Apparently readers—into which group many critics fall—cannot resist turning from tale to teller. In their introduction to Voicelust, Allen Wier and Don Hendrie suggest this attraction results both from the pleasure we readers take in hearing a lively, familiar voice and from the intimacy we share with fiction writers. This intimacy generates "a special interest in what the writer is willing to reveal about [his or her] work," an interest having something to do with our respect for the lived experience out of which, we feel, the work arises and which (pace Barthes) therefore gives authors' views special authority. The books under review here speak [End Page 763] to the desire to meet our literature's makers, to hear their voices, to sit privy to their personal lives and motivating values.
Voicelust collects eight essays originally presented in 1983 at the Tenth Alabama Symposium on English and American Literature. The theme: "The Autonomous Voice: Encounters with Style in Contemporary Fiction." The contributors and their topics: Doris Betts on the varieties of "word magic" practiced by novelists today; Wright Morris on the relation of writing to consciousness and conscience; Donald Barthelme on the postmodern problems presently defining the writer's task; Max Apple on the characteristic styles of youth, middle age, and old age; George Garrett on excerpts from his work; John Irving on the importance of narrative voice; Lee Smith on her search for a voice and its relation to other technical concerns; and William Gass on the copious meanings of and (a slightly different version of the essay also collected in Habitations of the Word).
The essays vary in purpose, ambition, accomplishment. Irving and Smith, for instance, offer practical observations useful to beginning writers, whereas Morris and Apple, among others, treat matters theoretical and psychological, exploring style's larger significances. Most contributors speak, if only in passing, of themselves and their work; a few choose not to discuss style so much as to demonstrate it through their presentations. Indeed, most seem to have felt that what the audience expected were virtuoso performances, rhetorical flash-and-dazzle. Unfortunately, what may have worked from the podium often becomes gratuitous, pretentious, and self-indulgent on the page, and readers subscribing to the theory of style as ornate form may conclude that the stylists gathered here too willingly sacrifice substance in their efforts to be amusing and impassioned, aphoristic and learned.
Fortunately, however, even the book's most self-absorbed pages prove generally more charming than otherwise, containing many passages of the oft-was-thought-but-ne'er-so-well-express'd variety: "It is easy to assume that a book is a creation of and for the mind . . . . But a great writer guides you from one emotional response to another" (Irving); "I never lost the conviction that the book I hadn't read . . . would prove to be the clue to all that had escaped me" (Morris); "Everyone jealously guarded his [literary] territory. I looked for the female parts but there were none. The photographers, I learned, had turned them all into flowers" (Apple). Voicelust even contains some surprises, as when Barthelme concludes, "art's project is fundamentally meliorative. The aim of meditating about the world is finally to change the world. It is this meliorative aspect of literature that provides its ethical dimension."
Style and voice interest Charles Ruas also, and in the fourteen interviews comprising Conversations with American Writers he promises both to capture each writer's voice (which he does admirably) and to spotlight its role ("how writers perceive the issues of style and voice"). This second promise, however, remains largely unfulfilled, at least to the extent it implies a set of related concerns pursued systematically throughout the book. To say this is not to suggest that Conversations is therefore disappointing, only to observe that it is nothing...