: Zuckerman has the most compelling voice I’ve encountered in years, certainly for somebody starting out.”
“I don’t mean style”—raising a finger to make the distinction. “I mean voice: something that begins at around the back of the knees and reaches well above the head. don’t worry too much about ‘wrong.’ Just keep going. You’ll get there.”
However resistant to definition, voice is unmistakable when you hear it. Here are the opening of two renowned novels. The voices of the narrators are remarkably different, yet each immediately takes possession of the reader:
Herman Melville, Moby Dick:
Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball.
Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.
“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”
I first read Prabhupada’s presentation of Canto One of Srimad Bhagavatam in 1971. At that time the work was available only in the three volumes of the League of Devotee edition that Prabhupada had published in India and brought with him to America in 1965.
It was in these volumes that I encountered Prabhupada’s voice.
The thick, cheap paper of the books were crudely bound. The text was riddled with typos and solecisms. The writing was certainly not “standard” English, but more like what the British called, disparagingly, “Babu English,” the ornate but imperfect English of Indian clerks.
Recognizing the shortcomings of his work, Prabhupada directed his American disciples to edit the volumes to meet the strict requirements of standard English. Even the Sanskrit transliterations had to conform to the established academic usage. This normalized version of the first canto was published in the West under the imprint of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
I am grateful that I was able first to read Canto One in the original India version. True, it presented a challenge to me when I quoted from it extensively in a paper for a course in graduate religious studies. Standard practice demanded that I put “[sic]” after every single anomaly. It didn’t take me long to forswear that practice, and I simply presented in a footnote my reasons for not salting my quotation with sics. To tell the truth, I was a little embarrassed. So it is not that I did not welcome the BBT edition when it came.
At the same time, something precious to me was lost with the rectification of Prabhupada’s text to standard English: His voice was muffled, muted. And that voice appealed powerfully to me during my first reading; it moved me profoundly. And I missed it later on. For that reason, I return regularly to the original. And I was glad when the BBT published in 2005 a facsimile edition of the original three volumes.
In the excerpt below from the original edition, Prabhupada writes of his own project of presenting Bhagavatam in English to the Western world. If voice requires “passion, plus belief, plus desire,” we encounter it here, in full spiritualized force, energizing Prabhupada’s writing. In this passage, Prabhupada speaks of the urgent need for the Bhagavatam. At the same time he acknowledges his own shortcomings in presenting it and makes the case why the reader should overlook them. Almost magically, he transforms his imperfections into perfections.
Here it is. (You can compare this version of Bhagavatam 1.5.11 to the normalized version here.)
You can see how the energy of Prabhupada’s voice is conveyed by the way his sentences advance through long, rhythmic rhetorical periods, building up power.
Let me illustrate this by graphically rearranging some sentences:
For those of you who want a further taste of Prabhupada voice, here is the Preface to the second volume of the Bhagavatam. Prabhupada again speaks of his mission of propagating Bhagavatam to the world and urges its necessity. “Voice is style, plus theme, plus personal observations, plus passion, plus belief, plus desire.” All are displayed by Prabhupada in full: