by Matthew Cheney
I’m haunted by a question raised by various (mostly French) literary critics: “Who speaks?” Apply it to any story, keep asking it of every sentence, and you’ll often discover realms of ambiguity, paradox, and possibility that can be as tenacious as the most insistently catchy pop song. This is probably why my favorite points of view are first-person and omniscient third-person. In first-person, the problem is not so much, “Who speaks?” as “How and why does this who speak?”
“Who speaks?” doesn’t have to be an esoteric question about the inherent ambiguity of language — it can also be a perfectly practical question for the writer. Consider a story of an obsessed character. Obsessed characters are marvelous to write about, and many great works of fiction concern just such folks. But your story will be vastly different if the obsessed person tells the story as opposed to if the story is told by someone observing the obsessed person. (Imagine how utterly, incomprehensibly different Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” would be if it were told from Bartleby’s point of view! Or Lolita not from Humbert Humbert’s perspective!) From what distance does the narrator speak? This isn’t a question of first, second, or third person — obsessed people can tell their own stories, and a third-person narrator can replicate the thoughts and perspective of an obsessed character. It’s a question of distance. An obsessed perspective is a kind of gravitational force, and it will warp everything around it. If you want your readers to perceive something other than the warp, then you need to give them a perspective from outside the character. If the warp is what most interests you, then dive in. In extreme terms, it’s the difference between the observational narration of The Great Gatsby versus the immersed narration of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me. Those are both first-person narratives, but the effect can also be seen by comparing, for instance, the precise third-person narration of Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, which relies on a certain distance to create its apparent objectivity, to the third-person narration of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which often feels like it will be derailed by Raskolnikov’s madness.
One point of view even less common than second-person is first-person plural (“we”). It seeps into many stories here and there, but as a point of view of its own it’s extremely rare. For the right story it’s tremendously effective, though. See, for good examples, Joyce Carol Oates’s Broke Heart Blues and Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides.
Point of view choices are always choices of distance. How close do you want the reader to be to characters’ actions and thoughts? What fascinates me about omniscient third-person is its zoom effect. The narrative can move from the far-off godly stance to being inside the thoughts of a character within the space of a sentence. It’s dauntingly difficult to do well, and American writers of the last 100 years or so have generally shied away from it because of how difficult it can be, but this seems to me unfortunate and has even led to a perception from many readers that omniscient third is an error. I’ve heard of American editors taking books published in other countries, where more fluid points of view are more common and thus more accepted, and asking the writers to “fix” the point of view shifts for American readers. Of course, it’s possible some of these instances were, indeed, unintentional confusions, but I worry more that our habit of limited third, which seems to offer the best of all possible worlds (the personal touch of first person, the ostensible objectivity of third), mostly serves to limit and tame narrative possibilities.
Point of view choices are also about a perspective’s authority and the reader’s trust. First-person is obviously subjective — we know that the narrator is, to at least some extent, unreliable, because we know, though we may not like to believe it, that witnesses give the worst evidence. (Much fiction has great fun with this. See, for example, Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s classic story “In a Grove”.) Third-person provides the aura of objectivity, but as many writers have shown (Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner come immediately to mind), that aura is deceptive.
For me as a reader, third-person limited is the point of view that most immediately arouses my suspicions. “Who speaks?” becomes a difficult question to answer. The narrator has access to one character’s thoughts and perceptions, but is apparently not that character. So who is the narrator? Why are they stuck in that character only? Why can’t they, like Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, stop for a moment and tell us what a dog is thinking?
Third-person omniscient derives its authority from that of the storyteller. Early fiction retains the narrator as a figure within the text — third person without a narrator acknowledging the reader and acknowledging the situation of storytelling is a relatively recent development in literary history. We’re so habituated to it that it can take some effort to realize how utterly weird it is (“Who speaks? Let’s pretend … nobody!”). But I don’t think the narrator has ever been truly erased. The shadow remains. Not for everyday readers, perhaps, but it’s perilous for writers to ignore that shadow, to pretend the narrator completely doesn’t exist, because the shadow will slip in between the lines.
I once interviewed a first-time novelist who had written a book with chapters alternating between a few different first-person narrations. It seemed obvious to me that these characters were writing their stories so that they could have an effect on how their actions would be read by history, turning the novel into a collection of competing narratives where the characters had strong motivation to pitch their version of events in as positive a light as possible, and making our job as readers to sort through the testimony. A couple of elements didn’t quite fit this hypothesis, though, and so I asked the writer how he had chosen the points of view. He said it just sort of happened. And then I realized exactly why I had found certain parts of the book utterly unsatisfying. If you let your point of view just sort of happen, then you are giving up one of the most vital and energizing tools for adding all sorts of depth to your story.