Sunday, October 28, 2012

"We Call It Voice, But It's Really Much More"

Friday's Barnes and Noble Review published a conversation between
Scott Hutchins, author of A Working Theory of Love, and Justin Torres, who published We the Animals this year.  The discussion is long and meandering and varied enough in its ideas and opinions to give any reader plenty to ponder, but it has a lot to do with voice and something to do with psychic distance (the distance the reader feels between herself and the scene).

Hutchins talks about point of view and the reason he chose a first-person strategy: "...what's especially funny and striking to me is those little bits started out in the third person. But I felt how that choice was weirdly distancing, whereas the first person was where the story could happen."  Although Hutchins doesn't generalize to other writers' choice of points-of-view, the implication hangs in the air that a third-person strategy is necessarily distancing.

I disagree with that proposition.  In fact, the weirdest, most disorienting effect I know is first-person, present-tense narrative written from a long psychic distance, an effect that often shows up in the work of developing writers.  For example, the narrator tells a story that happened to her long ago, as if the events were occurring even as she speaks.  When an inexperienced novelist tells me, "But first-person is the way the story came to me," I'm not impressed.  While the story may have come to her that way, the question is whether she has a sufficiently subtle understanding of craft to bring off a first-person narrative.

With what precedes Hutchins's statement about first person, however, I entirely agree: "I definitely started with voice. I was writing little bits here and there--never a scene that led to another scene--as I was scraping together work and life, and an intelligence (not mine) began to assert itself on the page. We call it voice, but it's really much more. It's a personality, a way of seeing the world, a past, a vision. Hopes and fears, of course, but also opinions. We humans, I've noticed, are full of opinions" [my italics].

We talk about point of view, psychic distance, and voice as if they were separate, because we must pretend that they are, to talk about them at all.  The concepts in practice overlap.  The point of view in most contemporary fiction for children is either first-person or third-person, limited to a single character's perspective.  Until Judy Blume's Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret and S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders, first-person narrative was comparatively rare, but Hinton and Blume were so successful others imitated them.  Eventually, and for a long time, editors explicitly banned first-person fiction.

The reason for their distaste, I imagine, was the predominance of badly written first-person narrative.  This approach is so devilish that Marion Dane Bauer once told me, after she published a first-person novel, that she would never subject herself to such limitations again.  The writer of a first-person narrative must create a  distinctive sound, stance, attitude, and personality that continues without deviation throughout the novel, except in the dialogue of characters other than the narrator.

Of course every narrator ought to sound different from every other

 Every character, of course, ought to speak from his own distinct personality.  The first-person voice/sound/stance/attitude/personality, however, if written well, is merciless in this respect--unrelenting--always inside the narrator's head. The writer is trapped inside the narrator's perspective and can't get out.

Third-person narrative, on the other hand, enables the writer to vary psychic distance in accordance with the effect she intends, so long as she doesn't shift so often or suddenly that she gives the reader whiplash.  I like John Gardner's metaphor, in The Art of Fiction.  The perspective moves closer or further away from the viewpoint character's sensibility like a camera on a dolly, enabling the writer to view a scene from as far away as the next ridge across a valley or as close as within that character's sensibility.  Point of view and psychic distance are related but different aspects of narrative.  An agile third-person viewpoint, written from one character's vantage, enables a writer to control the perspective with far more freedom than a first-person narrative does.

Here's the beginning of Ernest Hemingway's short story, "Cat in the Rain":

"There were only two Americans stopping at the
hotel. They did not know any of the people they passed
on the stairs on their way to and from their room. Their
room was on the second floor facing the sea. It also
faced the public garden and the war monument. There
were big palms and green benches in the public garden.
In the good weather there was always an artist with his
easel. Artists liked the way the palms grew and the bright
colors of the hotels facing the gardens and the sea.
Italians came from a long way off to look up at the war
monument. It was made of bronze and glistened in the
rain. It was raining. The rain dripped from the palm
trees. Water stood in pools on the gravel paths. The
sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back
down the beach to come up and break again in a long
line in the rain. The motor cars were gone from the
square by the war monument. Across the square in the
doorway of the café a waiter stood looking out at the
empty square.

 "The American wife stood at the window looking out.
 Outside right under their window a cat was crouched
 under one of the dripping green tables. The cat was
 trying to make herself so compact that she would not
 be dripped on.

"‘I’m going down and get that kitty,’ the American wife

"‘I’ll do it,’ her husband offered from the bed.
"‘No, I’ll get it. The poor kitty out trying to keep dry
under a table.’
"The husband went on reading, lying propped up with
the two pillows at the foot of the bed.
"‘Don’t get wet,’ he said."

I don't pretend to know precisely where the dolly places the camera in any of the foregoing sentences.  I think it unarguable, though, that something happens to the perspective between the first paragraph and the second, even between the first and second sentences of the second paragraph.  The third-person narrator begins, in paragraph one, from a considerable distance, if not from omniscience.  The first sentence of paragraph two continues outside the wife's perceptions, although the camera has moved inside the hotel room.  In the second sentence of paragraph two, however, the perspective subtly moves inside the wife.  We see the cat through her eyes.

Think about the difference between Hemingway's second paragraph and this seemingly slight revision:

"The American wife stood at the window looking out. 
She saw that, outside right under their window, a cat 
was crouched under one of the dripping green tables. 
The cat was trying to make herself so compact, the 
wife thought, that she would not be dripped on." 

In Hemingway's version, we know, without consciously registering the fact, that we see the cat through the wife's eyes.  In the slightly revised italicized version, however, "She saw" and "the wife thought" are phrases that are not in the wife's perspective.  (I suppose "She said" is also outside the speaker's perspective, but we're so used to "saids" that we hardly notice them.)  Here the narrator stands between the reader and the scene, telling the reader the wife's perceptions.  "She saw" is information filtered through the narrator, and filters automatically distance us.  This effect is not a matter of correct or incorrect practice; it depends upon intention.  If distance is what the writer intends, fine: filters help to bring about that distance from the scene.  If she wants us to experience the scene from inside the viewpoint character, however, the narrator must be moved out of the way.

Moreover, the italicized version not only moves us outside the wife's perspective; it also changes the focus of the two sentences.  In "A cat was crouched," Hemingway's original, the subject of the sentence is "cat," and the verb is "was crouched."  The focus of the sentence is "a cat was crouched," the thing perceived.  In the italicized revision, however, the subject and verb are "she saw."  This latter sentence focuses on the American wife's act of perception.  The thing perceived is almost always more interesting than the act of perception, unless the sentence is about Helen Keller, and she has just regained her sight.  In the second instance, we understand, without being told by the narrator, that the wife understands from the cat's position its effort to keep itself dry.

I won't go on about the delicious dialogue, but I'd argue that it reveals a wife who, without asking directly, is baiting her husband to retrieve the cat, and a husband who wants to look good, while having no intention of going into the rain.

The italicized revision, with only the addition of "she saw that" and "the American wife thought," is not slight, after all.  The difference is subtle.  However, the effect on the reader matters.  If the filters persist, their effect will be profound

Do a search of your own fiction manuscript for filters: he saw/heard/realized/wondered/smelled/felt/remembered and so on.  How do you want your reader to experience that scene?  Do you want us outside the viewpoint character's perspective or inside?  How do the filters or absence of them create distinctive effects?


  1. Thanks for the post. Taking out those filters really improved my writing work today!

    Hoo-boy, now cleaning up the rest of my MS is going to be a bear. I had better set to work.

  2. very thoughtful post, Jane. We can't be reminded often enough about how to bring the reader into the story to let them experience it. CRM

  3. Interesting post, Jane! First person POV is tricky to craft. Though, aren't all POVs? As you know, the YA I am revising is a first person POV narrative--though, once I heard the MC's voice I wrote in third-limited--a gut reaction. Five pages later? I didn't hear her voice. I opened a new doc. I listened. She told me her story in first person. The problem? WAY too immediate. Seems I couldn't hear nor "feel" her story as I wrote it in third limited unlike other stories that I have heard and that surely belong in third limited. So, this novel remains in first, but one of the primary issues that bugs the hell out of me is the claustrophobia--the cadence of her narrative is too immediate--that camera is zoomed in to her thoughts a bit too much. Filters? Not a problem. Third limited POV affords a writer SO many more liberties with psychic distance than with first person POV. Advice for those of us who stifle our readers?

  4. Such subtle changes; such a big change in the reader's preception. Food for thought much needed. Is there a current trend toward use of first person? (or do I just hang out with newbie writers?) Do any of you YA writers have an estimate of % of contemporary YA in first person vs. third? You brought up a good subject for discussion, Jane. Thanks.

  5. What about the first person past? Don't you think that offers the author a bit more flexibility? (I just did this, and I found the result to be much less claustrophobic!)

    Nice post!!!!