Writers talk about the need to find their own voice — that ineffable combination of style and skill, wielded in just the right way to make a writer stand out, recognizable as That writer.
Raymond Carver’s voice cannot be mistaken for Samuel Beckett’s, though both are known for the spare quality of their work. Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries may remind you of Margaret Laurence (more than the title, I mean), but the voices are distinct.
But what about their actual voices, the sounds that come from writers’ vocal chords, through their lips, to our ears?
It was the anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s birthday on January 25th and a number of people on social media forwarded a link to a recording of her voice on the BBC in 1937. This got me thinking about writers’ physical voices; particularly writers who died before the explosion of television, and long before the internets. Writers whose voices we haven’t heard.
The following 10 audio/video recordings were not derived through any scientific methods. I just looked up at my bookshelves and whatever book spine names I could read from where I sit, I looked up on YouTube — as long as the writer was well-known and long dead. There are, of course, many more names. After you check these out, you may feel inspired to do your own search.
If you are a writer, you can spend an entire afternoon doing this and call it research.
These are more-or-less in chronological order (at least by decade) of recording:
This audio of James Joyce (d. 1941), reading, some time in the 1930s, is all the proof we need that Finnegan’s Wake was meant to be an audio book: “Every telling has a tailing and that’s the he and the she of it.” An audio book with subtitles.
Virginia Woolf‘s voice, from a BBC recording called “Craftmanship,” in 1937, when she was 55 (d. 1941). In a marbles-in-the-mouth voice, she reads from one of her essays in, “The Death of the Moth and Other Essays”: “How can we combine the old words, in new orders, so they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth. That is the question. And the person who could answer that question would deserve whatever crown of glory the world has to offer.”
Zora Neale Hurston (d. 1980), whose 1937 Their Eyes Were Watching God often makes the top 10 of 20th century favourite novels, is obviously fed up talking about zombies, but agrees to do it. One. More. Time. (If only she knew what mainstream television would do with this, decades later.)
Vladimir Nabokov (d. 1977) in a panel discussion of the then-controversial Lolita. Nabokov is the one in the middle: “I don’t wish to touch hearts and I don’t even want to effect minds, very much. What I want to produce, really, is that little sob in the spine of the artist/reader.”
An uncomfortable looking Carson McCullers in 1956 (d. 1967). Her interviewer not only puts his arm around her and snuggles in, but he keeps cutting her off. She gets her own back by smoking in his face. Here she talks about adapting her novel, A Member of the Wedding, for the stage.
Benjamin Disraeli once wrote that, “There is no index of character as sure as the voice.” But in this recording of Flannery O’Connor (d. 1964) reading from one of her most famous short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” her young voice belies the depth and darkness of her Gothic stories of the south.
Samuel Beckett (d. 1989) reads from his second novel, Watt, published in 1953. If this recording reminds you of the first one above, James Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake, remember that Beckett helped Joyce finish that book.
Langston Hughes (d. 1967), who, according to his introduction here in 1958, is on his way to give a lecture at UBC. In this recording he reads his poem, “The Weary Blues” accompanied by a jazz ensemble: “I feel the blues a-comin’, I wonder what the blues will bring?… Sweet blues comin’ from a black man’s soul.” The last line, and the look he gives into the camera…
Margaret Laurence (d. 1987), interviewed by Adrienne Clarkson in 1966, talks about her fiction: “Well I made up my mind that I was stuck with the Scots Presbyterians of Manitoba, you know, for better or worse, God help them and me!”
Anais Nin (d. 1977) and Henry Miller (d. 1980) were passionate letter-writing correspondents and lovers in the 1930s. Here she begins by talking about the beginning of her famous diary which, she says, “began as a letter to my father” (yikes), and her love of D.H. Lawrence. Later, she and Henry Miller talk about the meaning of a secret self and the idea of trusting the artist to do the dreaming. At 8:05 Nin talks about when it first occurred to her that she needed “to take a path of my own.”