The other day I ran into a friend at the gym. We greeted each other with some surprise (neither of us knew the other was a member) and then chatted before returning to the various instruments of torture with which we hope to regain something like youth and health.
In the conversation, he told me that he had begun reading my most recent book, Padre. It’s the one I wrote about my parents and their passing. Then, he said an interesting thing. “You write like you talk,” he said. “Reading the book is like hanging out with you.”
I think he meant it as a compliment. I’ll take it as one, anyway. But, why I mention this (besides my own egotism) is that I’ve heard something quite different more than once. I have spent much of my life fighting tooth and nail to write as I do…or, indeed, even just to employ the first person pronoun.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been rebuked for it. I once had someone count up the number of times I used “I” or “me” in a text that was about one of my own experiences, and then she presented the total to me as though it were evidence of a complete moral failing. I had the impression that she would preferred it if I had written about myself entirely in third person. (“And then Michael Jay Tucker considered the oncoming car. Would he jump to the left or the right? Or would he perhaps run straight into the grill as a gesture of defiance? Michael Jay Tucker considered his options…”)
But it isn’t just “I” and “me” that offends people. It is the sheer sound of my voice that annoys them. For example, I once did a book on Seward Collins, a literary figure of the 1930s who hasn’t been much explored but who should be better known. He was an early lover of Dorothy Parker, and later a self-described fascist.
My book did get fairly good reviews in Academe, on those rare occasions that it was actually reviewed. Though, not everyone agreed. For example, there was an academic I encountered on the web and with whom corresponded. She had written a couple of books on similar topics. I tried to read them. Frankly, they were so larded up with postmodern jargon that they were almost indecipherable.
Anyway, we exchanged emails a couple of times, and she asked me to post glowing reviews of her books to Amazon and some of the academic networks. Because I thought we’d have sort of quid-pro-quo thing in operation, and that she’d post similar reviews of my book, I did.
So, I sent her a copy of my own book on Collins…and she wrote back, horrified, that she couldn’t possibly review it. Oh, the facts and conclusions were fine…but the tone…the tone! “You write like you talk!” she said, utterly aghast.
Needless to say, I removed all my glowing recommendations from Amazon and elsewhere as fast as my little fingers could hit the delete key.
Though, to be fair, it wasn’t just the odd academic who hated the fact that I sound “just like I talk.” I gave a copy of the book to a friend. Actually, I thought he was one of my best friends. Later, I found out I was probably wrong. Anyway, I gave him the book. He read it, or said he read it, though he resolutely avoided discussing the book whenever we met. Finally, I encountered him in a parking lot one day and bluntly asked him what he thought of it. “Well,” he said, uncomfortably, “I can hear your voice in it.”
It was said in the tone of a man who is struggling to find something neutral to say, like someone asked to comment on the baby’s most recent BM. That’s not so bad, is it? Well, yes. But then again, no.
Still, I suppose that wasn’t exactly an objection to my voice, merely to the book as a whole. Which, I guess, is a step up. After a fashion.
But getting back to my point, I have consistently encountered objections to any form of unique voice in writing—mine, or anyone else’s—pretty much everywhere I’ve gone in the world of text. And, I suppose, maybe, I guess… I can understand it in the case of mainstream journalism (not New Journalism, which is really Creative Nonfiction) because in mainstream reporting, you are not the subject of your story. You’re writing about something else. Your purpose is purely to convey information. So, maybe…
However, I’m less sympathetic to such claims when it comes to academic work, at least in the liberal arts, because I think they’re basically fraudulent. I think that what the academic is attempting to do with “academic style” is feign the objectivity, detachment, and “evidence based” conclusions of writing in the STEM professions. And, frankly, a paper about what this or that author really meant with this poem or that novel is not like a paper on the production of muons or the extinction of synapsids. The level of certainty is simply not there.
(Ironically, this is particularly true of postmodernists, who so often cling desperately to certitude, even while they claim that an objective evaluation of the universe is not possible. I understand the arguments, but I do not envy those who make them. Their position is too vulnerable even to their own self-reflection.)
And when I encounter opposition to a “personal voice” in fiction, poetry, or personal essay I am genuinely appalled. Surely, in these, the most individual of arts, the individual would be valued most of all. Yet, it is not so. Instead, you hear far too often a call for some kind of dis-individualization …for the fiction or the poem which is “not self-indulgent,” for the essay that contains no sign of the first person singular, for absence of the dreaded self.
Somehow we have come to an odd place in our intellectual development as a society. Somehow, the individual, the ego, the self…these are catered to in the popular culture. Indeed, to be selfish is presented as a virtue (think of Ayn Rand), and, more importantly, as a marketing strategy (“expensive, yes, but you’re worth it”).
However, to be self-ish is not necessarily to be individualistic. You can be a pig, and yet be identical to all the other squealing furies in the pen.
Thus, somehow, we honor the ego, even narcissism, in the market…but in self-expression, the self is suspect.
What concerns me most of all, though, is that I think this dis-individualization of the individual appears even in our conception of mental health. I’ve already mentioned in a recent posting, I think, the therapist I had once who defined my pleasure in writing, and writing in my own voice, as evidence of a disturbing neurosis.
And, of course, in the greater scheme of things, there have always been people, even psychologists, who have said that the use of “I” and “me” in writing is the dead give away of a morbid narcissist. I gather that one’s been debunked a bit, but, more recently I have run across studies which claim people suffering from Depression are more likely to use the first person singular in their writing.
Not to say a word against this research or the researchers, but I am concerned. I could see the less tolerant among us (and there are so many such) seizing upon such papers to support a profoundly dangerous thesis—to wit that selfhood is itself menacing, questionable, to be treated medically, and, in time, repressed as thoroughly as smallpox and plague.
And thus we would enter an age as fruitless as can be imagined. The day of the un-person. The era of the empty suit…
Never once self-indulgent.
As uniform and soulless as the termite.
And just as much without joy.
For Bobbie at Year’s End
2 weeks ago