You'll recognize the 'voice' when the fine prose sings.
The Bays were crossing Nevada--through desert at high noon--as Annabelle's mezzo-soprano emerged from deep in the backseat.
She ran a quick scale then moved into Mozart, faking the German lyric but shaping the notes with the round precision of a pro. As she held a very high note I looked at my wife then yelled, "Our ears can't take it."
In the sudden uh-oh of cold silence, I added: "That's great, dear, but the windows are rolled up." Annabelle replied, with pointed huff, "Dad. You're the one who's been telling me to practice."
Aye, the hard rub. Mom and Dad had both been on her case.
I glanced in the rearview mirror, scanned Annabelle's face. "When you let it go, with the power you've got, your voice is too big for the car," I said. "That's a gift. Really. A gift. Do you want to stop by the road and sing? We can stop on the shoulder. I'll stop on the shoulder."
"That's stupid" Annabelle sniffed.
"It's a hundred and nine degrees out there. If you roll the windows down we'll melt, my wife said, a sotto voce way of telling me my suggestion was utter damn foolish. Kathy turned to Annabelle. "Could you sing a little more quietly?"
Praise be to Mommy. Next stop, Cedar City.
After accounting for parental hyperbole and pride--the likely faults of any essayist writing about his own children--trust that Annabelle Bay has a powerful singing voice. However, maturing natural talent is a long and difficult process. Moving from the car to Carnegie Hall takes practice, practice, practice--and a generous dose of opportunity. My daughter knows this. At some point she'll decide if singing will be a professional pursuit as well as a personal passion. Given the time it takes for an operatic voice to mature, she has several years.
Though I've had a little experience in Hollywood, I'm not quite sure what a producer does other than hustle money, take phone calls, make promises, and try to acquire talent. As a writer, I understand what a publisher does in providing economic support and market expertise for a literary or journalistic endeavor. My wife and I are supporting the development of our daughter's talent with voice and piano lessons. The difference between parent and publisher is, of course, the vast chasm separating love and the bottom line.
Publishers and editors, however, are in the "voice" production business. To draw the finer point, publishers and editors are in the business of recognizing, educating, shaping, and promoting the "written voice, which means there will be times when love of craft and investment in human potential will stretch the immediate bottom line.
Is it live or is it Memorex? Though digital technology has all but ended the era of the cartridge recording tape, the Memorex TV ad featuring Ella Fitzgerald singing and a crystal glass shattering deserves a spot in Madison Avenue's Hall of Fame. Miss Fitzgerald's distinctive voice not only had cult cachet among jazz aficionados, but her sustained power, as demonstrated in the commercial, convinced even the most musically ignorant of football and soap opera fans that a Memorex tape of Ella in full swing was a bona fide threat to the china cabinet. With a song-stress of Fitzgerald's caliber, there is no doubt what we mean by her "voice," from diaphragm to vocal cords to inimitable performance. Her instrument was magnificent, supple, and immense.
The "written voice," however, is a murkier, more subjective concept.
1962: My parents with four kids crammed in a sedan made the great American trek west to visit cousins in McMinnville, Oregon. At eleven, I was already a newsprint junkie, the convicted reader who nabs the local rag at every stop en route. I've forgotten the headlines in Phoenix and Albuquerque, but four decades later I remember a story from a small town paper I picked up either in Nevada or southern Oregon. There's a reason I remember that story--a long paragraph treating the town's lone crime in the last twenty-four hours: The town cop had jailed a drunk, the felon's umpteenth bust. I read the story aloud. A quirky description by the reporter led Mom to bet me the bum's arrest was a predictable and perhaps weekly affair. "He's the drunk in a small town," she said. "Everyone knows him." Now we knew him, or at least a thin slice of his bio, the short, sad saga of a sot preserved among the births, graduations, weddings, and deaths. The reporter's humor and heart connected the event to the flow of community history. It's an old lesson, but it's what "voice" does when voice is present: Tell the story well, and no story is too small. The reporter's one-liner, like Ella Fitzgerald reaching the perfect note, "broke crystal" and made the police blotter memorable. The facts were there, and accurate--heavens, Miss Fitzgerald had to hit the right note, to accurately render the lyric and melodic facts of her song-but the bare facts weren't barren.
A writer's voice has a unique quality, a dynamic combination of style, personality, tone, rhythm, and authority. Authority proceeds from accuracy, attitude, and authenticity. More specifically, accuracy of facts and analysis, attitude toward subject matter and the audience, authenticity of faith, passion, and commitment.
Perry Knowlton, former president of the Curtis Brown agency and my first literary agent, told me his rule of thumb: If someone can write a very good letter there's a decent chance he can write a fairly good book. Mr. Knowlton meant something more than snappy epistolary form, content and grammar. The "very good letter" was one letter in every three or four thousand, a letter with a pulse, a letter alive, a letter manifesting voice.
Voice: You know it when you read it, when you hear the fine prose sing.
The cheeky analog is the Supreme Court identifying pornography. Forget the legal definitions; the chief justice and pals will recognize and censor porn when they see it, so let's go to the videotape. Henry Adams recognizing "the modern" is a more elegant parallel. Modernity--no matter how indefinite or ineffable the combination of qualities that produce it--is a total effect. Adams knew it when he saw it.
Perry Knowlton used his rule of thumb to identify a potential literary voice. New voices, however, are made, not born.
That's the quick synthesis of Norman Isaacs rummaging on, over, and around the subject. 1980, Columbia University: I was completing a PhD in English and comparative lit. Following a conversation in a hallway where I mentioned I had a stack of freelance newspaper and magazine articles, one of the J-school's assistant deans suggested I take Mr. Isaacs's "Ethics in Journalism" class. "If you're going to take a journalism course, this is the course to take," the dean said. He was right.
Mr. Isaacs had two Pulitzer Prizes, byproducts of a newspaper career that began at the age of sixteen and included a long stint battling Jim Crow segregation as editor of The Courier-Journal in Louisville. He kept one Pulitzer on his desk. "They're good paperweights," he said.
As he passed me a shot of bourbon at an end-of-the-semester party, Norman also passed along his hard-boiled hiring advice for newspaper editors. "You hire brains and character, then you provide guidance." That applies both to reporters and opinion page personnel. In time, if the talent's there, it will emerge. "But it takes guidance and persistence, by both the editor and the writer," he said. Mr. Isaccs's glasses slipped down his nose. He peered at me over their rim, then grinned. "Persistence," he said again, with persistence.
When he served as editorial page editor at the San Antonio Express-News, Sterlin Holmesly sought informed, opinionated people who could write with sincerity and with some degree of energy. Then he would give them the space and time to learn to shape those opinions and develop a voice. "But there's more to it than that, taking that time and that risk to put someone on a page, a new writer on the page," Holmesly told me in 1993. "When looking for editorial writing or column writing talent, there's the ten rule:
"An intelligent person with an opinion about something can produce an editorial on that subject, produce maybe ten editorials. It's number eleven and all those thereafter."
Holmesly was looking for staying power, the discipline it takes to handle the long haul. Discipline is a talent no pro ever underestimates. Discipline is the spine of Norman Isaacs's insistence on "persistence."
Rich Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, says he's noticed that most new opinion writers start on a fringe but over time more toward the center politically. It's an editor's job to help the truly talented mature, and that takes a special kind of discipline by an editor.
Discovering talent is itself a creative act.
The San Antonio Express-News does an exemplary job of finding "new" voices throughout central and south Texas. Lynnell Burkett has the same knack Holmesly displayed. Holmesly now says his technique for finding talent was so simple it's complex: "I was always on the lookout. You have to look. There's a selfish reason, too. An editorial page editor always has to have something in the pipeline."
Discovering and developing a voice also requires self-assurance. One of the biggest hurdles a new voice confronts is the "experts have to come from out of town" syndrome. That's a version of "a prophet is ignored in his own home town."
Information technology may be the cure for that parochial syndrome. I spent the month of September 2002 in East Africa. With the exception of my- stop along an outback stretch of the Uganda/Congo border region, I read five or six U.S. newspapers a day on the Web. Via the Houston Chronicle at chron.com I stayed up with the Astros while in Kenya and Kampala. So start with this set of facts: The Internet has expanded every newspaper's circulation. The local voice now has global reach. The local voice is also quickly exposed to global critique. We're in the era of global news, commentary, gossip, and lightning-fast reader feedback.
This is also the golden age of "web logs," in geek lingo, "blogs" ([we]blogs), "private publications" on Internet home pages. Click through the World Wide Web's tens of thousands of blogs and you'll find the work of kooks and boors linked and hyperlinked to informed laymen and an occasional genius. Instapundit.com, the blog run by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, is the best place to start exploring blogs. The subject of numerous major media articles, Reynolds is, in my view, as much a "new" type of editor as he is a well-informed commentator. Reynolds reads other blogs and then links to interesting articles and opinions. Andrew Sullivan, former editor of The New Republic, has combined the blog with the talents of a gifted editorialist. His homepage is andrewsullivan.com.
Editors already troll blogs for new writing talent. Scanning a blog's archive is a quick way to gauge not only subject matter expertise and persistence, but to look for tell-tale signs of growth. The blogger's response to reader feedback is a measure of maturity.
What to do with precious column inches? So many voices, so little space in tomorrow's paper. I'm an admitted newsprint junkie. My wife says my Indian name is "Treekiller" The future, however, isn't measured in column inches but in gigabytes. The editorial page of the future already exists today, albeit in nascent form, with linked and hyperlinked stories, editorials, columns, and letters. The links can go deep into the library. Say I write a column about failed states in Central Asia, and I mention the Treaty of Westphalia (1648, the document "establishing" the nation-state system in Europe). An interested editor can link directly to a copy of the treaty--and several thousand erudite scholarly commentaries--without question reinforcing my crucial, pivotal, analytically decisive point.
Let me hope.
The gigabyte galaxy is a void demanding new voices. It is also new space for editorial imagination, and a new place for fine prose to sing.
Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist based in Austin, Texas. As this edition went to press, Bay, a reserve officer in the U.S. Army, was assigned to Iraq for a four-month tour of duty. E-mail email@example.com