Guest post by Judith Roof
The below is an excerpt of the preface from Tone by Judith Roof
Tone Def: Etymology mid-14c., “musical sound or note,” from Old French ton “musical sound, speech, words” (13c.) and directly from Latin tonus “a sound, tone, accent,” literally “stretching” (in Medieval Latin, a term peculiar to music), from Greek tonos “vocal pitch, raising of voice, accent, key in music,” originally “a stretching, tightening, taut string,” related to teinein “to stretch,” from PIE root *ten– “to stretch.” Sense of “manner of speaking” is from c. 1600. First reference to firmness of body is from 1660s. As “prevailing state of manners” from 1735; as “style in speaking or writing which reveals attitude” from 1765. Tone-deaf is from 1880; tone-poem from 1845.
What will interest us today—what we must respond to, for interest now becomes an inappropriate word—is an accent in the novelist’s voice, an accent for which the flutes and saxophones of fantasy may have prepared us. His theme is the universe, or something universal, but he is not necessarily going to “say” anything about the universe; he proposes to sing, and the strangeness of a song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock. How will a song combine with the furniture of our common sense? We shall ask ourselves, and shall have to answer “not too well”: the singer does not always have room for his gestures, the tables and chairs get broken, and the novel through which bardic influence has passed often has a wrecked air, like a drawing room after an earthquake or a children’s party. Readers of D. H. Lawrence will understand what I mean.
What Tone and Why?
Tone is the quality you imagine you hear (audiate) when you read. Tone both produces and seems to emanate from an imaginary voice (or voices) recounting a printed text. The text’s diction, syntax, contexts, and connotations merge to produce tone as a complex, imaginary audial phenomenon. A text’s enactment of its telling produces the impression that there is a teller, whose tone, whether identifiably personable, simply hosting, roving, or barely perceptible, derives from the story’s specific rhetorical impressions. This tone, in turn, produces a more specific sense of a still imaginary narrator from whom this tone seems to emanate. Tone is thus a moebius, producing the imaginary of the one who would produce such a tone, as well as the teller’s various attitudes, feelings, perspectives, inclinations, and moods. In all texts, the tone of the telling produces the sense of a narrator who tells.
Theories of narrative and narrating as well as interpretations of individual texts rarely treat tone as a necessary or important element of literary critique. There is seldom any discussion of tone as an essential element of narration, inhabiting a sense of narrated events, contributing to the production of character, diegesis, story, or as being anything other than an indicator of the imaginary narrator’s (often conflated with the “author”) attitude toward some element it recounts. Readers tend to be conscious of tone when it accompanies and defines more rhetorical arguments, where tone (ironic, exhortative, chiding, enthusiastic, etc.) is an overt device for persuasion. Tone is, nonetheless, a key element by which all texts produce the illusion of a telling voice, offer a sense of personality, inflect events recounted, anticipate certain directions, and create an ambiance that simultaneously produces, enables, and shapes narratives and characters, while producing a feel that may or may not seduce or alienate readers. Tone is central, persuasive, pervasive, and dangerous.
Because readers audiate tone (and, according to groups of readers, not all readers audiate when they read or are aware that they do so), tone seems to derive from a subjective impression, attributed to an originary or “outside” agency/narrator/author whose attitudes tone conveys. Since tone is an effect of the text, we can track the elements that produce whatever variations in audiation there might be by closely reading a text’s diction, syntax, elements of context (reader’s assumptions about author, style, genre, period, etc.) and the ways the accruing ordering of plot events and characterological details retrospectively resignify tone as we read along. The complexities of tone suggest that reading is always simultaneously forward and backward, anticipatory and retrospective. Tone is an ever-changing impression that builds on itself and the context which produces it.
What is the tone of this introduction? Earnest? Chiding? Nostalgic? But, more important, how do these tones relate to what the text offers? How does any text produce tone in the first place? Only by investigating tone’s production can we understand tone and how it operates within texts to produce attitude, feeling, personality, inclination, and atmosphere. What follows are twenty-four short essays on how texts produce tone and how tones work in texts. This is a broad study of tone in (primarily) twentieth-century and contemporary English-language literary and critical texts that range from modernist fiction to robot-authored news stories. It is also a return to some of the ignored but recently crucial products of close reading. The purpose of these essays is to show not only how complexly tone is both engrained in and produced by texts but also the ways tone is an intrinsic part of both art and “meaning.” Language always bears tone, even if it seems to thud soundlessly onto a rock wall. Tone derives from the lovely reverberations, echoes, resoundings, joy, angst, raised-eyebrow, snide, tongue-in-cheek utter seriousness of language that produces the telling, colors what the teller offers, and embraces the audiating reader as a part of the process.
Judith Roof is the William Shakespeare Chair in English at Rice University, USA. She is the author of The Comic Event: Comedic Performance from the 1950s to the Present (Bloomsbury, 2018), What Gender Is, What Gender Does (2016), as well as five other monographs, six edited (or co-edited) books, and more than 80 essays on topics ranging from modern drama to The Big Lebowski, Ethel Merman, Posthumanism, the novels of Percival Everett, the work of Rabelais, Beckett, Pinter, Duras, psychoanalysis, narrative theory, film studies, genetics, critical legal studies, and secondary characters. Tone is now available.