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 3/3

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If you haven’t visited a library in years, you might think nobody goes to libraries any more. Well, you’re wrong. In the time it takes to read this entire sentence, 40 people have visited a library in the UK.

You might not need a library today, or tomorrow, or for years. But that doesn’t mean you don’t want one in your community. Because like a hospital, or a second bridge over the Bristol Channel to Wales, or the police – one day you might need it. And when you do, just like you’d need those other things, you’ll really, really need a library. Someone else in your community needs one like that today. 

Libraries are often used by people who are in transition from one thing to another. People who are in between being born and going to school use the library for stimulation and to begin to understand book-based culture for the world of learning. Older children, learning to work independently, use the library for help finding valid references for essays. People looking for new courses or careers use the resources of the library. People who are in a new town, finding out more about their past, recovering from illness, spending hours alone in old age…all these people regularly use the library.

Where else can you go that costs nothing and always welcomes you? Where you can not only be entertained and distracted from what ever problems you are facing, but also get reliable information on solving those problems?  I said in a previous post that a library is the intellectual hub of a community – sometimes people very much need the access to knowledge it contains. And more than that, they need to be physically inside a place that celebrates and collects the fruits of human struggle – they need the companionship that place brings to their own situation. Because a library is also a place personal difficulties are recognised and normalised.

But that’s not to say that libraries are only warm and fluffy. They’re also a good investment. Libraries pay great finaincial dividends. The young people using the wifi and quiet they can’t get at home will get better exam results. People in need will recover from their problems more quickly and contribute once more to the economy. Companies thinking about locating in the area look for libraries as a marker of the quality of potential employees. Children with access to books in the home attain much better in school than children without. In pounds and pence, as well as in hearts and minds, a library has a value that is nearly impossible to overestimate.

That’s why we need to fund libraries.

A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.

Andrew Carnegie

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

Reading for Writers

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A little while ago, I talked about how revealing it is to write. It’s true…you can’t hide when you are writing. What and how well you think, what and how well you feel – it’s all there, all over the pages. 

And what’s also visible is how much and what you’ve read.

Every author I know would rather read than breathe, if they were only given a choice. I read, I recently told a third year class, about a novel a day, or two or three days. And that’s with my busy life as a writer, teacher and mother. When I was their age, I usually read one in the morning before classes and one in the evening. They looked at me as though I’d suddenly sprouted antennae. 

I read very quickly, but I have excellent retention. Sometimes I forget the name of the author, or the title of the book, but I remember the characters, the setting, the plot and whole segments of text.

And that latter bit is very important. Every time we read, we are unconsciously absorbing technique. We see how the author handles the technical challenges of fiction. We’re not only enjoying the story and the beauty of the writing…we’re building a library of technique. 

Some of my undergraduate students worry about writing too much like the authors they read. In fact, some of them use it as an excuse not to read. But the answer to that is to read more, not less.

The more widely you read, the more and different approaches to the technical challenges of writing fiction you absorb. How Jane Austen uses punctuation is much different to how William Burroughs uses punctuation and you never know when the perfect solution to where you put that tricky comma will come from one or the other. 

But of course the real value of reading widely comes from that connection between reading fiction and empathy. The more you read, the more empathy you can feel about different kinds of people. Young women, pressured to marry if they are to avoid poverty, for example. Or a junky trying to survive in a menacing and unknowable world. 

And that means the you that is revealed in your writing is a better you, with every book you read.