Scariness in Fictionland

Sometimes being a novelist is scary. For example, over the last year or so I’ve seen dozens of emails from other authors who claim they strongly dislike the first person point of view. That’s a frightful development for a serious novelist.

The first person point of view transcends all periods, genres and literary styles. It has existed since the dawn of language. It is as fundamental to literature as oil paint is to visual arts, as antibiotics are to medicine, as the Ten Commandments are to law. For an author to say she doesn’t like an entire point of view is as if a motion picture director had said, “I don’t like male actors,” or an architect had said, “I don’t like south facing windows.” It’s not as if these authors confined themselves to dislike of mere genres, not as if they said, “I don’t enjoy murder mysteries.” It’s more like they said, “I don’t like the letter ‘a’.”

If you still don’t understand why I find this so disturbing, imagine if this took hold, and in another decade or two all the seminars and books on how to write started teaching that the first person point of view is against the rules. What if publishers and literary critics jump on this bandwagon? What if everyone decides the first person POV “draws readers out of the story” or “distances us from the action”? What if the day comes when third person is the only acceptable point of view left to us? While you’re at it, imagine living in a world where ice cream shops sell only vanilla.

Don’t scoff at the possibility. This trend which so concerns me is already underway, and has been for many years.

Once upon a time there was a thing called “third person omniscient” narration. You know: a Voice which tells the story from an all-knowing perspective, a “meanwhile back at the ranch” or a “little did she know” kind of storyteller. In centuries past, thousands of wonderful novels were written in this point of view by literary giants such as Dickens, Austen and Tolstoy. Once it was a perfectly acceptable part of the novelist’s tool kit, but you’ll hardly find third person omniscient used today, and when it is, you’ll often hear impatient complaints from The Powers That Be. We’re told it’s “telling, not showing,” and it “draws readers out of the story,” or “distances us from the action.” So they’ve already killed an entire point of view. First person might be next.

Then what? The death of adjectives and adverbs?

Well, as a matter of fact, yes.

While I agree it is a bad idea to dress up weak nouns and verbs with weak descriptors, I also know for a fact that an adverb or adjective can do some very heavy lifting if chosen wisely. For example, Sol Stein in his peerless and pragmatic Stein on Writing (Read it! Read it!) points to this sentence from Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter:

“Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork.”

Read that sentence again and omit the words “bald pink” for incontrovertible evidence of the power of adjectives—two adjectives in a row, actually!—in the hands of a great writer.

It’s Greene’s brilliant writing that makes the adjectives so wonderful. Without him, they are simply inert tools with no qualities to like or dislike whatsoever. To say “I don’t like adjectives,” (or the first person point of view, the third person omniscient, or adverbs), is like saying, “I don’t like guns.” Until the gun is used, it is just a clump of metal. In the wrong hands, a gun can indeed be dangerous and harmful, but in the right hands a gun can put dinner on the table and keep evil at bay. We tend to focus on the damage done by those who don’t know how to use these literary tools, or by those who deliberately abuse them, and we say, “Therefore, I don’t like the tool.” What a sad, irrational mistake.

While I’m at it, let me add I’ve also noticed a growing impatience with “long” (as in, you know, more than one paragraph) descriptions. Of anything.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one who sees the king is naked. What in the world is going on here?

To understand how we came to this, it might help to think of where we are in the history of literature. Around the turn of the last century, the reaction against Romanticism and Aestheticism (and a few other egghead “isms”) which had already begun in the visual arts and philosophy also started to take hold in architecture, dance, music, and literature. Some people said the arts were just too fluffy.

By the middle third of the century, Modernist painting had been stripped down to the bare essentials, simple fields of color, or stark lines, and Modernist architecture had been reduced to a “form follows function” approach that removed all ornamentation. In the same way, Modernism began whittling away at the novel, deleting adverbs and adjectives and the “unnecessary” omniscient narrator, until authors like Hemingway and Fitzgerald were hardly even bothering to write descriptions of characters or settings. Everything boiled down to dialogue and action, period.

That spare approach to fiction is a legitimate aesthetic, and it led to some true masterpieces, but as is often the case with human nature, the pendulum swung too far. Andy Warhol’s soup cans overwhelmed a basic concern with beauty in the visual arts world. In the same way, Modernism’s starkly reduced style of storytelling fascinated all the most important editors and critics in the world of literature, and The Powers That Be in New York City developed a universal disdain for such things as adjectives and adverbs, non-participating narrators, and “long” (you know: more than a paragraph) descriptions of settings, no matter how beautiful the language might be. In fact, “beauty” as a fundamental goal of literature was almost totally forgotten, until today we hardly ever speak of it alongside character, plot, theme, setting and so forth, as I have mentioned in this column before.

It’s a well-known psychological fact that our environment conditions us to prefer our environment. (Stockholm syndrome is one extreme example.) So without really knowing anything about the theoretical reasons for the shift, the reading public came to prefer the stark and spare Modernist style of literature which had been almost universally forced upon them, not because it’s necessarily better in any way, but simply because it had indeed been so universally forced upon them.

Also, it’s a well-known psychological fact that we develop habits mainly because they are more convenient. At rush hour, when presented with a choice between a scenic route and a shortcut, a person falls into the habit of taking the shortcut between their home and workplace. But after doing that a while, the person also takes the shortcut even when they’re not in a hurry, and even though they’re missing a chance to see more beautiful scenery.

Why do they do it? Because it’s easier not to think about which route to take, or to have to think about which way to turn at this intersection or that one. They choose against the beautiful scenery because it’s easier (more convenient) to simply do what they always do, with their mind on autopilot, so to speak.

Similarly, a reader learns to “suspend disbelief” and go along for the ride in one form of novel, and then when presented with a different mode of storytelling, they choose not to indulge, even though it may have great promise, because it’s easier to just stay with the form of fiction they already understand.

The near-death of third person omniscient narration is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Although it was once the most popular form of novel, many readers (and authors) today say omniscient narrators tempt them out of the “fictive dream”. It is as if these people think the narrator they experience in the story is somehow outside the story.

Of course, that is not true at all. In the hands of a skilled author, the narrator can be as much a part of the novel as any other character. After all, who has the right to say a character must participate in the action to be in the novel? Who says we can’t make that omniscient narrator character interesting in other ways? Who says a skilled author can’t introduce a reader to that Voice, and get them thinking, “Oh, good. I like this person,” every time the narrator speaks?

We have forgotten that it was our decision to think of adverbs and adjectives as “superfluous”, our decision to be impatient with descriptions of settings or characters, and our decision to think of omniscient narrators as exterior to the story. These are mere fads and opinions, not objective facts. Indeed, millions of authors and readers who went before us would strongly disagree with all of that. We have been told these perfectly fine literary tools are distractions by the so-called “authorities,” or “critics,” and like sheep we have accepted their judgment, not because doing so has actually improved fiction in any way, but simply because the pendulum has swung too far in one direction.

Well.

Heaven forbid me to become that much a slave to fashion.

I believe no serious author—no writer who genuinely wants to grow and improve in every way she can as a novelist—would ever reject any literary device out of hand, just as I believe every serious author will immerse herself in novels of every style, genre, and point of view. To always strive to learn, to grow, and to maintain openness to everything that might offer the chance of better storytelling . . . that is the universal hallmark of a true novelist, and a true lover of novels.

Athol Dickson’s novels transcend description with a literary style that blends magical realism, suspense, and a strong sense of spirituality. Critics have favorably compared his work to such diverse authors as Octavia Butler (Publisher’s Weekly) and Flannery O’Connor (The New York Times). One of his novels is an Audie Award winner and three have won Christy Awards including his most recent novel, Lost Mission. His next story, The Opposite Of Art, is about pride, passion, and death as a spiritual pursuit. Look for it in September, 2011. Athol lives with his wife in southern California.