What is Voice? Zadie Smith at The Edinburgh Book Festival


D and I went to see Zadie Smith last night. It was quite a good event – the first time she has apparently spoken or read from her new book, and afterwards, the first time it was sold to the public. She was as elegant as you’d imagine, and a great reader.


However the event was also frustratingly short, in that Smith seemed to wish to take her time with questions, to unfurl them a bit, but things were moved on, many other questions posed from the interviewer and the audience. Some were good, probing questions, others not.


One question I thought led to a very interesting answer. A woman in the audience got up to ask, how do you find your voice? To which Smith had two responses. The first was to dismiss the question as one she heard often from her students, and which spoke of a late Capitalist idea of possession. . You cannot earn or get a voice. That the idea of a writer having  a voice is a fallacy. She said that she wrote sentences and put them together the best she could, and that was that, tying it to earlier statements about how she felt no concrete sense of self. No sense of a continuing self, no sense of a continuing voice.


She then went on to address why she wrote in the way she did – to write of people of colour the way white people wrote of themselves. (yourselves, she said, gesturing out at the mostly white audience). The woman asking the question was a woman of colour too, from Canada. It was about showing that people of colour do not have a sense of themselves as Other, or exotic. Which was of course a point that still needs to be made, but I was more interested in the complexities of her first, dismissive response.


My first impulse is to question the idea of voice as a Capitalist construct. Because we can see variability in the styles of writers from long before the age of Capitalism. In the city states of Athens and Rome, in the courts of Japan, or carved on great standing stones. These writers across the ages have written floridly, sparely, intensely, precisely, differing from each other across different languages but also from their peers. I can’t help but think voice is a real phenomenon.


Not, indeed, something you can change about yourself like a new pair of shoes, but something intrinsic. Forged of your environment, of the way your parents spoke to you, or your friends. Quirks of your brain – synesthesia, or blindness, or a mathematical bent or so on. The absurdity of war destroying the world around you, or the calm of a peaceful era, these must all shape the way you, the writer, shape your sentences.


Whether voice is stable or not, I don’t know. It seems across some writers’ bodies of work to be the case; despite experiments there is a core of sameness. I’m thinking of Woolf, as a good example because she didn’t really hold to the idea of a stable sense of self either. Yet her voice is always lyrical and dancing in a range of particular ways (it may be that she differs greatly in her diaries, I have not read those).


Now, perhaps Zadie Smith did mean to allow for nuance, and I missed this. As I said, questions were flying all over the place. But it’s a fun thing to debate anyway. So I’d like to ask you – what is voice, to you?



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5 responses to “What is Voice? Zadie Smith at The Edinburgh Book Festival

  1. Voice is the manifest presence of “other” in language, Smith is right about that in the most general sense. Day to day, blog and twitter we speak in understandable collective voices–formal, casual, high handed, posse gathering and assured. We speak in order to be heard. Most publishable prose uses that collective voice–the voice of power. A powerful voice is something else entirely. It forces us to recalibrate. Shoves a tongue in our complacent ear. It is an essence, individual and often off putting. We silence it at our own collective peril. 

  2. nzumel

    I think she’s right that you can’t “find” your voice, or “get” a voice — I think everyone who writes has one, independent of their sense of self, just like everyone has a personality. Maybe voice and personality are the same thing, for some writers.

    When writers say they “find” their voice, I suspect it means they’ve stopped trying to (possibly unconsciously) emulate their favorite writer, and just write as themselves…

    • I think that distinction ‘finding’, ie adjusting the press of influences to make room for ones own style rather than ‘buying or earning’, is really important. Possibly that’s what was missed in the book festival discussion, although perhaps Smith rejects even that, considering she was rejecting the notion of self as well as voice. I’m with you on that point though.

  3. Pingback: Endless reads review: NW by Zadie Smith | Schietree

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