Friday, August 26, 2011

Omniscient Point of View: Speedbumps and Whiplash for the Reader

If those books of his in your bookshelf are any indication, you have been enjoying the short stories and novels of William Trevor for over twenty-five years, closer to thirty.  It is not unusual for you to carry such literary affections; even now you are enjoying a novel of Daniel Woodrell you first read in 1988.

Trevor is somewhat special because he is one of the few modern writers who consistently writes an omniscient narration in both novels and short stories.  Omniscient narration is not easy to control; one literary agent you know says the narrative technique gives her whiplash.  The constant shifting of point of view within the same scene can be distracting, irritating, bordering on frustrating.  William Trevor manages to bring it off; his work causes no such whiplash or, as you put it, speed bumps.

This of itself would not be so bad except that William Trevor makes the use of the omniscient point of view seem easy. The very students to whom you have recommended him seem to think they can do it as effortlessly as he, forgetting your own warnings that a) he, William Trevor, has been doing it for over thirty years, hundreds of times, and b) all the authors who have led all of us into writing short stories and novels have done so by making their work seem so effortless that we are seduced into thinking it will be easy for us as well.

It isn't, we discover, but the damage has been done in large measure; we are caught up in trying to do the literary equivalent of getting the surplus toothpaste back into the tube.

Omniscient point of view is not your favorite point of view, not by any means, thus you have stayed with the omniscient point of view as written by Trevor from a grudging respect for his continuous craft, and from your curiosity to see how, yet again, he has taken up a theme or circumstance and done so without appearing to have repeated himself.

Your favorite use of point of view for the longform narrative is the multiple point of view, as set forth so expertly by that great friend of Charles Dickens, Mr. Wilkie Collins.  So considerable are Mr. Collins's skills that in such works as The Woman in White and The Moonstone,he is able to disguise gaping rifts of logic in his plots, making coincidences and unconvincing behavior seem perfectly natural.  That great pulp and suspense writer of the 1950s through the 1980s. John D. MacDonald, put the multiple point of view to great use as did his fellow mystery writer, Salvatore Lombino, also known as Ed McBain, who wrote about a mythical police squad operating from a landscape that bore close resemblance to Manhattan.

When you say multiple point of view, you mean switching the focus of perception between an ensemble case on a basis of at lease a complete scene to a single point of view if not, as Collins did, a longish chapter.  Jim Harrison's wonderful novel, A Return to Earth, makes excellent, poignant use of the narrative device.

Omniscient point of view is a temptation because Trevor is so adept at manipulating it, but it is also tempting because it seems a lazy way out, allowing the less accomplished writer the sense of being in control without actually being so.  The function of point of view, as you see it, is to cause the characters to be in a situation where their interactions and the dynamics that drive those interactions emerge as subtext.  The lazy or as yet not fully capable writer cannot seem to resist slipping in stage directions, whispered asides to the reader, describing to the reader how a particular character felt or, with a big nudge in the ribs, inferring to the reader that a particular character "wasn't getting" it, whatever it happened to be.

Omniscient point of view, in your opinion, can be fatal for the writer, particularly if there are other problems close to the surface such as dialogue bordering on the weak or conversational, tendencies to describe as opposed to demonstrating in dramatic presence, and a narrative not given to approximations of urgency.

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