Says Who?

Going back to the list of novels I’m analyzing (flip back to last week’s blog if you need to see the list), I had a breakthrough idea, or so it is for me. Maybe everyone else in the writing business has known this and hidden it from me. Shh, she has to figure this out for herself. I realize now that the point of view determines and/or results from the distance between the reader and the writer.

In Laird Hunt’s Neverhome, the POV is completely in the voice of the main character, Gallant Ash, diction, syntax, details. Anything Hunt thinks or believes is veiled by her presence. Same with 1000 White Women (Jim Fergus) in which every word comes from the journals of May Dodd. What she knows, we know. Tight, first person POV.

George Eliot, however, in Middlemarch, trots out on stage to tell us just what the author thinks, believes, questions. In drama it’s called breaking the fourth wall, that imagined line between the audience and the action on stage, like the narrator, Tom, in The Glass Menagerie. We never lose sight for long of Eliot, whose omniscient eye/I explains the story as she goes along. This intrusion lifts us out of the action, a dangerous thing. In fact, commercially successful fiction seems to be afraid of anything but a tightly controlled POV. Don’t let their attention wander for even a second.

Between these two alternatives, live the characters in the other three books. In God Help the Child, Toni Morrison keeps the spotlight on her main character, Bride, but from a close third person POV, so it’s almost like a first, keeping the reader and writer each on their own side of the line. Then Piercy and Atwood have to move the spotlight to refocus on the various main characters. Focus, focus, don’t leave the reader in the dark. But I sense the hand of the author adjusting the light.

What accounts for these variations in distance and POV? The form follows the function, whatever the story needs to keep it moving at an effective pace. POV is a writerly exercise in concentration and adaptation, in risk and experiment. It relates to last week’s “what if?” Which POV best answers that key question? What if you choose the wrong one?

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