From grad school workshops through a couple years now of rejection letters of various kinds, I’ve endured what I believe to be more than my fair share of faint praise regarding my “voice.” Every comment that contains the conjunction “but” or “however” invariably begins with some version of, “You have a strong voice,” or “We found much to admire in the voice.”
It can’t be simply that I write in a “conversational” tone. Tons of writers do that. One assumes voice consists of several elements– word choice, tone, rhythm, possibly subject matter to some degree, who knows. I think it means that the comment-giver can’t be bothered to articulate what it was specifically that struck them as pleasurable about my work, only that which was egregious.
Still, maybe my voice is worth whatever praise it receives. Sometimes, as a developed-voice-haver, I run into work with a tone, rhythm, word choice, and subject matter, that I feel a kinship to, and maybe wish I had discovered sooner and thus been able to develop my voice sooner, and maybe then I wouldn’t have to have put together such a hodgepodge of cheap imitations of Roald Dahl and David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon and my mother for a voice in the first place. In the past year, Zadie Smith’s has been one such voice, Al Burian’s has been another.
In Burn Collector, Burian compiles zines he wrote in the nineties, in which he documents his aimless, cheap travels, attempts at connection with other humans, and efforts to skate by at jobs without staying at them for too long. His voice certainly grows throughout, from a young man’s Melvillean pedanticism (still enjoyable and funny), to a somewhat less young man’s adept weaving of cultural criticism, self-deprecation and vulnerability. Burian is legit, but I wouldn’t care if he was totally just a character, so dedicated is he to the idea of being an incorrigible slacker, a self-publisher, a smart guy mostly interested in metal and making out, too proud to compromise for any kind of system that would afford him healthcare or good food or wider recognition for his talents– at the same time, he never glorifies these tendencies, only treats them like an incurable condition he can occasionally laugh about.
This, more than his penchant for mixing haughty sentence construction with unabashed uses of slang like “killer,” is probably what speaks to me the most about what you’d call his voice– he is relentless and yet detached from his own relentlessness.