A writer's voice: The gorgeous prattle of Christopher Hitchens

Richard Handler on Christopher Hitchens and the prospect of a writer losing his voice.

The human act of speech — and your allegiance to your own voice — is something most of us take for granted. That is, until we discover what we have lost.

That is what's happening now to the British-born essayist and journalist Christopher Hitchens who is dying of cancer, undergoing experimental treatments and bravely soldiering on, writing and speaking when he can.

In the most recent issue of Vanity Fair magazine, he reports his distress about losing that notable, rotund voice of his. Once so prominent in debate, it sounded as if it had been preserved in oak, or in that fine scotch he used to drink, cut with the vapours of cigarette smoke.

The cancer, originally in his esophagus, is now attacking his vocal cords and the man who could out-talk almost anyone — and yell for cabs blocks away — now must marshal his strength to speak, ever so softly, to his friends.

The transcription of thought

Of course he still can still write, which he insists is actually a subset of talking.

Christopher Hitchens, at the Munk Debate in Toronto in November 2010. (Reuters)

In his magazine piece, Hitchens says that when he taught writing, he would tell students that "anybody who could talk could also write."

The trick was to learn to talk in an engaging and informative way.

What Hitchens is doing here, in his usual contrarian fashion, is to turn the subject upside down.

We all know people who can yak entertainingly, but who fall on their face, so to speak, when they try to write.

For Hitchens, though, writing is a form of dictation. When you can learn the art of speech —of using your particular voice — then you can transcribe your thoughts onto a page, full of the nuance, irony and wit that speaking allows.

That is why losing one's voice is such a drastic fate. He even equates it to losing the "freedom of speech," part of the dignity of what it means to be human.

Freedom of speech is not just a personal indulgence or a form of egoism, it is part of the learning curve of democracy, Hitchens suggests.

In speaking out, in using their collective voice, for example, protestors are saying that they are people to be reckoned with, not just subjects of some tyrannical government.

Gorgeous prattle

In this regard, writers have been ahead of the curve for some time now.

Finding your own distinctive "voice" has, for the past century or so, been what writers want to do, often desperately. It has come to mean speaking authentically, in a way that rings true.

For many writers, finding that voice seems to be more important than telling a story or seeding a plot.

The poet W.H. Auden once said, Hitchens points out, "All I have is voice." But you can bet it took him considerable time and patience to cultivate it.

A writer's voice doesn't have to be intimate. It can be mannered like Hitchens's. In both his prose and verbal riffs, he is very English, one part public school brat and one part custodian of the tradition of civilized, gorgeous prattle.

The great English critic, Cyril Connolly, called it the mandarin style — an ornate, opulent, serpentine method that savours adjectives (as I just did).

Just listen to another great British talker, the historian Simon Schama, full of asides and verbal play, and you will know what I mean.

A verbal dance

The other great school, according to Connolly, is the vernacular style, the pared-down prose favoured by hard-ass writers like Hemingway and many journalists.

The reigning guardian of this camp is the censorious William Zinsser, whose book, On Writing Well, tells us never to use an extra word that you don't have to.

He dislikes the verbal "clutter" that writers like Hitchens or our own Rex Murphy can turn into performance, their own stylistic dance.

Connolly, in his 1938 memoir, Enemies of Promise, tells us these two styles have been duking it out for some time. One goes out of favour, the other slips back in.

If you get tired of the clipped voice of a Hemingway (or an Elmore Leonard), you can swim in the sinewy, mandarin prose of a David Foster Wallace.

For a jousting writer like Hitchens, losing his real vocal cords is a terrible fate.

He doesn't want just to write, he says, he wants to "resound with the spoken, unscripted moments of interplay and reason and speculation."

I understand this. For years I have done battle with speech problems, a dead vocal cord, in a business where performative speech is what we get people to do.   Knowing when to speak, and when to preserve one's vocal firepower, is something I know something about. And I know that having to keep a cap on speech would hobble a mandarin conversationalist like Hitchens or Murphy.

Those who suffer from dysphasia or stroke must also parcel out their words in muted sounds and tiny gestures. I've seen a few in hospital beds, trying to make themselves heard.

If they could speak, they would be given back a large measure of their dignity.

When you read a writer with a real and, in his case, marvelously modest voice such as George Orwell, you realize how paradoxically simple and difficult it is to say what you really mean.

So often what seems clear and transparent in our minds must be coaxed into the world from a jumble of speech patterns.

For most of us, we hide, we duck, we sputter, we yelp, we gesticulate in the hope that, eventually, meaning emerges, perhaps in one of those "unscripted moments" that Christopher Hitchens has been able to capture so well.