The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
In a previous post I said it was a waste of time to categorize or systematize the various literary points of view. Here’s Hills explaining why:
Two of the very best books about fiction are E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction, and they differ completely on the subject of point of view.
If you buy into the premise that such discussions matter then one of these two men must be objectively wrong. There can’t be two opposing point-of-view systems that are both correct. Hills presents Lubbock’s perspective, explains Forster’s criticism of Lubbock’s views, then sides with Forster. And if I had to choose I’d side with Forster too. But I don’t buy the premise that such discussions matter.
When you go to your tool box to retrieve an open-end wrench you don’t stop to consider how all the other tools in the box relate to the one you intend to use. You don’t give any thought to the history of toolmaking, famous toolmakers or famous mechanics. You have a nut that needs turning, you know a wrench will turn the nut, and you intend to get on with it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the best wrench in the world, whether it’s hand-polished or machine-polished: the only thing that matters is whether it will do the job.
If you don’t have the right tool you might be able to get by with something else — pliers, maybe — but you’ll probably chew up the nut if you can get it off at all. As somebody who’s turned a wrench or two, I can tell you that there really is a right tool for every job, but nobody cares who made that tool or who used it in the past. If you’ve got a drawer full of gorgeous Snap-On wrenches you’ll get oohs and ahs from mechanics who know the brand, but if your grandfather’s rusty old spanner is the right size it will do the job just as well.
Your job as a writer is to treat the various literary points of view as tools, and to employ them in a way that gets you the results you want. Point of view has a functional role in fiction. It does things, and many of those things are useful and predictable. Talking about the origins of point of view or authors who excelled at one type or another may be interesting as an intellectual diversion, but it will not make you a better storyteller. Which is why people who engage in such conversations tend to be academics rather than storytellers. (There’s nothing wrong with English Literature as a discipline, but it’s not fiction writing.)
Hills explains how Lubbock based his ideas about point of view on the work of Henry James, then writes:
In refutation of Lubbock’s emphasis on point of view, Forster cites various examples — Dickens in Bleak House and Tolstoi in War and Peace are two — of authors successfully using a mixed-up point of view. He describes how Bleak House begins with the omniscient point of view method, drops that, “inhabits” a young lady to give us her thoughts, switches and skips from one character to another. “Logically,” says Forster, “Bleak House is all to pieces, but Dickens bounces us, so that we do not mind the shiftings of the view point.”
Henry James and Charles Dickens made point of view choices for the same reasons: to ensure their readers wouldn’t get confused along the way, and to achieve intended narrative effects. Because their stories were different they chose to handle point of view differently, yet despite those differences point of view still functions in service of the same broad authorial goals.
Of shiftings in point of view, Forster says further that “critics are more apt to object than readers” and that “since the problem of a point of view certainly is peculiar to the novel” (drama doesn’t have it) the critics have “rather over-stressed it” in an attempt to establish fiction as a separate art form.
In the thirty-five years since Hills wrote this section, and in the eighty-plus years since Forster and Lubbock wrote their books, fiction has indeed established itself as a separate art form. Understanding point of view in fiction is an important part of exploring and mastering the form, and every author ought to give the question of point of view considerable thought. Loyalty, however, should remain with intent and objective, not type. (If you prefer a certain point of view, as most authors do, recognize that as a preference rather than a truth. You may be limiting yourself or hurting your fiction by staying in your comfort zone.)
Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction is available via Project Gutenberg. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel is not currently listed, but you can find several of his novels there.
Next up: Point of View and “Involvement”.
— Mark Barrett
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