by Sherwood Smith
The holiday extravaganzoo is well over, and here we are with a year stretching ahead of us. Writers who felt glum at the end-of-year examination for what they didn’t get done are determined to get a fresh start in a fresh year.
A bunch of writers were talking about various ways to come at a piece. Besides plot, there’s narration, specifically fashions in narration and how they have changed.
This led to a question. Is there a “reliable narrator?” I think all narrators are unreliable—the subject is fiction, which can be described as lies we pretend are true. No matter how hard we try to portray the truth as we know it, in whatever form, well, it’s still just as we know it.
Anyway, this discussion caused me to jot down some notes about different sorts of narrators and narrative voices. See what you think.
First, I believe that the concept of their being any kind of narrator, reliable or un, trips up some writers as well as readers, especially those who have grown up assuming that limited third is the only permissible POV. From what I’ve been seeing, the assumption, whether conscious or unconscious, that limited third = “truth” –that there is a direct line between text and reader—has some unfortunate results. For purposes of this ramble, I’ll name two: the writer is left fashioning awkward constructions in order to reveal the thoughts of a character outside of the present POV, and second, the writer resorts to the bland, supposedly neutral “journalistic” voice in presenting background material. Thus the reader grimaces and either plows through, skims, or skips that Deadly Data Dump.
I suspect that sometimes the Deadly Data Dump is the result of the assumption that there is no narrator. The characters not only do not react to the data, the story stops for the page, or even the single line, where the data is inserted, but the writer doesn’t see that—because, they argue, it’s part of the “truth” of the story. No, I say, it’s the writer stepping directly out from behind the curtain, shoving the narrative voice aside in order to lecture the reader directly, and tell them what to believe.
When one reads a lot of old novels, as I do, one is exposed to the accepted POV of that time—either first person omni or third person omni. A side observation, made over the years of using classics in the classroom, is that many readers will assume that first person omni might be unreliable but third person omni isn’t! It’s a good exercise to look at various stories and books, and discover that most of the time, the first-person narrator we want to accept as reliable is the one we sympathize with—like Huck Finn—and the one we disbelieve is the one that turns us off, like the barber in “The Haircut.”
I don’t think there can be a straight line between text and reader, that there is always a narrator in-between, like a bead on a string. Omniscient POV relies on the reader being aware of the narrator, and of the fact that the narrator is narrating a story.
The narrative voices of the great writers sometimes slide the bead closer to the reader. That is, they give us the camera eye view of the characters while never revealing their thoughts. Some slide it in the other direction, toward the characters, that is, revealing character thought and motivation in the characters’ own voice, while the narrative voice retreats into the b.g. The extreme of this narrative voice would be stream-of-consciousness, which is a very intimate form of third person–more intimate than first person–without the character being aware of telling a story.
I wonder if the radical shift in literary fashion to what is often called “dramatic third” (or cinematic third) early in the last century gave rise to the idea that the camera-eye-view is “truth.” I know I’ve read many early essays about the merciless truth of the camera eye, and of course in those early days people roaming around shooting real life as it happened did convey a breathtaking sense of vérité.
Conrad, Hemingway, Chandler, Fitzgerald, etc, largely stayed outside their characters’ heads, relying on the “cinematic” technique of revealing character through description of actions, expressions, even objects. Culminating in Dashiel Hammet’s ultra-cinematic writing, wherein his descriptions are the textual equivalents of camera shots.
But the thing is, these writers, I believe, were very aware of their narrators, because sometimes the narrator does intrude, very briefly, sometimes for just a sentence—even an adverb—to reveal thoughts, reactions, emotions, that the camera could never capture. These brief, telling inclusions are very effective: they intensify the story at just the right moment, often without the reader being aware of the narrator’s sleight-of-hand.