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Bringing the Devil to His KneesThe Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2001 University of Michigan
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Chapter OneRICHARD RUSSO
In Defense of Omniscience
Part of the problem with trying to teach anybody anything is that we who know how to do it forget what it was we didn't know. Having arrived at understanding for ourselves, we forget what the problems were, what we were confused by, what was getting in our way. It's like teaching someone to drive a stick shift. It doesn't seem that complicated after you've been doing it for ten or fifteen years. You don't think about it anymore. Your left foot knows where to find the clutch, when to depress it, when to let up and how fast, how much gas to feed with the right foot, when to slip the shift out of one gear and into the next, where the various gears are, where your eyes should be when all this happens (on the road, not on the diagram they give you on the ball of the stick, not on the floor beneath the dash where the clutch was the last time you looked, before it moved, so that you can no longer locate it).
My father, who taught me how to drive a stick shift one summer afternoon when I'd come home from the university to work road construction with him, was one of the world's worst teachers in that, once he'd mastered any difficulty, he no longer considered it to be difficult. Difficult was how he characterized anything he hadn't mastered. Driving a stick, he told me that afternoon, was something any goddamn idiot could do. Half an hour later he had to pick up his carelessly thrown down gauntlet and admit he was wrong. There was one goddamn idiot who couldn't seem to learn, no matter how loudly instructions were bellowed at him. My father couldn't seem to grasp that I was wired in parallel, that, when my left foot came off the clutch, my right instinctively left the gas. Part of it, too, was that he'd started me off at the foot of a steep hill, his reasoning being that I would encounter hills eventually, and he didn't want my instruction to be deficient in this regard. Finally, the gearbox was slippery, and I kept locating reverse by accident, grinding the transmission frightfully. I can still remember my father's frustration at this, it seemed to him, most unnatural of mistakes. "Jesus Christ," he complained. "Can't you feel it?"
This is the problem in a nutshell. Once you've learned how to do something, you do it by feel. In familiar situations the wrong thing feels unnatural. Right feels right, wrong feels wrong. Easy. The timing, the hill, the slippery gearbox, once mastered, become familiar, and we forget what it's like to lurch along the road, other motorists swerving into the passing lane when they come upon us and recognize us for what we arenovicessailing by, honking derision, often flipping us the bird. We forget that to be a novice is to be in unfamiliar situations pretty much all the time.
Omniscience, my friendsyou see I've finally sidled up to my subject is a slippery gearbox, and most apprentice writers prefer to drive the more "automatic" prose transmissions: first person literary, close third person. And these work perfectly well in most situations, getting writers where they want to go. Some authors will write through entire careers without ever tackling true omniscience and will write very well indeed. Ah, but the stick is a wonderful thing, and there's nothing quite like it once you've learned, and in this essay I'll try to explain why.
First, some background. A surprising percentage of the literary novels being published today are told from an omniscient point of view. I confess that I have not done anything like a scientific study. I have simply been struck by a disparity that I believe would be borne out by formal researchthat professional writers are far more likely to opt for omniscience than are novice and apprentice writers. In lieu of statistics, here's some compelling anecdotal evidence. When I teach Introduction to Fiction Writing to undergraduates, one of the exercises that I and many other writing teachers employ to teach point of view is to have students write the first page of a story from several different points of view (not character viewpoints but literary points of view). When I first started teaching, I went over the various broad options for telling stories: first person literary, dramatic monologue, close third person, effaced, omniscient and, grudgingly, stream of consciousness/interior monologue. After explaining how they all were supposed to work, I told students to pick three. Or pick four, depending on how ambitious I was feeling. Until I noticed that, when the assignment came in, everybody avoided omniscience. Everybody. Beginners are drawn to the flashy, on the one hand, and the simple, on the other. They all want to try the seldom used dramatic monologue form because, I suspect, one of the two or three novels they've read is Catcher in the Rye, a book richer in technique and style than substance. Beginners are even drawn, despite my warnings, to stream of consciousness, which they see as a license for incoherence. They like the effaced point of view because they don't have to enter their characters' thoughts and close third person because it seems to answer that old workshop question, "Whose story is this?" and they enjoy literary first person because they like the sound of their own voices or the idea of mimicking other voices. Full-blown omniscience? No takers. They don't see the margin in it.
But these are, after all, beginners. Surely more seasoned apprentices would not share the beginners' prejudice. To find out, I consulted the 1990 Residency Worksheets of the Warren Wilson MFA Program, which contained the fiction of thirty-five talented, intelligent writers, most of whom have been writing long enough to have become discouraged for whole months at a time. Out of thirty-five, how many, gentle listeners, would select the voice of choice of Henry Fielding and nearly the whole eighteenth century, the point of view most suited to the wide canvases of the nineteenth-century Victorian novel, the point of view that has never been anything but the mainstay of storytelling in our own century, regardless of the literary movement then in vogue (experimentalism, minimalism, postmodernism, any other "ism")? How many of these stories would be told by an omniscient narrator?
By my count, four. I did not count stories that began with an omniscient paragraph before zooming in, camera fashion, to close third or limited third person. I did count stories that hadn't mastered omniscience but, rather, seemed to be striving in that direction, the omniscience unintentionally leaking away at times. Four out of thirty-five. That statistic alone may be meaningless, but consider this. In the first workshop of this Warren Wilson residency one of the stories on the worksheet concerned three brothers attending in shifts their dying father in a hospital. The story was told in the form of notebook entries, each son offering his thoughts and observations to his brothers. The story built nicely to a satisfying emotional conclusion, and the workshop consensus seemed to be that the story was successful despite some difficulties of execution. The notebook entries, more than one reader pointed out, got more interesting toward the end as the brothers became less reticent and more honest in what they wrote in the notebook. Also, it was said, the author seemed to have considerable difficulty in releasing what Steven Dobyns has referred to as the secondary information of the storydescriptions of the hospital room and hospital procedurebecause these brothers would have little reason to describe a room or discuss a procedure in a notebook entry intended for their brothers, who know what the room looks like and are themselves witnessing medical "process." Also, these brothers tended not to tell us, until very late in the story, some pretty important things about themselves. They had no reason to, because they knew each other.
Since we had identified but offered no remedy to these difficulties, I asked how the author might have done the story differently to allow easier access to the needed information. Quickly, there were hands. One person suggested selecting one of the brothers, letting him be the principal storyteller who would perform that function, in addition to writing his own notebook entries. This idea (providing a close third-person point of view) was immediately rejected and for valid reasons. It would upset the balance of the story, which gave equal time to each brother, suggesting their equal importance as characters. Another hand. Why not let the dying father tell the story, let the notebooks be secondary? That would keep the relative balance by making no brother more important than the others. True, but it would diminish them and their conflicts collectively. Also, the father was comatose. This solution too was rejected. Let one of the nurses tell the story, someone threw out in desperation. The person next to me groaned. Nurses have even less reason to describe hospital rooms, and no nurse would be privy to the kind of personal information about these brothers that has to get revealed somehow.
Dead end. Impatience in the room. Could anyone, I asked, think of a natural way to tell the story that would surrender necessary information about the brothers and the setting and the situation, without upsetting the careful character balance of the story as it existed? "Well," someone said, "I liked the notebook entries," thus effectively diverting the subject. (And, indeed, the notebook entries were looking more attractive again, their problems notwithstanding.)
Obviously, I was hoping that someone would see an omniscient narrator as the solution to the specific problems raised by the author's chosen method, but no one saw it, not even as an option. Omniscience, I freely admit, might have towed in its wake another different set of problems. The author's notebook entries, though they wouldn't have been my choice, might still be the best choice for her. That's not the point. The point is that omniscience, for many apprentice writers, is rejected even before it's considered.
There are reasons: (1) omniscient narrators tell a lot, and telling is something that students of fiction writing have been warned against early and often; (2) omniscience is an outside, not an inside view, and the clichis of our profession seem to disapprove. Get inside your characters, we recommend. Become your characters. See through their eyes; (3) omniscience feels old-fashioned, even stiltedHenry Fielding addressing us as Gentle Reader; (4) omniscience is the most arrogant of techniques, inviting the writer to play God and placing the burden of wisdom in all matters that pertain to the story squarely on the shoulders of the author. When we're misinformed, stupid, bigoted, clumsy, we can't blame any of it on the character we've "become."
But before I examine these issues, let's, just for fun, define omniscience and illustrate what it achieves. I'll begin at the beginning, with examples of the three major third-person points of view I was given in my first fiction writing course:
1. Bob kissed Ellen. (Effaced. We don't know what the characters are thinking or feeling.)
2. Bob kissed Ellen, but he was thinking of Sue. (Close third person. We go into the thoughts of one of the characters.)
3. Bob kissed Ellen, but he was thinking of Sue, and Ellen was thinking of Tom. (Omniscient. We go into the thoughts of more than one character.)
Okay. Simple enough. Omniscience allows the writer to know more and reveal more. The problem is that the example is unlikely to convert many writers to omniscience. Who'd want to write such a sentence? Worse, the example doesn't begin to convey or illustrate the real advantages of omniscience. So, let's examine a couple of sentences that will. Here John Steinbeck, in Cannery Row, describes Dora Flood, madam of the local whorehouse: "Dora Flood is a great woman. A great big woman with flaming orange hair and a taste for Nile green evening dresses." Here we begin to see the true advantages of omniscience. First, there's the convenience of being able to describe Dora from the outside her flaming orange hair, her Nile green dresses. It's clearly an outside view, because Dora would never see or describe herself this way. But even more important is the matter of voice. Omniscient narrators, even when they seem matter of fact, convey attitude. It's not so much the author speaking to us as it is the author in a particular pose. Here Steinbeck's attitude is sardonic, clever, distant, and yet affectionate. When in the first sentence he tells us that Dora is a great woman, the word great, modifying a noun, seems to convey a judgment about her character. In the second sentence, when the same word great modifies another adjective (big), we realize that in addition to learning something about the character of Dora Flood, we've also learned something about the "character" John Steinbeck has become, or the pose he has struck, to tell the story. He's copped an attitude that may or may not be the same as other omniscient narrators he uses to tell other stories.
Omniscient narration, then (at least full-blown omniscience), exhibits the following traits. It looks at characters from the outside but can "see" inside, directly into thoughts and feelings. It transcends time and space. The omniscient narrator can be in as many places as he or she needs to be and possesses knowledge of all momentspast, present, and futureand is free to reveal it. (Of course, there are varying degrees of omniscience in literature, though examining them would be the subject of another essay.) And, finally, there is always a narrator, a voice that embodies a clearly defined attitude, an authorial pose, a consistent and recognizable way of seeing and understanding. By way of illustration, consider the following passages from Jon Hassler's wonderful novel Grand Opening:
The moment he set foot in homeroom, Brendan was offered a stick of gum by a shifty-eyed boy named Dodger Hicks, who had been lying in wait for a friend. Among the twenty-four boys and girls of the seventh grade, Dodger had not even one friend, the parents of Plum having warned their children away from him because his father was a convict, his mother drank, and Dodger himself stole things from storescrayons, comic books, candy.
Dodger was older and taller than the rest of the seventh grade, having taken nine years of school to get there. A poor reader, he was taunted for what his classmates assumed was stupidity and had spent every recess and noon hour of his life lingering at the edge of a game. His face was dark, his cheekbones prominent. He had a habit of nodding his head when he spoke, and of squinting and showing his long teeth when he listened. His dark hair, which hung unevenly about his ears, he trimmed himself, using a pair of small shears pilfered from art class. As he gave Brendan a stick of grape gum ... he said he had stolen it that very morning from Kermit's Grocery, the door being unlocked and no one inside.
"That's our store," said Brendan. "My mother and Dad bought it."
"No kidding?" asked Dodger. He gave Brendan the rest of the pack.
After school Brendan lets Dodger tag along home with him. Dodger examines with interest all of Brendan's toys and is particularly fascinated by a boomerang that Brendan has been unable to make return. Dodger has better luck.
The boomerang sailed up and away, spinning as it climbed, and at its apogeeincredibly high and smallit tilted almost vertical as it wheeled around and began its return flight, picking up speed and spinning faster and faster and heading straight for their heads and passing over them as they threw themselves flat and crashing through the kitchen window. At the sound of the breaking glass, Dodger was up and running. He never glanced back or said goodbye.
The noise woke Grandfather, who called from his window upstairs, "Where are we, lad, and what was that noise like a china closet tipping over on its face?" This being Grandfather's second awakening in this unfamiliar house, he was of the opinionas he had been for awhile this morningthat he and his wife and two daughters were lodging in a tourist home en route West, retracing a trip he had made in 1921 to visit relatives. At breakfast it had taken three cups of coffee and a stern word from Catherine to convince him this wasn't a stopover in Billings.
"We live here," Brendan shouted up at him. Then softer, "And my friend broke a window."
"We live here?"
Excerpted from Bringing the Devil to His Knees Copyright © 2001 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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