Sunday, January 2, 2011

Questioning Point of View

The "third person limited" viewpoint has become so standard in American fiction that a lot of young writers seem to think that it is required.  Of course, some genres favor the first person -- but the first person narrator  and the close third person viewpoint are very similar in many ways.  They are both, it seems to me, part of the shrinking of fiction to a form that has more in common with memoir than it does with the ambitious fictional projects of 18th and 19th century writers.  I understand why memoir became such an important genre in the twentieth century -- the opportunity and need to tell personal stories that had never been told publicly before -- to show viewpoints on the world that had been excluded and repressed.  There's a reason why the most vibrant memoir writing tends to arise out of groups that are marginalized or oppressed and deal with parts of life that ordinarily are not seen.

But when the memoir -- an intensely personal and tightly focused form -- becomes the predominant model for fiction -- when fiction becomes mostly confessional and autobiographical -- then I don't think literature, culture, and even our politics benefit.  (There is a connection, worth exploring, between the rise of memoirs and memoir-modeled fiction and the splintering of the electorate into thousands of small special interests groups, each with a sense of grievance and entitlement.)

John Gardner, in The Art of Fiction, expresses a lot of skepticism about the third person limited viewpoint.  Gardner writes,  "In any long fiction, Henry James remarked, the use of first person becomes barbaric.  James goes too far, but his point is worth considering.  First person locks us into one person's mind, locks us to one kind of diction throughout, locks out possibilities of going deeply into various characters' minds, and so forth.  What is sometimes called the 'third person limited point of view' or 'third person subjective' has some of the same drawbacks for a long piece of fiction."  He goes on to say, "We may go on for years without noticing that the third-person-limited point of view is essentially sappy ... [and]forces the writer into phony suspense."  Gardner illustrates with a story about a man named Alex, who is taking a class when his mistress, who is the wife of the local chief of police, comes in to watch.  "Alex is distressed.  He does not want their affair known ..." but he also doesn't want to offend his mistress.  "If we start off this story in the omniscient point of view, as Chekhov would, we can get the important facts in right away and get on to what's interesting ... "  He uses very funny examples to show how limiting ourselves to Alex's point of view and thoughts create a sense of false suspense, because of the information withheld from the readers, that it only takes a slight exaggeration to make ridiculous.  How many times do we see this in genre fiction?  If I read one more thriller where the writer puts us periodically into the head of the villain and "cleverly" conceals from us the fact that he's responsible for all the mischief in the story ... well there's not really anything I can do about it, but you get my point. 

All different kinds of viewpoints have their place in fiction, but third person limited -- often 'serially third person', jumping form character to character at scene changes and chapter breaks -- has become so standard that, as I said, some young writers don't realize it's not required -- they think staying in the head and mind of one character is an ironclad rule that can't be broken.

Part of the original impulse for the revolt against omniscience in fiction -- which certainly has its own problems and abuses -- was the changing philosophical outlook of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Omniscient viewpoint in older fiction often took it for granted that omniscience was possible -- that is, that there was an overarching "reality" that was bigger than any of the character's points of view -- and that reality could be known and shown to the reader.  The omniscient narrator had a lot in common with the omniscient Deity and with the clockwork Universe of Newtonian physics -- both world views that accepted the idea of an objective reality that was larger than, and truer than, any individual perception of it.

What began happening in the late nineteenth century -- what led us to Henry James, Virginia Wolfe, James Joyce, Kafka and straight into the avalanche of modern fiction -- was that the old world views came under fire on all fronts.  Science began knocking down the edifices of religion (it had been doing that for a long time -- from Copernicus to Galileo to Darwin ) but around the turn of the century it became a full scale assault -- culminating in Nietzsche declaring that God was dead.   The depth psychology of Freud and Jung, suddenly made the subjective, interior workings of the mind fascinating (although Harold Bloom (The Western Cannon; Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human)  has maintained that there isn't much in Freud's understanding of human nature that we couldn't have learned from Shakespeare), and Albert Einstein and other scientists showed us that objective reality was not such an easy concept to grasp -- as Einstein said, there is no privileged frame of reference.  His Theory of Relativity (like Darwin's theories before) was picked up and applied, often in silly ways, to all kinds of philosophical and social situations. 

So the philosophical position buried in the third person limited point of view (and in first person, more obviously) goes something like this:  the only real truth is what is experienced by an individual.  The only things that are important, or interesting, are those that are filtered through a specific (human) consciousness.  We can never know any truth outside of that.   

The only thing that saves this position form absolute solipsism (and a certain segment of modern fiction fell off this cliff into Post Modernism and other --isms) is the somewhat illogical clinging to the idea that there are multiple conscious centers, one for each human person at least.  I'll let you think out the logical problems in this position on your own.

As a writer who is interested in the place of the non-human in literature -- let's say animals to keep it simple -- I think it is time to look for something new.  We begin this process by pushing out way out of the self -- reaching for a fiction that is bigger, broader and more imaginative.  We have been told that the problem of representation is critical -- that men can't write about women, that straight writers can't write about gay characters, that Americans can't write about Asians -- and even with all the important post-colonial issue involved -- I think that's just a failure of the empathic imagination.  In regards to animals, the philosophical statement of this position is put forth most effectively by Thomas Nagel in his essay "What is it like to Be a Bat?" 

I intend to come back to Dr. Nagel and his ideas, and the ideas of some of his critics, in the near future.  For now, I encourage you to check it out and think about how his ideas might throw light on point of view in fiction. 

Maybe the question to begin with, though, is this:  Do we believe that there is a reality out there bigger than us?  That there is Truth, no matter how hard it may be to get to and how imperfect our attempts to model it or describe it?  Is the world larger and richer than human perception? 

I think it is.

The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers The Western Canon: The Books and School of the AgesShakespeare: The Invention of the HumanMortal Questions (Canto)

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