Elbow, “Introduction: About Voice and Writing”

Elbow, Peter. “About Voice and Writing.” Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing. Ed. Peter Elbow. Mahwah, NJ: Hermagoras Press, 1994. xi-xlvii. (47 pages)

In his introduction to Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing, Elbow offers “descriptive claims about the meanings of voice in writing that people from various ideological camps will be able to agree on” (xi). He first offers a rounded discussion of three debates occurring in discussions of voice and then delineates features of voice.

Discourse as text/Discourse as voice: At the basis of these descriptions is an understanding of voice as a metaphor to talk about writing, one that works alongside the textuality metaphor. He points to three differences apparent between the two lenses:

  1. “…the textuality metaphor highlights how discourse issues from other discourse (seeing all texts as ‘intertextual’), while the voice metaphor highlights how discourse issues form individual persona and from physical bodies.
  2. “The text metaphor highlights the visual and spatial features of language and emphasizes language as an abstract, universal system; the voice metaphor highlights sound and hearing rather than vision, and it emphasizes the way all linguistic meaning moves historically through time rather than existing simultaneously in space.
  3. “The textuality metaphor calls attention to the commonalities between one person’s discourse and that of others and of the culture; the voice metaphor calls attention to the differences from one person to another” (xiv)

Ethos as real virtue in the real person vs ethos as the appearance of virtue. Elbow all takes up questions over voice’s role in constructing identity. He situates voice historically with ethos, and that listeners (or readers) often assess a rhetor based on the persona that the person constructs. Or, in other words, readers and listeners actively attempt to construct the voice of a rhetor in order to level judgment. Extended from this discussion,

Voice as self vs voice as role: Elbow also considers the debate about whether voice is linguistically constructed or some reflection of a ‘real self’. On one side of the debate, “either there is no ‘real self’—‘self’ consisting of nothing but the succession of voices or selves that we create in language; or perhaps there is a real self but its completely invisible and unavailable to readers, so they only thing worth talking about is the created self on paper” (xvii). On the other side of the debate, identity exists apart from the language people use. In this view, there appears to be an emphasis on sincerity, the inner need to express his or her feelings: “the more individual it is—the more the artist has drawn it from the depths of his nature—the more sympathetic and sincere it will be” (Tolstoy quoted by Elbow xviii). Elbow seems appreciate both.

Different sense of voice.

Elbow, then, explores the features of physical voice and then five meanings of voices when applied to write.

Physical voice: produced by the body, voice is a recognizable feature of one’s unique identity, this ability to recognize and identify an individual by their voice comes from the sound, manner, and tone of the speaker. Voice is beholden to audience. It also has much more modes available to create meaning.

  1. Audible voice or intonation in writing: this first feature links together speech and writing. Namely, Elbow notes that there is often a push to keep speech qualities out of writing, but here, he claims that we often read with “echoes of speech in [our] ears” (xxvii).
  2. Dramatic voice in writing: “we do tend to read a human quality or characteristic into a voice” “when we acknowledge that every text has an implied author, we are acknowledging that every text has a character or dramatic voice” (xxviii).
  3. Recognizable or distinct voice in writing: “writers often develop styles that are recognizable and distinctive” Here, elbow hits upon ownership of writing through those stylistic choices: “a habitual and thus recognizable way of doing [writing]”, i.e. style. (xxxi).
  4. Voice with authority—‘Having a voice’
  5. Resonant voice or presence: “involves making inferences about the relation between the present text and the absent writer, but it does not assume any particular model of the self or theory of identity” “writers or speakers do manage to find words which seem to capture the rich complexity of the unconscious; or words which, though they don’t express or articulate everything that is in the unconscious, nevertheless somehow seem to resonate with or have behind them the unconscious as well as the conscious (or at least much larger portions than usual” (xxxiv).

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