Review: Thomas H. Fordon tone talk

No Singing Along!  

Written tone can be a tricky and elusive business. Although tone is a longstanding keyword of literary criticism, its components and qualities in any given text often seem difficult to describe precisely. And so tone-talk in criticism runs the risk of appearing vague, unsubstantiated, impressionistic. In a recent and disarmingly honest essay on the subject, Colleen Ruth Rosenfeld begins by stating that her ‘primary experience of tone in poetry’ is that of ‘someone who cannot hear what everyone else can hear’. To her, it can seem as if critics writing about tone were laying claim to a poetic sense she simply lacks. Like dogs, you might say, such critics appear sensitive to a whole range of pitches unregistrable by normal humans. Now, when my dog responds enthusiastically to a tone that I can’t hear, I’m confident no duplicity is involved. Trevor’s a good boy (good boy, Trevor!). Critics, however, invite more scepticism. Sometimes when she hears people carrying on about tone, Rosenfeld admits to suspecting ‘that they are all engaged in a form of self-congratulatory cahoots’. I’d go one step further: tone-talk can look like a grand critical con-game. Or maybe I’m just a little tone-deaf. 

Part of the problem involves the history of tone as a literary critical term. A quick version of this long and complicated story might start with tone as a word from the vocabulary of music. In English, a tone was originally a sound, a note, a particular pitch. In the seventeenth century, tone started to be applied to qualities of voice and ways of speaking, and, in the eighteenth century, to particular and distinctive aspects of literary style. Tone had become something for critics to discuss and for writers to cultivate.  

Through this period – what people like to call ‘early modernity’ – tone also acquired a range of important associated senses. Mentally, tone could be a mood or disposition. Psychologically, it concerned a person’s character or inner comportment. Socially, it was a vibe – the tone of the club or the conversation, or alternatively the bon ton of high society. It was also a body thing: muscle tone, toned physique. In the nineteenth century, tone became visual, referring to qualities of colour. And from the twentieth century, via colour, tone also became skin tone, acquiring a field of reference that took in cosmetics, categories of identity, and racial and racist classifications. All these senses of tone remain current today; they are all available for activation by critical projects aiming at particular ends. You could argue that it’s this semantic range – connecting writing to embodied states and states of mind, to music and colour, to society, identity and voice – that has made tone such an appealing critical term.  

A pivotal chapter in the critical history of tone came in the 1920s, when it was defined as a formal category in the practice of close reading. This was also the period in which literary criticism as close reading was itself first formalised in, and as, university English. It’s no coincidence that the central players in that much-told disciplinary origin story – I.A. Richards, Cambridge criticism, the New Critics – were also behind tone’s elevation into a critical term of art. In Practical Criticism (1929), Richards identified tone as a ‘basic’ kind of meaning, defining it as a speaker’s ‘attitude to his listener’. This idea, or variations of it, has been the term’s primary critical meaning ever since: of tone as something like rhetorical stance.  

Richards and his followers take as their model for tone the rhetorical scene of speech: someone is speaking to someone else. The speaker, Richards writes, ‘chooses or arranges his words differently as his audience varies, in automatic or deliberate recognition of his relation to them. The tone of his utterance reflects his awareness of this relation, the sense of how he stands towards those he is addressing.’ Tone is a complex, enfolded structure here. There is, to begin, a communicative relation towards an audience: an essential precondition of all address. This relation gets recognised in a second step in the speaker’s ‘sense of how he stands’, a recognition that is then further encoded as tone in the choice and arrangement of words. Put another way: what words go where is how I stand to you, which is one of the things I communicate whatever I’m talking about. Because I’m always telling how I stand to you. It’s the tone I take. 

Worth noting in this model is just how much of the whole communicative structure precedes anything actually being said. This gives tone a rather paradoxical quality. Although it only exists in the words of what is said – as written, it is, after all, manifested solely in their choice and arrangement – tone nonetheless intervenes before the first word ever appears. Also worth noting is the final sentence of Richard’s short explanation of what he means by ‘an attitude to his listener’: ‘the exceptional case of dissimulation, or instances in which the speaker unwittingly reveals an attitude he is not consciously desirous of expressing, will come to mind’. You can lie with tone. But your tone can also betray you.  

We might call Richards’s model tone-as-rhetoric. But there’s a second version of tone also in high critical circulation, which is tone-as-atmosphere. Where Richards provides a technical definition, tone-as-atmosphere is, as you might expect, a hazier notion. But we find something close to a definition in S.T. Coleridge’s 1817 account in Biographia Literaria of the essence of genius in writing, which, he tells us, is ‘the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations’. Grammatically, tone and atmosphere are fused together here: ‘it’, singular, refers back to both terms indiscriminately. Coleridge is working with a holistic sense of tone: it is for him the unifying property of the literary work, considered not just as a whole but as a distinctive and self-contained ‘ideal world’. Tone-as-atmosphere is what colours and modulates every element (form, incident, situation) entering into that work, transforming and estranging them into its specific and environing tonal element. And to Coleridge, remember, tonal communication is nothing less than ‘the character and privilege of genius’ – which makes it sound pretty cool, you have to admit. 

Cool it may well be, at least for literary critics, but those critics have also found tone to be an uncertain and precarious term. ‘Do you hear what I hear?’ is the title of Rosenfeld’s essay on tone. It’s a tricky question because we can’t always be sure whether we’re meant to be listening out for attitude or for atmosphere. No doubt there are points of intersection between these two senses of tone. But they’re far from overlapping, and their differences come with broader implications. Tone-as-rhetoric inclines to the performative and the dramatic, and to questions of social class. It encourages attention to the power structures inhering in any act of language; its rough synonyms are attitude, stance, bearing. Tone-as-rhetoric is what puts you in your linguistic place, and what reveals that place as soon as you open your mouth. Talking to a worker, the boss adopts a certain tone; talking to the boss, the worker adopts a rather different one. Say something or write something and I’ll have a good idea of whether your parents went to university. It’ll be in your tone. 

Tone-as-atmosphere, meanwhile, inclines to the affective, referring to encompassing worlds of feeling that systematically condition experience. Allied with emotion, its rough synonyms are mood, ambience, worldview. In Ugly Feelings – a book that, since its publication two decades ago, has helped return tone-as-atmosphere to critical prominence – Sianne Ngai wrote that the concept was ‘ideally suited to the analysis of ideology, which, as the materially embodied representation of an imaginary relationship to a holistic complex of real conditions, clearly shares tone’s virtual, diffused, but also immanent character’. This is tone as how you relate to what is all around you, what you are immersed in. Although tone as rhetoric and as atmosphere are then very different, both potentially link written style to much larger social horizons of power and class, of affect and ideology. Tone’s continuing unsettled status as a critical category likewise reflects the still unresolved status of questions about class’s articulations with ideology, and of power’s relationship to affect. 

Two recent critical books demonstrate the distance that remains between tone-as-rhetoric and tone-as-atmosphere, while also suggesting some intriguing points of possible interconnection. Judith Roof’s Tone: Writing and the Sound of Feeling issues squarely from the rhetorical camp. Through twenty-four short chapters, it provides a masterclass in practical criticism, presenting focussed vignettes that analyse short passages of prose. It draws its materials mostly from twentieth-century British and American fiction, but also includes attention to literary criticism’s own tones (hectoring, obfuscating, bullying, admonishing) and to such generally prevalent modes of public discourse as political propaganda, online advertising, and AI writing.  

Throughout Roof aims to nail tone down, to pinpoint its workings, to detail its qualities and operations. She wants to defend tone against charges of critical impressionism and vagueness, and so she keeps directing us to ‘the evidence … right on the page’ that supports her claims. She also wants to defend the value of close reading against what she sees as ‘the ethical turn’ of recent criticism. In their single-minded commitment to ‘such contemporary preoccupations as message, justice, and equity’, readers today, Roof judges, often ‘miss tonal irony, parody, satire, and other textual self-commentary’. Reading solely for the message, such readers end up ‘finding comic texts indictably insensitive’, while taking misplaced comfort in texts which are ‘artlessly chiding’. Literature, she wants to remind us, doesn’t have to be didactic, and the people who want to badger us into thinking that it does don’t necessarily have our – or literature’s – best interests at heart. 

Perhaps this makes Roof sound like a crusty old New Critic trying to cast scorn on identity politics by using some suspiciously elaborate textual prestidigitation. (So you think Joseph Conrad’s a bloody racist, do you? Can’t you see the text is being racist ironically? Which I will now, for your edification, prove! Just keep your eye on this signifier …) But in fact, Roof’s virtuoso readings – even of Heart of Darkness – are reliably illuminating, and her writing is unfailingly sympathetic. And while her project is underpinned by the old Richards model, it’s one she has developed in some unexpected directions.  

Roof takes as her key to the whole puzzle the paradoxical circuit embedded in the Richards account: that tone is a precondition for the words in which alone it might be said to exist. Written tone for her is an effect of virtual speech. Or perhaps it would be better to say: written tone is a virtual effect of virtual speech. In reading we are cued by various linguistic features to imagine a speaking narrator. This is tonal in the sense of the distinctive sound of a particular voice. Readers then attribute to that imagined speaker the production of the linguistic features which in fact first conjured the speaker into being. So tone is how we come to hear something like a voice in our heads when reading, and it is also how we project onto that imagined voice the authority to have created what it is we are reading.  

To describe this circuit, Roof introduces the concept of ‘audiation’. Like tone itself, audiation comes originally from the language of music, where it names a kind of inner hearing. Audiation is what happens in the mind when you ‘listen’ to an imagined or remembered tune; it also names the act of comprehension inherent in hearing sounds as musical. By analogy, to audiate for Roof is ‘to imagine hearing the sound – the quite literal “tone” of a “voice” – that appears to speak as an effect of the telling’. Tone is this ‘effect of the telling’ in that we can only glean it from verbal cues: it is ‘the sum effect of diction, syntax, connotation, and cultural associations we might link to specific words, naming practices and cultural patterns’. This ‘effect’ itself has effects, for it goes on to inform us about how to hear what we are being told, how to take the verbal cues that continue to be given. And so it comes to appear as the cause of the effect that it is.  

Tone in Roof’s account thereby performs strange loops through the imagination. Her favourite critical adjectives all aim to convey this process through which linguistic acts persuade us that there is a speaker behind them to which we then attribute the production of those acts in the first place – despite those acts being all we can ever have of this so-called speaker’s existence. She likes such words as ‘hoaxic’ (from hoax), ‘ouroboric’ (from ouroboros, the snake swallowing its own tail) and ‘moebius’ (the figure of the twisted loop that has, topologically, only a single surface). Her favourite adjectives for describing the tones of the texts she reads are ‘layered’, ‘duplex’, ‘doubled’, ‘split’, ‘inmixed’, ‘shifting’. Tone-as-atmosphere tends to present global effects. Each poem, or novel, or indeed author, or even literary period or national tradition is awarded its own characteristic tone (the unmistakeable tone of OzPo, for example: salty!). Roof’s version of tone instead tends towards the self-divided, the deconstructive, the mobile. One way or another, it always incorporates some kind of performative contradiction, some self-undermining instance.  

It’s in the context of this commitment to tonal self-division and hybridity – to tone’s in-between, on-the-move, never-quite-where-or-what-you-thought-it-was character – that Roof’s attacks on the reduction of literature to its ‘message’ need to be understood. The fruits of this approach are evident in the sensitivity of her readings of writers from Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf to Kathy Acker and Percival Everett. But the book’s greatest value might lie not in its close readings, but in the possibilities it opens for tying tone-as-rhetoric back into the ideological and affective concerns that have more usually been associated with tone-as-atmosphere. Take Sianne Ngai’s Althusserian description of ideology, for example, quoted above: ‘the materially embodied representation of an imaginary relationship to a holistic complex of real conditions’. Replace the word real here with textual and you have a strikingly accurate description of tone as understood by Roof. Or take Roof’s interest in the ‘hoaxic’ nature of tone and the link she develops between tone and audiation, the illusory but undebunkable inner hearing of a voice that isn’t there. Louis Althusser’s primal scene of ideology is when a cop calls out ‘hey you!’ and you automatically turn around. Roof’s account of tone reminds us that, more often than not, the voice you’ve turned around to wasn’t speaking out loud, and the real cop to watch out for is the one in your head. 

That Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno’s new book Tone comes from the tone-as-atmosphere camp is clear right from the title page, which states that the book is ‘from the Committee to Investigate Atmosphere’. Samatar and Zambreno’s decision to write as a committee is designed to trouble conventional notions of selfhood and authorial individuality. They want to push writing in more atmospheric directions. But their claim to the virtues of anonymous collectivity is undermined by the fact they also include their proper names on the title page as the authors of the book. This self-thwarting desire to have things both ways turns out to be characteristic of their project as a whole, in which they say so much about tone, atmosphere, and literature they end up saying very little at all. 

Tone, for instance, is said variously in this book to be a sound, a barely perceptible odour, and also an insistent odour, a light, a collective reading body, the vibe of a room, this space, a commons and a floating haze. Tone is also said to be ‘there. It is ground, life, a filter; it is grain and mood, face and body, a vapour. ‘A tone is perhaps a room that we inhabit and are inhabited by.’ Helga Crane, the protagonist of Nella Larsen’s novel Quicksand, is tone, and so is a hoard of bric-a-brac. Tone is weather and it is also relation; it is ‘the way she thinks’; it is a certain gaze or tint that clouds over a text. Tone is the absent presence, and the visual world; it is global distribution; it is an unaired room; it is work; it is vibrational intensity. Tone is what colours an atmosphere; actually, it is a shared affective atmosphere; actually, it is an atmospheric commons located within some texts. It is a pheromonal signal; it is ecological feeling; it is also historical. It is the hybridity of who is speaking. ‘Tone is a window that one looks out of and also a window one looks into.’ ‘Tone is a hotel lobby artist who may or may not have been placed there by management.’ The question Samatar and Zambreno set out to answer is ‘what is tone?’ By the end of the book, readers are likely to be wondering what isn’t.  

There’s writing about atmosphere. And then there’s writing that seeks to reproduce the drift and evanescent insubstantiality of atmosphere. A word cloud might resemble an actual cloud in certain respects. But that resemblance won’t tell you much about what clouds are, how they arise, or if it’s going to rain. Samatar and Zambreno’s primary method for making plausible their claim that tone is atmosphere is to adopt a tone that aspires to the atmospheric. It’s that tone, more than any central proposition, which holds the book together. Their six main chapters begin as response to texts by such writers as Larsen, W.G. Sebald, Heike Geissler, Hiroko Oyamada, Bhanu Kapil, and Franz Kafka before drifting off into ever more tenuous fields of association. One idea that does carry through much of the book concerns a sense of tone as prepositional: Larsen’s tone is said to be governed by the preposition ‘to’, Sebald by ‘from a great height’, Geissler by ‘inside’. Tone-as-preposition potentially brings attitude and atmosphere together in new ways. But it remains only an intriguing suggestion, lacking in extended or systemic development. 

Samatar and Zambreno don’t so much argue as evoke. We are told, for example, that their scan of The Rings of Saturn includes an image of a long hair left by someone on the photocopier. Sebald would have loved that, they think. Then they report what someone had said about Sebald at a dinner party they attended: that the appeal of his books lies in their expressly amateur photographs. That makes them think of Melanie Klein (it’s depressive), and also of Eve Sedgwick (it’s reparative). They are then reminded of something Sianne Ngai said about literary tone (it’s affective), which reminds them of Susan Sontag on photography (it’s frozen), which reminds them of Mark Fisher (it’s eerie) and then Brian Eno (it’s ambient), and then of something Fred Moten said about the poetry of Amiri Baraka (it’s sound rather than voice) – at which point one might start to feel that one is some considerable distance from the dinner-party conversation about Sebald, let along anything he actually wrote. But then there is, remember, that strand of ‘long swirling hair’ copied along with the text. It swirls, we are told, ‘across all the pages’, providing an image of a thread that might tie these diverse observations together. Perhaps it is only an image of connection rather than an actual connection. Still, for anyone left unconvinced by their ‘I do this, I do that’ mode of criticism, the authors have an answer: ‘No, I can’t prove it.’ ‘Our mind wanders.’ ‘How beautiful we were to us.’ 

Benedetto Croce liked to remind critics of a placard posted in certain German concert halls: das Mitsingen ist verboten. That is to say: no singing along! Don’t get so caught up in the ‘Ode to Joy’ that you join in the chorus. No tiddley-pom-pomming; no one wants to hear it. Croce felt that an analogous principle applied in literary criticism. Criticism, he argued, is conceptual and systematic. It operates with ideas, evidence, and arguments. It frames judgements that need to be supportable on rational grounds. This is what makes it, at least ideally, a radically inclusive enterprise, because it addresses people on the basis of their being thinking beings. That means (and here we might well recall Richards’s definition of tone) that criticism stands in a certain attitude to its audience. It can’t adopt any tone at will, but is restricted to those premised on the equality of critics and their readers as thinking beings. Criticism of poetry that tries itself to be poetic has on this account made a drastic tonal error. The critical choice to employ a lyrical tone may well be inspired by a sincere desire to make criticism more evocative or affective or personal or embodied or political or relatable or whatever. But for Croce, at least, it’s a step towards fascist unreason. The critic’s proper business is to try and convince readers, not to try and move them. Critics who aim to move, who evoke rather than argue, who sing along, are treating their readers, in effect, as manipulable objects. They’ve taken up the wrong stance and the wrong tone. 

After decades of fictocriticism, autotheory, hybrid texts, and now postcritique, such admonishments seem to emanate from a long-distant time: you can almost hear the crackle of the shellac spinning at 78 rpm. And surely there’s something to be said for the value of singing along. Critics can’t all be reasonbots all of the time. One of the most powerful aesthetic experiences of my life came in the musical theatre adaptation of Disney’s Frozen when, as the brassy mezzo-soprano playing Elsa launched into the song ‘Let it Go’, she was joined spontaneously by hundreds of reedy voices as all the children in the audience around me began singing along. They knew the words; they had sung along before. So had I. It was the end of 2021 – a year, in Melbourne, when merely being in a room with large numbers of other people was invested with some very intense and unusual affective energies. I raised my own voice and sang along through my facemask and tears. There seemed to be a lot that needed letting go. 

I’d like to find a tone for criticism capable of carrying some of the force I felt in that audience: of conveying the spirit of letting go, surrendering to the collective and singing along. But I also want critical tones to remain secured by canons of rationality: tones that resist the easy capsize into oceanic feelings, and that remain alert to the incipiently fascist appeal of laughing along with Mickey Mouse and weeping along with Bambi. What I want is a critical tone resonant with both these apparently opposing commitments. Sometimes, despite themselves, these two books managed to sketch out at least some elements such a tone might involve. But neither managed to produce it, whatever their other merits. For criticism, as for society, tone, tricky as ever, remains unfinished business. Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway. 

Works Cited

  •  S.T. Coleridge, Biographia Literaria. 2 vols. London: Rest Fenner, 1817. 
  • Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004. 
  • I.A. Richards, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929. 
  • Colleen Ruth Rosenfeld, ‘Do You Hear What I Hear?’ Spenser Studies 36:1 (2022): 295-307.