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

 

Advertisements

On Stretching ‘Till It Hurts

Photo on 2012-12-04 at 11.48 #3

I like my hair white. God is making my hair white, but he’s too slow. My hairdresser tells me it’s too dangerous and she won’t help me. And she’s right. I regularly destroy the ends of my hair and have to cut them off. And I often burn my scalp, bleaching my hair. I bleached it for two four-hour sessions yesterday and destroyed the ends. (I cut them off this morning.) And it’s still not really white – there’s a bit of yellow left in places. I’ll need to do more purple shampoos before it goes the colour I like.

On the other hand, it IS utterly fabulous.

My daughter, aged 10, is an ambitious dancer. She likes to see The Royal Ballet at Covent Garden (we get cheap seats and book the train months ahead of time). She fully expects to be dancing that well in ten years’ time (although she really is interested in becoming a choreographer). She’s just started training at a Russian Ballet School in Bristol, as well as at our local dance school. The Russian Ballet ask for a great deal more extension than my daughter has, and she’s been stretching assiduously. One day, in P.E. at school, she pulled an adductor muscle in her right leg. She’s having physio on it now, and off dance for the rest of the year.

On the other hand, her ballet has really improved.

Sophie has been in talks with a publisher I very much like, about Hospital High. They’d like me to make it more fictional than memoir, for me to ‘base it’ on my life experiences, but not conform to them. They’d like more about my relationships and about the 1970s setting. It’s a stretch. I might hurt it if I try to do that to it.

But on the other hand, it could be absolutely amazing.

To be amazing, you have to risk. To get better at something is to leave the way you’ve done it before completely behind. You don’t know it will work: you might lose, you might get hurt. But that’s art: being injured is almost guaranteed in ballet. Failing, regularly, is almost guaranteed in writing. You can live in the safety of what you know and do what you always do, I suppose. But it doesn’t sound much like living to me.

Current Manuscripts: Hospital High, Blazing Heart

 

Improving Your Writing and Howling at the Sky


I’m in my office, here, and catching up a few student emails before I teach. I’ve got thirteen minutes to tell you something important.

If you want to take your writing to the next level – if you want to get better at it, it’s going to hurt.

See, growth hurts. My daughter told me this morning she is getting growing pains in her gorgeous long legs. At the time were watching Pokemon and one of the little monsters had evolved. It was frustrating for the poor monster because he couldn’t fight the way he always had. He was getting very upset indeed, banging into trees and howling at the sky.

My MA student hasn’t charged into any trees, but I’ll bet she’s done her share of howling. It hurts to give up on a certain way of writing, even though you know it’s limiting. Sometimes your way of writing will have got you such a long way that it’s painful to admit that it needs to change if you are to go any farther. You have to put down the old ways of doing things and just trust that you’ll be able to find a new way that’s better. For a moment, you are standing there naked, without any technique at all…or at least that’s how it feels.

The Pokemon was okay. By the time my daughter’s school taxi arrived, he’d learned how to use his new form and fight a whole new way. My MA student is going to be fine, too. In a few years, she’ll be publishing books and winning prizes and I’ll tell you her name. And my daughter won’t be growing forever. Her bones and nerves will settle down.

But I’ll be growing forever, and so will you, if you want to be the best writer you can. And sometimes, I promise you, you will howl at the sky…

It Doesn’t Look Like Work

It doesn’t.

And sometimes, it’s not. I have times when I really should be writing, but instead am, say, on Pottermore (SkyNettle11176, Gryffindor, 14 1/2 inch Holly with Phoenix feather reasonably supple).

My husband knows when I’m slacking, and so does my agent and writing group. They’re also the only people who know when I’m working so hard my eyes are bleeding.  The rest of the time…writing is something that people know I do, but they don’t know (or care) when. Only my close friends really understand why I’m such a crap mate. I don’t have time to remember birthdays properly. I hardly have time to remember my shoes. When I’m on a roll, I’m leaving parties just as everyone else arrives. I’m saying goodbye and thanks for dinners when I’m still swallowing my dessert.

For something that doesn’t look like work, and sometimes isn’t, it sure takes up an awful lot of time and thought.

I think, really, that I’m working all the time. But I don’t think, really, that anyone is going to believe me…

It Comes Back

Image

Where does the writing go, when it leaves us? It does leave us, that’s for certain. Some days, weeks, months, years even, we can’t write a word. We sit and wish for it, and nothing happens; and if we force it, dreadful things drip out of the printer…things we wouldn’t let a dog see, let alone our agents or editors or writing friends.

Perhaps there’s only so much writing that can be done at once on the planet, and we have to share it around. Or maybe we need those fallow times, those yearning years, in order to do the work when it comes back to us.

It does come back.

I’m writing this at Easter, on Good Friday, that great dark Christian feast of the slain man-god. Today is all about being reviled and rejected. Today is about being found wanting, and no-one coming to help you, and being spindled and thrown away.

But it’s also about faith.

I have no idea why we have to go through the dark days of want and worry. But I do know one thing…the writing will come back. Believe in it and in yourself; and watch, and wait.

 Here’s Some Easter Inspiration – Click here to listen

Image

A Change Will Do You Good

Image

There are some things about being a writer I really love. First of all, and as you know, I love not having to get dressed in order to do it. I love BEING a writer; I went onto campus for a quick meeting and was running late and couldn’t find my sandals, so I went barefoot. Nobody blinked an eye; writers are allowed eccentricities. And, perhaps best of all, you can write anywhere. Including, on a day like this; the garden, which is where this week’s photo is set.

With me, but stubbornly refusing to be in shot, is my writing companion, Dotty the cat.

Big changes are about to happen to Dotty, though she doesn’t know it yet. Tonight, the new puppy comes home. A labrador.

Well, she’s been having territorial problems and our garden and house have been invaded so often that she’s had to go on antidepressants, to stop her from grooming off all her fur. The dog will keep her company while we’re gone and also will protect her from invaders. But I don’t think she’ll realise that when the puppy arrives this evening.

It’s hard to recognise when we need to change. Yesterday I talked to three writers who didn’t really want to change; either what they were writing, or how they were writing it, or how they thought about it. And it’s true that you can only change things so much before you lose the reason you wanted to write something in the first place; but I don’t think that’s the only reason we resist changing our writing.

I think we fear the death of something we’ve created – even if it’s only a phrase we love that everyone else thinks we should cut. There’s a little death in every change; but there’s a little death in every growth, too. The seeds I plant this week will have to die in order to make a plant; if they remain seeds, they’ll die anyway, from rot. The writer who wrote The Saint Who Loved Me is no longer with us – the me I was ten years ago, before I had my daughter, is gone. But that writer could never have written Drawing Together.

Often the changes we resist are the changes we know we need to make. Having a friend or an agent or editor tell us that we need to change something doesn’t feel like news, it feels like a finger pressing on a bruise. We know…we know all too well that it needs changing. We know so much it hurts.

Today, I’m asking you to push yourself a little harder to try and change something you know needs it badly. After all, another wonderful thing about writing is that you can always change it back.

Want some help from Mimi with your own writing project? Click here…