Friday, January 19, 2018

Omniscient Viewpoint and other Godly Pronouncements

Having retreated from this century and become newly enthralled by novels written by old Russians, I wonder why the omniscient viewpoint has fallen from favor.

Anyone exposed to contemporary writing courses is drilled with the necessity of "staying in viewpoint." I wonder why?

Authors used to wander all over the place and their books carried a delightful sense of authority. After reading Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Crime and Punishment, I ascended to the 19th century and reread some of my favorite books: Gone With the Wind, Green Dolphin Street, Not as a Stranger. Rebecca, and A Distant Trumpet.

I've read obsessively this early winter. This is not particularly healthy. In my case, it indicates withdrawal and protection from the stresses of contemporary society. The bombardment of news and conflict is overwhelming. And ugly.

That's where novels come in. The kind based on Jane Austen type problems dithered over by civilized people.

In addition to this reading allowing me to cultivate a functional approach to the demands of everyday life, I've learned a lot about writing. Writers in previous eras not only changed viewpoints within scenes, they hopped from person to person and occasionally inserted narrative passages that would make today's editors grind their teeth.

Shifting third person is the popular choice for contemporary mysteries. It's an excellent approach, but it's rather timid. I miss the complexity and wisdom of writers such as P.D. James who came up with the following gems:

God gives every bird his worm, but He does not throw it into the nest.

What a child doesn't receive he can seldom later give.

It was one of those perfect English autumnal days which occur more frequently in memory than in life.

By the time political correctness is added to the mix, passion has been drained from so many books. It's delightful to read novels written during a time when writers were seething with passion and didn't have to worry about political correctness. Gone with the Wind is the epitome of patronizing racism.

Talk about racial stereotypes! Yet it is one of the finest books about the destruction of the South during the Civil War. It also helped me understand my father whose family came from Georgia and who had many of attitudes so wonderfully captured in Margaret Mitchell's book.

Some of the classics would never survive the contemporary editorial pencil. Physical book-burning has given way to a more subtle kind of destruction.

Hooray for the old writers who had axes to grind, oodles of biases, and knew how to express them.


Aline Templeton said...

Great post, Charlotte! I was thinking about the omniscient viewpoint only the other day, oddly enough. I was put off it when I went to a talk, early on in my writing career, from someone who said that trying to be inside two people's minds at the same time was like watching a tennis match and constantly having to swivel your head. I've got into the viewpoint habit and would find it hard to change now, I think.
But I do love the great novels you mention that have a sweep and a scope no one seems even to attempt now - and I have no truck with retrospective political correctness.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Interesting stuff! I'm not a big fan of the omniscient viewpoint, unless done extremely well it can distance the reader and undermine his or her "willingness" to suspend disbelief" and read on. It can also seem a tad old fashioned. That said, I have no problem with it in novels like Gone With The Wind (a favorite novel of mine, which I first read when I was fourteen) and War and Peace and such, when an all seeing, all knowing narrator seems so appropriate.

Charlotte Hinger said...

To Aline and Marianne--As I said in my post, I was impressed with the passion of Gone With the Wind. And her narrative inserts that 'splained things from the Southern point of view.

But her viewpoint switches from person to person in the middle of a scene are so seamless that I can't figure out how she did it.

My writing books are still in disarray, so I can't give you a title, but there was a great book on characterization and viewpoint that talked about distance in characterization that made a lot of sense. Sort of beginning with a long distance shot where the author can do a lot with telling before moving in close with showing and entering a character's mind.