Know-it-All: Omniscience in Narration

storytellerA nature writer has asked me about narrative voice and point-of-view. Specifically, he wants to think about the omniscience (or lack thereof) of narrative voices and where omniscience deviates from a third person and first person narrative voice.

It’s an interesting topic, because it’s one of the places where writers are forced to consider and reveal their philosophy – not just of narrative, but of life.

Let’s look at Shirley Jackson’s short story ‘The Lottery’ and contrast it with the narrative voices of  George Orwell’s 1984  and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to look at omniscience.

In both the Orwell and the Dickens, the narrative voice is in third person, but follows one character through the story. The feeling of omniscience comes in because the voice knows more than the character: it observes the character and comments on the character. But it is not truly omniscient because it is trapped in the main character’s experience. It doesn’t know where the Spirits of Christmas come from or where they go. It’s not aware of what’s happening in Julia’s torture.  But it sees into the thoughts and emotions of the character.

Both Orwell and Dickens reveal that they feel dispassionate observation can bring greater insight than unexamined lived experience. The act of stepping back and considering one’s actions and emotions obviously has great power for both of these writers.

In Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery,’ we see the entire scene and dip in and out of people’s actions, concentrating on one character and another. But we are asked to infer thoughts and emotions from the outside, as we do in real life. As we read, and particularly as we re-read, we are making judgements about the process, each character, and the nature of ‘knowing’ other people. Jackson is questioning the concept of society and family by questioning our relationship with order, ritual and custom and how the individual is caught in a complex web of knowing and not-knowing. This could not be done if she used what we call ‘interiority’ – the ability to see into characters’ thoughts and emotions.

All three texts are often listed as having ‘omniscient narrators’, but this is not strictly true. No text can possibly hold true omniscience – something that we only become more aware of as science progresses. To hold true omniscience, the writer has to either believe or imagine that the complexity of the universe can be understood and communicated.

If I were to try and write omnisciently about this very moment – the wood of my table, the computer on which I type, my body, my dog’s body, the construction of this room in my house… I could spend innumerable volumes on just those few things and not actually get any farther than narrating that I typed, ‘If.’ By the time I had communicated the way solids form out of atoms to make what we call wood, the characteristics of pine, the history of farm-house tables and what they represent in British society, etc., etc., etc., we would never get to the troublesome ‘I’ of the second word.

Omniscience grew unfashionable about the same time writers stopped believing that heaven was in the sky and hell somewhere deep under our feet. We also began to be very aware of how we choose what we tell. From this point on, point-of-view stopped being a rhetorical focus and began to be a convenient way of limiting the burgeoning knowledge we had acquired about our universe and ourselves – limiting it enough to efficiently convey a narrative.

First person became very popular about this time. Holden Caulfield in J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye is a good example. Caulfield is not omniscient and is not, in fact, even particularly self-aware. Salinger shows us the importance of lived experience – of existence – when he tells this story filtered through a simulacrum of Caulfield’s consciousness. The tenderness of the narrative combined with the way point of view is used makes this unaware teenager heroic and loveable. However, we are trapped inside this simulacrum – and any observations or comments Salinger might want to make must be filtered through the character’s unique way of expressing and observing. Although Salinger pushes the limits of this form and of the existential philosophy that underpins it, the drawbacks are obvious.

These days, I find it easier to throw away the labels of first person, third person, omniscience and instead think about a few things:

  • Who is speaking and when?
  • What is the speaker’s relationship with information the character does not have?
  • How vital is it that you communicate information the character(s) does not have?
  • How much do you need to covey interiority (thoughts and emotions)?
  • What are the rules that limit what the narrative voice conveys?

 

It’s easier and more effective when writers consciously work out their strategy for these things and are able to effectively communicate the strategy. For some writers, being inside one character will work.  For others, two or three characters will be necessary and swapping viewpoints will form part of the reading experience. For still others, a narrative voice outside the character(s) is important, commenting and giving additional information. In my own Welcome to Eudora (2007, Random House USA), I wrote as the gossipy knowledge of an entire town. In Dreaming the Bear (OUP Children’s 2016), I used three narrative voices, including one that wonders about the experience of being a grizzly bear.

Nature writers have it tough on this front. They need to inhabit and communicate both experience and a great deal of information. Some of the most successful nature writing uses two first person voices. There is the narrative voice of the ‘now’ or ‘then’ in the field conveying experience and then another which is the ‘back in the library’ or ‘later’ voice that conveys the contextual information. Sometimes the ‘then’ voice is the field experience. Sometimes the contextual information is woven into the field experience, particularly well recently in Peter Reason’s Spindrift.

Tone comes into this, too. But that’s a discussion for another day…

 

 

Read more:

Peter Brooks, Roland Barthes, Algirdas Greimas, Robyn Warhol

 

Why We Need To Fund Libraries 1/3

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Let’s start with the basics. What is a library?

A library is not a collection of books. Above you’ll see why it’s not. This is The Ship’s library. The Ship is my local pub and this is their book corner. It started off well, but in the three years I’ve been…erm…monitoring it every Friday evening (with a pint or two), it’s gone right downhill.  All that’s left is old tat.

That’s because there’s no librarian. Any fool can bring books onto a shelf – any fool can buy all the latest books the reviewers say are good and stack them in alphabetical and Dewey Decimal order. But librarians don’t just know how to do that…they also know what to throw away.

Librarians are trained to curate information; trained to gather information (yes) but also to evaluate it, decide if it’s still valid and get rid of the bad stuff. They’re Snopes  in real life. Only they don’t just evaluate the worth of internet memes and rumours and fake news…they can monitor and evaluate EVERY BIT OF INFORMATION ON THE PLANET. They can also store it, manipulate it, find it, file it, retrieve it and archive it and will know when to do all those things.

Let’s look at another example: A friend of mine was at the dump/tip the other day and saved a first edition of George Orwell’s 1984 from going in, not even the book bin (which gets picked over by charity shops) but the paper recycling.

Librarians also know what to keep.

Libraries aren’t stacks of books: they’re the repository of a society’s knowledge. In good libraries, everything on the shelves is of worth; good fiction, up-to-date and verified non-fiction, poetry worth reading, how-to books that actually teach you how to do something, reference materials that are collections of the latest and best thought humanity has to offer.

They’re the intellectual hub of our communities and librarians are their maintenance crew. Trying to have one without the other is like trying to run an airline without any mechanics. The planes might look very pretty. But I wouldn’t like to fly in one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actual Glamour

For the last two years, I’ve come onto this page, posted something (usually moaning about writers’ money) and promised to post regularly.  Then I’ve disappeared again…for months at a time.

I have shame.

But the fact is, things are going well. My books are being reviewed and are actually selling (I got a royalty cheque – I thought they were fictitious). I’ve got a new job…I’m now Reader in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol…and I wrote a new book over the summer.

In the photos, you can see me hanging out in Soho, signing a stack of Coyote Summer at the Bristol Waterstones and attending my last graduation at Bath Spa University in my doctoral robes from the University of the West of England. (In case you didn’t know, your official academic robes are decided by the last place that awarded you a degree. Academics spend all their time at graduation examining each other’s robes and talking about the ones they like, wishing they’d thought about this when they’d decided where to do their PhD.)

And then there’s the photo of the most glamorous thing of all – hanging out with eminent children’s authors and discussing how to help families re-wild themselves using our narratives. Julia Green, Gill Lewis, Nicola Davies and Jackie Morris were there as we discussed the #mywildworld initiative… and I even got to meet Karin Celestine and her wee felted animals. There’s a chance that some of these authors may come onto this blog and talk about their glamorous literary lives soon.

But let’s keep it real. I spent my summer holiday mainly at the tip as my hoarding family finally decided to declutter. I wrote my book so quickly because I had a stomach bug and was pretty much tied to my bed and the loo for two weeks. My royalty cheque is going to  stop my shower from leaking through the kitchen ceiling. Then it will go towards repairing my kitchen from the deluge.

I’m still not rich and I’m still not famous. But I do love my literary life. And it is, sometimes, actually glamorous…

On ‘Am I Getting Rich?

The writer’s life: Hard days, lots of work, no money, too much silence. Nobody’s fault. You chose it. ”

― Bill Barich

Short answer: (spoiler alert) No.

Author’s incomes are actually going down, not up. Publishing is a perilous enterprise these days and one way of trying to make it pay is giving most authors a great deal less than they got ten years ago. This week a bestselling Irish author decided to go back to his full time job, so that he could pay his mortgage. Most of us survive (as Ros Barber explains eloquently) by cobbling together part-time teaching jobs, school visits and other paid work.

But what do we mean by ‘getting rich’?

I think we mean feeling comfortable. Being financially secure. Even…and this almost never happens to writers: becoming financially independent.

I don’t feel comfortable or secure. If I get ill or I lose my job, my family will be in trouble. But looking at it from the standpoint of cold, hard income and outgoings, evidently my personal financial position isn’t as precarious as it feels.

Because when I research it, I’m already rich.

Looked at from a global perspective, I’m in the top 14%. In the UK, my family are in the top 26%. Trust me, if you could see my 13 year old car, my IPhone 5c and my two-up, two-down terraced house, (let alone my haircut) your first thought wouldn’t be: there goes someone rich. But clearly, I am. So, why don’t I feel rich?

So why are writers moaning about money?

I think it’s because, compared to other professions, it is so poorly paid. If you study Law or Medicine or an academic subject for years and work hard and become a success – if you become a QC or a Consultant or a Senior Lecturer/Professor, you make a very good wage. If you study writing for years and work hard and become a success – you make less than minimum wage and have to do other work to supplement your income. In the end, that means we all get less writing and writing that is less imaginative, free and inspired. Because in the back of our minds, writers are wondering how we’ll pay the mortgage if we get ill.

 

On Still Not Being Famous

wry me

Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.

–Virginia Woolf

I’ve written a book that lots of people love. I’ve been nominated for big prizes. I’m doing literary festivals. I’m going into schools. I’ve been interviewed by lots of magazines.

But I’m still not famous.

In films, when writers write a good book, they become famous, almost immediately. In real life, not so much. People squint when they meet me at cocktail parties and say, ‘Should I have heard of you?’ I have to spell my name three hundred times when I sign up for a new service. At the bank, when the machine ate my debit card and I was trying to prove my identity, they weren’t all that impressed with what ID I had in my pockets. In desperation, I went to my car and pulled out a copy of Dreaming the Bear. It has my photograph and name. The bank clerk wrinkled her nose. ‘The thing is,’ she said, ‘Books aren’t on our accepted list.’ Nobody is all that impressed that I’ve written a book people love.

And the thing about awards is that many are long-listed but few get the actual prize. If you hang about, hopping from one foot to the other, hoping for validation, you’re going to have a long wait and might not win in the end. If you look back and see what won and lost in a given year, you’ll see the prizewinner sometimes wasn’t the book you still remember…or sometimes isn’t the book that’s still in print.

The fact is, it’s a long game. You can’t second guess yourself. You keep learning and writing and hoping you’ve done good work. If you are very, very lucky, you’ll get some recognition in your lifetime. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women twenty years before she died. She knew it was popular. But she had no idea we’d still be reading it – nearly 150 years later. Big names fade. Obscure authors suddenly pop up into our notice…sometimes years after their deaths. If you try and measure your worth as a writer by recognition, you will probably not get it right.

Much better to be in it for the game than the fame. And to take it easy on minding the opinions of others.

 

 

 

 

Why I Write

You are never stronger than when you land on the other side of despair

Zadie Smith

 

blue hair

When I was fourteen years old, I died in a car accident. Of course, it was only temporary, but my injury was long lasting. My voice box was crushed.

Until then, I’d been a singer. I was just about to have my first televised solo – I’d already been performing in choirs and musical theatre and singing with my cousins’ band. I had no doubt that my future would be in the performing arts – I spent all my spare time in rehearsals or in voice and dance classes.

Suddenly, however, I had no way to express myself creatively. And more than that, for the best part of three years, I couldn’t speak at all. I had to write, in order to communicate – with my mother and the hospital staff…and then with friends and family.

I’d always been a voracious reader and had always messed about with words. I’d done some songwriting with friends and on my own and I did the young poet thing of rolling words around in my mouth to taste how they sounded…I was on the writing edge of performance, anyway. I suppose the accident just tipped me over.

So that’s the story of why I write. But it’s not the whole story.

Much of my motivation for writing is about trying to change the way the world works – about combating injustice and poverty and illness and ignorance. I write because I wasn’t sober enough to do Law or patient enough to nurse. I write because the only thing I’m particularly good at is telling stories. I write because it combats my own helplessness and despair and because I believe the stories I tell help other people combat theirs. I especially like making young people feel stronger and more resilient about the challenges they might face in their own lives with my stories. The stories I loved as a child certainly did that for me in my own time of great challenge.

Reading fiction is a way to live more than one life, to cram more experience and existence and sensation into our time on earth. Reading fiction is a way of putting two fingers up at Death, and so is writing fiction. I write the truest things I know, in the most beautiful way I can. It’s a transparent bid to become immortal.

I’ll let you know how that works out.

 

 

 

In Between Tangoes

Photo on 2014-03-27 at 15.01

I’ve talked about failure and rejection. I’ve talked about despair. I’ve talked about lethargy and procrastination.

But I haven’t talked much about joy.

This post is about the joy in a writer’s life.  I have joy to spare today.

For the first time in quite a long time, I wrote a book my agent simply loves. A simple, uncomplicatedly good book, which easily fits into the market’s requirements. It will be going out to publishers soon.

And that’s heavenly. That’s such good news, that I’ve been tangoing around the house, literally dancing around in utter glee. The dog thinks I’ve gone mad, and I’ve had to go to our new Waitrose in order to make myself sit down properly and write this post.

My new novel is a wonderful story, about a girl who befriends a wounded grizzly bear…but I won’t go any further than that. You’ll just have to trust me. It’s a cracking tale, and it’s set in a spectacular part of the world that I know quite well. The setting is so strong, it’s almost another character, and it gave me a great deal of excuse to let loose with my inner poet. I loved writing this book – I wrote 33,000 words in 11 days.  The ending made my husband (a hardy Northerner) cry.

thought it was pretty good, but Sophie had reservations. I’ve overcome her reservation with the polish-up, however, and she’s now just as keen as me.

And that feels…amazing. Out of all the people in the world, this story came to me. I got to write it, and I did a good enough job that other people can now experience it for themselves. Before I sat down last spring, Darcy and the bear and her father did not exist. Now, they live in at least two readers’ minds. Where there was nothing, now there is something.

All the stuff that comes after; money and reviews and (please God) award nominations and etc, that’s not the reward for the world. The reward is this moment, when I know I’ve made something good.

Excuse me. I’m just going to tango around the produce.