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A lurid confession

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I have a confession to make.

That sentence is designed to make you roll your chair a little closer to your desk, or look over your shoulder and pull the laptop closer to your belly. You’re about to share one of those confession things, to get a peep into the sordid private life of a stranger, to learn of — what? Torrid encounters with famous persons, or their pets? Bizarre masochistic rituals? A perverse interest in vegetable oil or shrink wrap?

Here it is: I think this multiple point of view thing is bullshit. I really do.

I recognize that, compared to the alternatives, this is not a very interesting confession. But your voyeuristic inclinations are none of my concern, gentle reader, so take that complaint elsewhere.

It’s also not the most truthful of confessions. I’m sorry; I have a tendency to exaggerate, and even to make things up. What can I say? This is where fiction comes from. It’s a short hop from fiction to proroguing Parliament; both spring from the same evasive instinct.

It’s more truthful to say that I like this multiple point of view thing as much as any other writerly stunt; the strong scent of manure only comes into play when we start talking about how wonderful multiple points of view are, how much closer they bring us to truth, how much more reliable than a single narrator, how much more expansive, how much more lifelike these stories are.

These stories are nothing like life.

Life is like this: I got out of bed, went and woke the kids up, stumbled blearily down the hall to my office to check my email for nightmares left over from the day before, yelled at the kids to get out of bed already, went downstairs and ate some kind of breakfast, yelled at the kids to get their butts out of bed before I came in and tickled them, put on the kettle for tea, and finally told the kids that if they didn’t get their sorry asses out of bed I was going to sing the theme from “Little House on the Prairie” at the top of my lungs, which horrifying prospect never fails to create the desired result.

Fiction doesn’t work that way, not least because most fictional characters possess far too much dignity to allow themselves to be written singing the theme from “Little House on the Prairie” like a drunk with a broken trombone. Fiction allows us to get outside ourselves. We want to invest in a viewpoint character. Film and theatre are like life, in that we see people from without; fiction demands a point of view. Or multiple points of view.

In multiple points of view, my morning routine could involve jumping from one head to the next to discover that, for example, number one son really is starting to think that his dad is a bit of a goof, or that daughter actually thinks my terrible singing isn’t entirely deliberate, or that wife finds the whole experience horribly trying and wishes I worked the night shift. Or, my neighbour could be arising bleary-eyed, wondering what in the hell is that terrible noise.

I have certain ideas about how I want to write, and I can’t help feeling that this multiple point of view thing, essentially, is cheating.

Oh, yes it is.

Find yourself a recent book on writing — any of the approximately one million now in print — and skip to the section on point of view. It’s almost guaranteed that this book will advise its readers to avoid the omniscient narrator, because that point of view is obsolete. Contemporary readers have tumbled to this particular game, and they won’t accept that an omniscient narrator can know all these things about the story. They’re too smart to fall for it.

But they will fall for tag-team third-person narration, provided that we label each section with the name of the viewpoint character: Bob, Joanna, Bob, Joanna, Etcetera. They will fall for a series of linked short stories, each with a unique point of view. They will fall for an author who somehow has access to the viewpoints of more than one narrator.

Is this anything but omniscient narration repackaged?

I don’t think so.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I think that the writing books are wrong; readers do accept omniscient narrators, just as long as the narration and the story work. I’m not going to insist that there’s only one valid way to write.

But let’s not pretend that multiple points of view make stories more reliable, more authoritative, more life-like. The more we can see of characters’ intentions, of their inner lives, the more complete our picture of the story becomes, the less life-like it is, the more constructed, the greater the risk that the entire thing has nothing to do with any kind of truth. Multiple points of view, linked short stories … these are not richer or more life-like than a single story told from a single viewpoint; if anything, these techniques should amplify the fictionality of the fiction.

Categories: writing
  1. January 27, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    I thought a lot about this and I just have to say that I think a character singing the theme from ‘Little House on the Prairie’ like a drunk with a trombone would be interesting. And I’m sticking by that.
    TOG (hardly omniscient)

  2. February 5, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Oh, it’s interesting … as long as you don’t have to hear it.

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