I ran across a little essay by Maude Newton this week confronting the journalistic voice of one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace. Even in his sophisticated journalism, he often adopts something of a folksy voice, and Newton takes issue with it (or at least with the further adoption of a similar voice by other writers after the very smart Wallace more or less pioneered it). About the relationship between such journalism and blogging, she says this:
Of course, Wallace’s slangy approachability was part of his appeal, and these quirks are more than compensated for by his roving intelligence and the tireless force of his writing. The trouble is that his style is also, as Dyer says, “catching, highly infectious.” And if, even from Wallace, the aw-shucks, I-could-be-wrong-here, I’m-just-a-supersincere-regular-guy-who-happens-to-have-written-a-book-on-infinity approach grates, it is vastly more exasperating in the hands of lesser thinkers. In the Internet era, Wallace’s moves have been adopted and further slackerized by a legion of opinion-mongers who not only lack his quick mind but seem not to have mastered the idea that to make an argument, you must, amid all the tap-dancing and hedging, actually lodge an argument.
Visit some blogs — personal blogs, academic blogs, blogs associated with some of our most esteemed periodicals — to see these tendencies writ large. My own archives, dating back to 2002, are no exception.
I suppose it made sense, when blogging was new, that there was some confusion about voice. Was a blog more like writing or more like speech? Soon it became a contrived and shambling hybrid of the two.
In a comment on a piece I wrote about style a few weeks ago, laurieanichols asked about the distinction between style and voice, and the best I could come up with was that you write in a given style to achieve a given voice. By choosing folksy words and phrases like some of the ones Newton calls out in her piece, Wallace is able to distance himself from some of his claims by putting up a sort of smokescreen of friendliness. This of course entices the reader to take Wallace’s side, in a way, and the friendly posture actually turns out to be a shrewd rhetorical device.
In my piece on style, I cited two examples of different styles deployed for different aesthetic effects, but we see here that the style you use to write in a particular voice can also have a profound impact on how the content (and not just the form) of your message strikes your readers. Some audiences will respond well to a severe, formal voice while others will respond better to something more casual. As bloggers, we’re generally tending more toward the casual, of course, but I thought Newton’s essay was worth mentioning since it highlighted another facet of an issue that had garnered some interest here before.