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 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

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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.

Other Writers II – Finding Your Tribe

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Here I am at AWP in Seattle.

AWP is HUGE. Think of the biggest conference/exhibition you’ve ever seen and double it. Now imagine all the attendees are writers…scary, isn’t it?  I talked to staff in a big restaurant across the street from the venue. They’d never seen anyone eat like the writers. They’d never seen anyone drink so much, either (they kept running out of Jack Daniels and Pinot Noir). ‘And you talk so much,’ one waitress said, as everyone else nodded. ‘You’re always talking, and you interrupt each other to talk some more.’

With an estimated 14,000 writers in town, you do tend to see certain similarities in dress (some hip, some smart, most dishevelled) and behaviour. Most of us normally work alone, in a room, so we’re a bit overwhelmed and over-excited to be in such a big crowd. Some soon rather sort themselves into roaming packs. The memoirists and poets form big clubs and have long-running discussions in which sides are passionately taken.

But the fiction writers don’t do this…there’s too many of us. We go to many of the same panels and events, but we wedge ourselves into rooms designed for fewer attendees, sitting on each other’s feet to hear the speakers. And then we hide more, skulk in our hotel rooms.

There are so, so, so many of us. All publishing, or trying to publish novels this year, next year or the year after. Thousands and thousands of us, publishing novels. It can feel a little disheartening.

Talking to the many publishers present can help. The small and university presses, in particular, have to have a strong sense of mission. They know what ‘their’ kind of books/stories are and that’s what they look for. Other things might be good, but it’s not what they do.

That’s the attitude you need to have as a fiction writer. You need to know what you do and what you don’t do. You need to know who is doing the same kind of thing you are doing. You might admire and enjoy other kinds of writing, but you should have a good idea of your home interest, your tribe.

When you do this, you can build relationships with the writers and publishers that are working in your area. You can even club together and promote  the whole concept of your tribe. Genre writers – in particular romance writers and science fiction novelists – are brilliant at this.

It’s easy to feel like a voice in the wilderness in this game. Or else, like at AWP, one wildebeest in an enormous herd of wildebeests. When you find your tribe, it gives you power. Now you are a pack of wolves, making each other bigger and stronger by working together.

With what I am writing now, I am finding more and more people I recognise as part of my tribe…I’ve never fit well into one before. I’m looking forward to hunting with them and seeing what, together, we can bring down!

 

Other Writers I: Writing Friends

me n dots focus

When we’ve finished a piece of writing, there’s only one thing we want to know. Is it any good? 

When you’re beginning, and sometimes far into your writing career, you often can’t tell by yourself. You’ve looked at a given piece of writing so long, and have written it over and over. Sometimes you just can’t see it any more.

If you give it to your mother, or your best mate or your sweetheart, they’ll tell you how wonderful it is, and how wonderful you are. But that’s not what you needed to know. You needed to know, is it any good? And they can’t tell you.

Usually they can’t tell you because they don’t know all that much about great writing. But sometimes they can’t tell you because they know too much about great writing, but not a whole lot about how writing and writers develop. And sometimes they can’t tell you because your whole relationship is in the way.

This is where other writers come in handy.

Writing groups are not a new phenomenon. Think about the Romantics…the Lake poets, brother and sister Wordsworths, Coleridge, Southey, de Quincy. Think about the Beats…Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Snyder, Corso. Think about what Dorothy Wordsworth did in terms of editing and encouraging other people’s work. Think about Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the great Beat poet, and publisher. Dorothy and Lawrence wrote themselves, of course, but they were also great enablers of writing…we owe some of the best work of the last century to the energy and vision they brought to their writing groups.

I met with my own writing group two nights ago. I don’t go as often as I need to. I don’t participate as much as I’d like. Sometimes I can’t read everyone’s manuscripts. Sometimes I don’t submit my own writing early enough or at all. But although manuscript critique is important, in the end the place to talk about your writing can be even more important.

What happens, when writers get together to enable each other’s writing is an explosion of creativity. No one knows this better than Susan Tiberghien, author of One Year to a Writing Life. The group she’s gathered in Geneva, Switzerland fizzes with energy, and they give each other incredible support. Clubbing together, they are able to bring in writers from all over Europe to help and inform them. Like my own writer’s group, the members write many different styles and genres…and are achieving a remarkable publication rate.

The best academic writing programmes do this, too. At my university, twenty years ago, three English academics showed each other their own writing. Finally, they decided to offer a creative writing module in the English degree. Now, there’s a BA, three MAs and a PhD programme. There are over 400 students on two campuses, engaging with writing, and out of the MAs have come literally dozens of prize-winning poets, novelists and children’s authors.

One writer plus one writer does not equal two people writing. It does something else. The writing gets cleaner, the energy gets stronger. They take more risks. They work harder. They get…well…better.

On Being Irrepressible

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I’m going to talk about writing. I’m going to say something very profound and important. But first I’m going to talk about my hair.

My hair. Sigh.

Some of you have always known me with straight white-blond hair. The fact is, I thought I’d bleach it white and that made it straight (I also made it break and made my scalp bleed a little, too, but hey, ho). I couldn’t keep doing that (even though I loved how it looked) so I’ve had to go back more to my original colour. And my curls are starting to boing up. Straightening them takes me half the day. Cutting them off seems to be the better option. There’s just no stopping my hair, once it starts.

And, now that I’ve given myself permission to start writing again, there’s no stopping that, either. I’m still waiting for the Editor O’ My Dreams to come back to me. I delivered two new manuscripts to my agent last week (well, one new, one rewritten after her comments) and, over the weekend, I started another, which will be a follow-on to the based-on-a-true-story ms with the Editor O’ My Dreams.

And something else seems to be happening, too. I’ve always read every book I started. All my life. Some, like James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I read far too young) I threatened to leave, but I didn’t. Every crappy romance found on a rainy day at a B&B, every sports biography opened during a sleepless night at a relative’s house, every Rainbow Magic Fairy book my daughter pressed into my unwilling hands – I read them all to the last horrible page.

Now, I’m not. I’m saying to myself, ‘That’s too self-indulgent. I’m not reading any further.’ Snap shut the cover. I’m saying, ‘This is too densely referential and all the research is ruining it for me.’ Regretfully pat and put back into library bag.

I’m not reading anything else that I don’t like. Even if the writer won the Nobel.

The fact is, when I became  a professional writer, I started listening to what people told me about writing. About mine, about other people’s… I rather lost my own sense of taste, my own understanding of what is good and what is not. I’ve got no beef with Louise Rennison – she’s dead funny. But I’ve had the fiction director of my publishing house sit down with me and ask me if I thought I could write more like her.  And felt bad because I didn’t think I could ever say yes.

Well, goodbye to all that. Life is too short to read books you don’t like…and much too short to write them.

I’m afraid my taste in writing, like my hair, is becoming, once again, completely irrepressible. My hair colour might change again. But that won’t.

Writer on a Train: Taking Pains

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It’s a hard thing for students to understand: ‘Work may be technically correct and tell a coherent narrative and still not achieve a first class mark.’

You can write perfectly nicely and tell a story perfectly well and still not be any good.

Finding out whether or not you are any good is the main reason people do higher degrees in Creative Writing. In fact, talking about whether or not something is any good is the main reason Creative Writing exists as an academic subject. In the early 1980s/late 1970s English Literature became supremely uninterested in whether or not writing was any good. I can remember it vividly, because it happened to me in such a personal way. In the early 1980s, I was such a good BA Eng Lit student that I was urged to take classes at graduate level.

I got on well with the New Critics (who were Old Critics by then). In particular, I loved Cleanth Brooks. I felt he had my back and I had his. But suddenly, I was confronted by a whole different language. It was a WWI – WWII American Fiction seminar. We were reading A Farewell to Arms. And suddenly, instead of talking about narrative structure or characterisation or anything else I was prepared to discuss, we started talking about patriarchy, hegemonist masculinity. With effort, this became of tepid interest. But truly, all the fun of English Literature  had gone. I ended up taking far more distributive hours than I needed and inadvertently graduated with a minor in Geography.

So the ‘is in any good’ness is important, not just to my subject, but to me, personally. It’s the whole of my life that is in question: I am mostly, really, made up of text. When I die, I would like this question to be in some way answered.

At times i have thought, ‘Hell, yes, I’m brilliant.’ At times I have thought, ‘The reason you are obscure, Mimi, is that you are no damn good.’ I have rushed some work in the past. I have written quickly in order to feed my family and pay my mortgage. But I’ve written some really good stuff, too. Life is short and I’m over 50. I’m  not going write anything but my best ever, ever again.

A friend is submitting work to agents and getting rejections. And it hurts. I have realised I need to rewrite, not revise Hospital High, a memoir, into Losing My Voice, a fictionalised account of my death in a car accident at 14.  That hurts, too. I didn’t want to have to do it…there are other things I want to write, too, and I really want to have a new book out next year. But its not enough to write nicely and tell a compelling story. You have to take pains, if you want to be any damn good.

You have to take the pains.

 

All Change

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I’m changing.

I’ve always written in bed. Now, I’m commissioning a writing shed.

I’ve always paid all my writing money into the family account. Now, I’m only paying in a percentage and investing the rest in my own development and promotional activities.

I used to write in the early mornings, and that worked for me. Then my life changed. Now, I snatch bits of time and it doesn’t really work well at all. That’s got to change, too. Hence the shed. I need to be out of the house for the ‘Mum, where’s my socks?’ hour, the ‘I forgot to tell you, I’ve got a tasting tonight and won’t be home until ten,’ hour, the ‘I knew I could catch you if I rang early,’ hour. Now, I’ll be in my shed. You can disturb me for blood, bones and fire…and maybe zombie invasions.

I’m changing. I’m going back to being what I was all along, underneath.

A writer, first and foremost. Every day.