20 August 2006

Some Opening: Charlotte's Web

Through McSweeney's, Ann Asher offers a discarded passage from Charlotte's Web, featuring the previously unrecorded character of Louis the Turkey. Louis has the instincts but not the hard-won tact of an editor: "I see where you're going with the 'Some Pig' thing, but don't you think it's so vague that it's not even worth writing? . . . "

And speaking of tactless editing, the first line of Charlotte's Web is often used as an example of a sterling opening for a novel:

"Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
That one sentence introduces little Fern, it sets the scene in time and space, and anything involving Papa and an ax is intriguing even before Fern's question forces us to think about the mystery.

But frankly I'd like to retire this example, for two reasons. First, it's getting old. Not the book itself; Charlotte's Web more than half a century old, but timeless. The example just feels shopworn. Hasn't everyone writing for kids for over a year already heard it? And since editors believe that today's young readers want novels to begin even faster, with more action and intrigue, there must surely be more recent examples of opening lines to learn from.

The second reason involves some of the things the start of Charlotte's Web does wrong, or at least should only be attempted by writers with E. B. White's experience and skill, if then. In the third paragraph, the narrator tells us that Fern didn't understand the ax and its connection with the newborn pigs because she "was only eight." CLANG! Condescension alert! Don't try this at home!

More important, the opening puts the focus on Fern, the girl. But in chapter 3, White shifts his point of view to Wilbur the pig. He and the other animals can talk to each other. Fern can't talk to the animals, but chapter 8 depends on her understanding them--and then shows us a conversation between her parents that she's not privy to. For the whole book White jumps between the overlapping but not intersecting worlds of animals and humans. In the last chapter Fern makes only a token appearance, her mind entirely on (gasp!) a boy, while the relationship of Wilbur and Charlotte's children carries all the emotional weight.

Now it would have been next to impossible for White to write the first scenes from Wilbur's point of view because the pig was a fragile newborn. For similar reasons, no doubt, Dick King-Smith started Babe from Farmer Hoggett's point of view. (An example of a novel written from a human newborn's point of view is Butler's The Incubator Baby, but that's social satire for adults.)

In recent decades, children's book reviewers and editors have emphasized a more tightly controlled point of view than White used. A book can have multiple points of view, but they tend to switch obviously one to another, not fade into each other. That trend will go out of fashion sooner or later, but for now Charlotte's Web and its Fern-centered opening for a Wilbur-centered novel may not be the best model for new writers.


Monica Edinger said...

Hmm...I think White is still a wonderful model for writers. One of the best. I've been reading and rereading and teaching Charlotte's Web for around fifteen years now (after first being convinced of its greatness by UC Knopflmacher at Princeton) and can't completely agree with your analysis. For example, I think White wasn't being condescending at all with that "only eight", but the opposite. Fern's development and change (change being a major theme of the novel) is huge and so her being "only eight" is that. She's wise for her years and what is wrong with that?

As for the changing POV, it is amazing. I've seen very few writers more recent writers do it so well. It is really mostly third person omniscient and brilliantly done.

I highly recommend the annotated CW for a really look at the work of a brilliant writer for children.


J. L. Bell said...

You write, "As for the changing POV, it is amazing. I've seen very few writers more recent writers do it so well." Which I agree with. But that's also why Charlotte's Web may not be the best model for new children's writers today.

We see so few recent writers shift points of view as White did because that style of storytelling fell out of fashion in the last half-century. If a writer were to try to emulate White, and not be quite as good (or not have written Stuart Little), an editor or reviewer today would be much more likely to see the POV as inconsistent and a problem. Most books today shift POV in the gap between one section and the next, rather than smoothly, within a chapter, as White did—if they shift POV at all.

Fern's growth is, like Wilbur's, definitely a theme of the novel. But I don't think that necessitates the "only eight" phrasing. More to the point, a writer today who chose that theme would probably be encouraged to work from within Fern's POV, and not look (down?) at her as an omniscient narrator. Is there a recent children's novel that dares to refer to its main child character as "only eight"?

Charlotte's Web is a wonderful novel. I even teared up a little as I reviewed the last chapter to prepare this blog entry. We can learn a lot from White's storytelling as well as his prose. But I think writers benefit from recognizing how Charlotte's Web reflects some conventions that aren't so welcome these days.

Fashions will change (Blue Baillett's Chasing Vermeer shows there's still commercial life in the hovering omniscient narrator), and older motifs can come back and seem fresh (e.g., the Lemony Snicket voice). But writers still have to understand when "classic" means "nobody writes like this anymore."

Monica Edinger said...

One of the best writers for children alive today (IMHO:) is Philip Pullman who writes in third person omniscient. He has comment about this, I know, probably on child_lit. Talks of the narrator being a sprite being able to be everywhere.

I recently listened to THE GOLDEN COMPASS (after having read it many times and seen the play) and I was again floored by his command of that third person omniscient POV. As good as White's. Why not aspire to something that rock solid?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Philip Pullman's POV turns on a dime (or a penny). There's a moment in (I think) Amber Spyglass when the scene suddenly zooms far away with a witch who'd been watching that took my breath away.

Last year's profile of Pullman in the New Yorker had this to say:
Pullman is a partisan of the third-person omniscient narrator, which he thinks of as a character in itself—a disembodied “sprite.” This ringmaster of many a nineteenth-century novel can, as he told me, “go anywhere and do anything and see anything, and is both male and female, both old and young, wise and foolish, cynical and credulous, all these contradictory things at once. The narrating voice that tells ‘Middlemarch’ is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”

Maybe the influence of Pullman, and Balliett, and other successful omniscient-narrator writers will bend the prevailing style. Certainly we're seeing Snicketish intrusive narrators pop up in many places where they wouldn't have dared show their faces a decade ago.

John Tichenor said...

Hi. I just stumbled across your discussion and got immediately swept up. As a story editor in the film biz, I have a slightly different perspective on the shifting POV thing. To me, Fern and Charlotte are co-protagonists: they both want the same thing — to save Wilbur — Fern just wants it first. And of course their solutions to the problem are quite different. Fern receding into the background, and her fondness for Henry Fussy, are White's way of dramatizing his themes (cycles, resurrection, etc.), as you point out. I've read Neumeyer's annotated CW and I don't remember any mention of "co-protagonists" or "objects of desire," and chances are White didn't think in those terms. Probably not. Yet he chose to tell his story through the eyes of these two very different lead characters, which necessitated the omniscient voice.

The uniqueness of the changing POV is one of the reasons why the book is so great, it seems to me, but you're probably right that a writer today would be encouraged to choose one protagonist over the other, and I shudder to think what the story would be like if told exclusively through Fern's eyes: she steals Wilbur, hijacks Zuckerman's truck, and leads the cops on a merry chase that ends with a wacky deputy landing face-first in a pile of manure. It sort of writes itself, but it's definitely not an improvement.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your comments from the movie side of storytelling! Your treatment of the chase scene suggests that the best satire comes from within.

I like the analysis of Fern and Wilbur following parallel tracks as "co-protagonists." That comes on gradually in the early chapters of the book as we shift into Wilbur's head—he is, after all, a newborn at that first line.

I, too, am not sure whether White planned out that shift or came to it naturally. Either way, it was a delicate balancing act, and using Charlotte's Web as an example of a great opening for new writers seems like using Wagner as an example for new composers to imitate.