29 December 2007

Pullman Pulls for the Omniscient Narrator

Today's Guardian newspaper offers a column by Philip Pullman about the power of narrative voice. He seems to suggest that the style of narration distinguishes a “story” from the “literature” that expresses it by establishing tone, perspective, and characters’ interior lives. In particular, Pullman addresses the different tools available to moviemakers and novelists. He concludes:

And despite the profound and unsettling discoveries of modernism and post-modernism, and everything they show us about the unreliability of the narrator and the fallacy of omniscience, some of us still, when we read, are happy to accept that the narrative voice has the right to comment on a character, whether tartly or sympathetically, and the ability to go into that character's mind and tell us what's going on there. Do we ever stop to wonder how extraordinary it is that a disembodied voice can seem to tell us what is happening in someone's mind?

That narrative voice, with those mysterious powers, is the reason I write novels. I'm intoxicated by it.
I think Pullman's approach to narration is, if not actually idiosyncratic, quite uncommon these days. For many years before Lemony Snicket, most fiction writers tended to write either in the voice of a character or in a disembodied, unintrusive storytelling voice that closely followed the main characters(s). Snicket's success spawned a bunch of other snarky narrators, but few writers let their narrators intrude in other tones.

Pullman doesn't play by those rules. In a 2005 New Yorker profile, Laura Miller reported:
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 narrative voice that tells ‘Middlemarch’ is just as much a made-up character as Dorothea or Mr. Casaubon.”
Pullman's narrative focus is also unusual these days in turning on a dime, entering a scene by following one character and leaving with another we've never tracked before.

But are such techniques unique to “literature”? I think equivalents exist in many other forms of storytelling, including cinema. In fact, Pullman’s description of a “disembodied voice...tell[ing] us what is happening in someone's mind” is clearly inspired by movie voiceovers. A purely literary way of describing an omniscient narrator might be “a never-identified historian recounting people’s thoughts.” It’s still an intoxicating, mysterious power, of course.


Sam said...

But are the Lemony Snickett books written by an omniscient narrator?
Aren't the books really written by Handler with a first-person narrator Lemony Snickett, who is a semi-player in the story and certainly a living being in the Olaf world?

Can't say I remember the narrator from Middlemarch that well...
But Dicken's omniscient narrator in "Bleak House" is clearly the greatest, snidest, naughtiest of all time.
Better yet, Dickens paired it with first-person narration from the least snide, least naughty character of all time.
The best of both worlds.

As I'm in the middle of War and Peace right now, I may as well pointout that Tolstoy dabbled briefly with mixing in first-person narration in the form of diary entries.

J. L. Bell said...

I don't meant to imply that Snicket/Handler is an omniscient narrator, simply an intrusive one. The voice editorializes, interjects, warns off readers, and so on.

That voice also knows an awful lot about the young characters’ thoughts. Does he (or she) ever come on the scene like, say, Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiler?

Nathan said...

When I first learned about the different narrative styles, I pretty much figured third person omniscient was the most common. That was probably due more to what what I read than to the actual reality of the literary world, though. Of course, I also grew up in the era of Choose Your Own Adventure books, which utilize the rather unusual second person style.

Lemony Snicket never actually comes on the scene in the main Series of Unfortunate Events, but his family does, and he's mentioned in passing by some of the characters. Things are further complicated in the tie-in Unauthorized Autobiography of Lemony Snicket, in which a transcript also brings in Daniel Handler himself as a separate character.

Sam said...

So, Handler is writing in the third person the narration of Snickett writing in the first person about both himself and Handler?

Once upon a time, it was quite a thing for a reporter to write in the first-person. I remember trying -- and failing -- to justify it to an editor.

J. L. Bell said...

Besides the Choose Your Own series, this reporter has found one other novel for young people written in the second person: Todd Strasser's CON-fidence. It read like a stunt to me.