Do I Use a Passive Voice When Writing About Literature?
The passive voice in writing is the reverse of the active voice; it takes the object of the sentence -- sometimes the direct or indirect object, sometimes the object of the preposition -- and makes it the subject. In any kind of writing, literary or otherwise, one should avoid this construction.
1 Why the Passive Voice Doesn't Work
A passive rendering of "I kissed her" makes "her" the subject: "She was kissed by me." This involves more verbiage and a clumsier structure; it's frankly a weaker sentence. Strunk and White, in their "Elements of Style," note in rule No. 11 in "Elementary Principles of Composition" that the active voice is "more direct and vigorous" and that a passive is "less direct, less bold, less concise." Active voice "makes for forcible writing."
2 Literature Remains Active
In writing about literature, this rule holds true; keeping in mind the need for the "literary present" in tense, one always writes "Hamlet kills Polonius" rather than the weaker "Polonius is killed by Hamlet." In "On Writing," Stephen King -- certainly an authority on writing literature -- denigrates passives, calling them "weak, circuitous and frequently torturous ... [only] timid writers like them [since] the passive voice is safe." Safe, in King's view, equals wrong.
3 Rare Passive Exceptions
Strunk notes a few rare exceptions: writers can use the passive voice when referring to a generalized category, transforming a sentence such as "Schiller's poetry arouses little esteem" into the passive "There is little esteem for Schiller's poetry." The active voice refers to the poetry; the passive refers to its lack of esteem. "The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence," says Strunk, "determines which voice should be used."
4 Stay Active
Despite the exceptions, Strunk, White and King characteristically champion the constant and habitual use of the active voice, particularly in writing about literature. Pieces of and about literature written for others are difficult enough to understand; the active voice gives the reader needed help. To paraphrase King, the writer gives help; it is never "help is given by the writer."
- 1 Bartleby: The Elements of Style
- 2 University of Richmond Writing Center: Writer's Web: Verbs, Active or Passive?
- 3 On Writing; Stephen King