Multiple Voice Essays and the Creation of Community

The Sarah Vowell pieces–”NRA vs. NEA” and “Country Mouse, City Mouse”–both employ a unique radio essay tool that Joel Lovell’s “Bitter Fruits of Wakefulness” forgoes by calling participants for phone interviews and incorporating that into her pieces. By bringing in multiple perspectives as voiced by the holders of those perspectives, Vowell explores the ideas she wrestles with by allowing others to voice alternative convictions. This is mainly seen in her piece, “Country Mouse, City Mouse” where she speaks with all three of her family members on what it was like to make the transition from an extremely small town to a much larger one.

William Gass writes in his piece, “Emerson and the Essay,” “If there is too much earnestness too great a need to persuade, a want of correct convictions in the reader is implied, and therefore an absence of community” (24).

Vowell clearly had an understanding of the opinions that would be conveyed by her family members and could have easily relayed them herself, but would be in danger of presenting listeners with a monologue on the dangers of small town life and the liberal evolution that can come from expanding horizons. Through choosing instead to let her mother, father, and sister speak their own opinions, however, Vowell cultivates community with multiple perspectives that are reliable–as listeners can hear the unmanipulated question and answer pairing of different voices not translated to us through the lens of Vowell’s perspective. Thus, the implementation of this style of interview incorporation in the digital essay renders the radio essay an even more genuine expression of written essays as it removes the lens of the writer, expanding the essayist to include the literal voices—not just their conveyance—of the multiple voices with which they write.

Alternatively, by not using such a technique, Joel Lovell’s radio essay, “Bitter Fruits of Wakefulness” rings much less profound and much more flatly than Vowell’s pieces. Lovell shares a traumatic experience of his childhood but, because he cannot bring into view, even through his own voice, and particularly not through theirs, the understanding of the situation by other’s involved, the piece lacks community. Perhaps Lovell’s singular voice can be seen as a tool to set the tone for the loneliness he felt on that night, but the single perspective proves detrimental to the essayistic exploration of the event. Essentially, the community of ideas and questions that should be represented by an essay is repressed/compressed into a singular voice with a singular understanding of the event.

Through using the voices of other “players” in her essay, Vowell executes a core characteristic of “the essay” by exploring ideas through putting multiple voices into conversation with one another. This tool makes the essay a cooperative and community-driven experience with the transportive quality of a novelic omniscient narrator that takes us into the minds and personalities of the characters. It broadens and brings to life what the written essay cannot move.

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