Friday, March 16, 2012

The Disappearing Narrator: an Existential Mystery


In a manner similar to the way the age of a tree may be inferred by counting the rings of its trunk, the age of a particular story may be estimated from the form of narration.

More often than not, the analogy holds:  tree ring is to tree age of tree as mode of narration is to story.

Eighteenth--, nineteenth--, and mid-twentieth century narratives are wonderful; you anticipate your continuing discovery in each of these eras previously unread treasures for as long as your ability to read and enjoy endures.

Things as vital as story and its readership continue to grow--evolve, if you will.  So do those individuals who produce story move ahead in their growth.  Since these blog notes are intended to be seeds, scattered and sewn for your own benefit, you, who are at the moment reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion and a mid-twentieth century mystery novel set in Sicily and originally written in Italian, must, if you are to expect any progress in your written work, examine this phenomenon you have noticed of narrative growth.

You must look for ways and places where it has begun to grow away from what it was and toward what it has now become.

And what, exactly, has the modern novel and short story become that it had not been before?

Let’s begin with Virginia Woolf (1882—1941), although numerous of her contemporaries as well as her predecessors,  wrestled with the techniques for depicting a closer, more accelerated demonstration of human consciousness.  She achieved this in a number of titles, notable among them To the Lighthouse.  The goal among tellers of story, you believe, has always been to find techniques, vocabulary, and conventions of use for portraying in action rather than providing mere descriptions of consciousness and awareness.  One reason for this belief is the way, in your opinion, authorial descriptions of such consciousness blunts the reading experience to the point where reading certain canonical works from the past become more a chore than a pleasure.

The reason you have undertaken to place lifespan dates of so many of the writers here is because so many of them were alive and flourishing at more or less the same time.

A notable example of a groundbreaker is George Elliott (1819-88) and her remarkable Middlemarch published in 1872

In his own, deliberate, more laborious way, Henry James  (1843—1916) worked at the problem in notable fashion, demonstrating this approach in everything he published, The Ambassadors, a notable example.  James Joyce (1882—1941—no, that isn’t a typo; his and Mrs. Woolf’s time on earth were the same) may also be said to have coped with the problem all his writing life, turning  the narrative process inside out with Finnegan’s Wake, producing a work where narrative consciousness trumps story to the point where such story as there is has retreated to the background, if not disappeared completely, and the author is nowhere to be seen.

This last point is crucial to your thesis.

Until early years of the twentieth century, storytelling convention had evolved to the point where the reader could expect an authorial surrogate to step forth, much as the chorus did in early Greek plays and, later, in the dramas of Shakespeare, telling us what to expect, giving us clues about theme and story line.

To name only two narrative writers who seemed to step forth in some kind of costume, Somerset Maugham (1874—1965) had a distinct way of infusing his narrative style with a conversational, confidential voice suggesting he was speaking directly to the reader.  In many ways, he was, but he was also describing things.

Joseph Conrad  (1857—1924) advanced the narrative approach by providing the reader with a surrogate, Marlowe, who told the story to the reader, using a conversational and seemingly confidential voice to narrate Lord Jim and The Heart of Darkness, much the way Maugham did in all his short stories and novels.

You have scratched the surface; there are others, more or less contemporaries of these worthies, in England, Russia, France, and the U.S.
Some writers—Aldous Huxley (1894—1963) comes to mind—did both, that is, they delved into the techniques of portraying consciousness and directly addressed their readers through asides and explanations.

Another notable example, your own favored Mark Twain (1835-1910), for the first three-quarters of his remarkable Huckleberry Finn, stepped out of the way and sent American fiction moving forward into the intimacy of a character who seemed real from the get go.

Many creative writing teachers, writers’ conference workshop leaders, and books purporting to instruct their users how to write stories, are more fond of repeating the “Show-don’t tell” mantra than they are about any other piece of practical advice.  There are, however, times when the writer is better advised to tell than show.  Discretion in this area rests with the technique of how to do the showing and the telling rather than which of the two is “better,” whatever that distinction may mean.

One clue:  The narrator as such is receding even more into the background; story most reflective of the twenty-first century is story appearing to come from the sensitivity and awareness of a central character or the sensitivities and awareness of an ensemble group of characters.

You might say in summary:  “Author, stay away.  Let the characters do it.  If you don’t, at some point, like the way the story sounds, look for ways to give more responsibility to the characters.  Make them more eager or confrontational or fearful of the potential outcome.”


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