Saturday, January 2, 2016

Voice and Point of View

The concepts of voice and point of view in writing challenges me continually. The first person narrative and the third person omniscient should be clear. But there were passages in Mo Yan's Red Sorghum that impressed me greatly because he wrote as if slipping in and out of the point of view of a pack of feral dogs. Further, an Indie writer, Lee Fullbright, wrote The Angry
Woman Suite, adopting the perspective of three characters in turn--Elysse, the step-daughter; Francis, the step-father, and Aidan, Francis' school teacher and mentor who is friend to both--but the novel impressed me with a single overwhelming, angry voice. 

I understand that the third person omniscient is a dangerously alluring voice or POV for an author and one best left to the masters, but one of my favorite authors frequently employs--I am flabbergasted just to think about it--the FIRST person omniscient. How else would you account for a statement such as "To understand just one life, you have to swallow the world. I told you that"? (Salman Rushdie, Midnight's Children). I actually think that Shame was a greater work (though slighter in physical volume), but that too uses the same technique.


Christa Wolf's Medea consisted of eleven monologues, ranging from taut, focused lamentation to unbounded rage all part of a "riff" on the ancient Greek legend of Medea. I do believe that we are better off with that book than without, as far as understanding the Medea legend goes. If that has become a

category in psychotherapy, I am happy to say I am not aware of any such thing. Muriel Barberry's Elegance of the Hedgehog (some love this work, others don't) alternates between the first person voice of a concierge-savant and that of a child-savant. I suspect that the "savant thing" puts many readers off. Humility is not a common virtue among writers and it is probably more valued as a result. 

Writers are cautioned about the use of the first person; it is by far the most intimate voice, but can you, the author, handle it? And can you handle it in a manner that connects with your readers? After one writes something like "Call me Ishmael," how does one sustain the story, the narrative? Notice that there are more first person narratives that are not in the voice of a Captain Ahab or a Sherlock Holmes. Somehow, one suspects that a reader is more likely not to feel connected to a monomaniacal whaler or a highly functioning sociopath of a detective, hence the function of the faithful "side-kick." Speaking of which, the TV series that cast an Asian woman as Doctor Watson has managed to inject a brilliant case of cognitive dissonance--what remains is to see how well the script-writing sustains this.

For a writer, especially one relatively new to the craft, the safest voice and point of view is that of the third person objective. One does not try to get into any of one's characters' heads. One observes and practices the craft of describing/showing as opposed to narrating/ telling. Just the facts ma'am. But. 

Fiction should engage the reader just a little (or a lot) more. Hence, the POV often employed is the third person limited, which means the reader is allowed into the head of one character, usually the main character or the side-kick. That person is allowed to conduct "internal dialogue." Some style sheets have evolved to codify this by requiring italics without quotation marks. This gets us into some advanced areas that I would just as soon avoid for now. One can only read so many "how to" books on the art of writing.

Further, what happens when there are many characters and one does not wish to have the main character in every scene. Is the third person limited supple enough to to slip into the mind of the main character for the scene in one chapter and into that of another character in a different chapter? This is where writing dissolves into empiricism--what works? A writer should listen to reviewers. They are not all right nor always right; but they provide feedback to a writer as echo location functions for a bat. 

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