Dispatches | October 22, 2006

Someone asked me recently about point of view in fiction and I rattled off the obvious descriptions of first and third person, omniscient, center of consciousness, and so on. 

It later occurred to me that while these categories are not insignificant, they might be less definitive than the attitude or approach of the narrative voice.  Regardless of the technical point of view, the voice can be more or less objective, subjective, neutral, or analytic.

An objective voice is based in image and fact.  Hemingway is a poetic objectivist in his best writing, using detail that is in places awkwardly simplified but possessing oddly creative tact.  Some of the minimalist writers of the 1980s — Ray Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason and others — used this approach with varying success.  There’s another kind of objectivism, however, which uses almost the opposite prose style:  Lurid objectivists like Cormac McCarthy run over the reader with vivid processions of shocking detail — the sun burns holes into mountains, the intestines of six men are torn out with a single powder-seared cannonball, and so on. 

Recent bad television and movies are full of a similar lurid objectivism: a thousand miles above North America, zoom down to New York City, smash through a building’s walls, fastwalk down the hall into a hospital room, glurg into a blood drip and into the veins of the suffering one, kachunk kachunk through his heart into his brain, unfocus and reverse fade into his deep dark memory…  The weakness of such overwhelming objectivism is that while technically impressive it quickly becomes tiresome and childish — the work of wizards playing with the dials like thirteen-year-olds on video games.  

It might be argued that the subjective point of view has been one of the most obvious features of the art novel for over a century.  I’d limit the term to novels in the tradition of Sterne, Proust, Woolf, Joyce, and Faulkner — which don’t just poetically imply the flow of thought but do so persistently in the narrative method.  Subjective voices use such techniques as stream of consciousness and what psychologists call qualia (the phenomena of mental experience) to depict the flow and collisions of mind.  The inherent weakness of open subjectivity is that storytelling in its deepest nature is based on the attempt to create coherent narrative from the mess of experience.  Writers who try to use the mess as a principal storytelling technique take on a big job.  As someone who’s read thousands of manuscripts, I’ve noticed that the most common mistake of inexperienced writers is to float in the mental rather than coming up with story. 

What I call neutral point of view doesn’t show off its narrative approach.  When remembering such a story, the official “point of view” is almost the last thing you recall.  Some of my favorite stories use this approach.  It allows the inherent strength of a story to emerge quietly and sometimes a bit surprisingly.  Edith Wharton’s “Roman Fever” uses this method; it is a framed story of two women sitting at a café talking about their pasts, revealing ultimately the truth about the one man they both loved.  What initially seems like harmless teatime nostalgia becomes a climactic personal encounter, revealing among other things the falseness of the lifelong civil friendship of the two.  “Roman Fever” essentially uses a third-person point of view, with a center-of-consciousness inflection that hovers around one of the women. More importantly, though, its method of telling is unshowy, neutral — allowing the story’s climax to knock you off your feet. 

The analytic point of view may be a bit exotic as a broad category, but there are some writers, such as Nadine Gordimer, who use a technically complex point of view to imply or somehow analyze the situation being described in the story.  In her novel The House Gun, for example, she intentionally obfuscates point of view to indicate the confusion and alienation of two parents whose son has been arrested for murder. In some of the novel’s chapters, the point of view (for example, whether it’s the husband or wife who’s having the thoughts) is vague or uncertain, conveying both their turmoil and the enormity of what they are facing.  It sounds like a bad idea, but Gordimer is so good at it — and it is so relevant to the situation — that it works. 

Perhaps these are 4:30 A.M. thoughts (when they occurred to me), too ponderous to blog.  But here you are.  And now back to sleep.

Speer Morgan

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