The return of the Point-of-View Nazis, part II: let’s see you try that with Jane Austen, buddy

As a follow-up to my series on differentiating between absolute rules of the trade (e.g., double-spaced, single-sided manuscript submissions) and stylistic advice (e.g., ideally, dialogue should be revealing enough that littering the text with adverb-heavy tag lines should be unnecessary), I was discussing Point-of-View Nazis yesterday. I’m eager to move along to my much-anticipated series on what new wisdom I gleaned at the two conferences I attended this month, but POVNs are such a beautiful example of writing advice-givers who apparently do not make the smallest distinction between Thou Shalt Do This dicta and style tips that I wanted to spend today giving you a concrete look at what a difference taking such advice as absolute can do.

For those of you coming to the discussion late, POVNs are those fine folks who go around telling other writers that there are, in effect, only two possibilities for narrative voice: the first person singular and a tight third person singular, where the narration remains rigidly from the point of view of a single actor in the drama, usually the protagonist. Philosophically, I have to admit, I find the idea that these are the only ways to tell a story troubling. In my experience, there are few real-life dramatic situations where everyone in the room absolutely agrees upon what occurred, and even fewer conversations where all parties would report identically upon every nuance. (Watch a few randomly-chosen days’ worth of Court TV, if you doubt this.) I think that interpretive disagreement is the norm amongst human beings, not the exception.

And the disagreement amongst writing experts on this point tends to support my argument, doesn’t it?

I also believe that there are very, very few people who appear to be exactly the same from the POV of everyone who knows them. Most people act, speak, and even think rather differently around their children than around their adult friends, just as they often have slightly (or even wildly) different personalities at home and at work. If anyone can find me a real, live person who acts exactly the same in front of his three-year-old daughter, his boss’ boss, the President of the United States, and a stripper at a bachelor party, I would be quite surprised.

I would also suggest that either the person in question has serious social adjustment problems (on the order of Forrest Gump’s), or that perhaps the person who THINKS this guy is always the same in every context is lacking in imagination. Or simply doesn’t know the guy very well. My point is, almost nobody can be completely portrayed from only a single point of view — which is why sometimes narratives that permit the protagonist to be seen from the POV of other characters can be most illuminating.

Admittedly, my own experience trying to get a truthful memoir onto shelves near you has undoubtedly sharpened my sense that points of view vary. As some of you know, my memoir has been in press for the last year and a half, held hostage by a (the last I heard) $2 million lawsuit threat. At no point has anyone concerned suggested I was lying about the events in my book: the threatened lawsuit has been purely about whether I have the right to present the story of my family from my point of view, rather than someone else’s – like, say, the people who want the $2 million.

So I have seriously been forced to spend the last year and a half defending the notion that a rather well-known neurotic might have acted differently around his long-term friends than he did around, say, his own seldom-seen children or interviewers he barely knew. Why, the next thing you know, the POVNs huff, writers like me might start implying that people act differently when they’re on drugs than when they’re sober! Or that perhaps celebrities and their press agents do not always tell the absolute truth when promoting their work!

I can only refer you to your own experience interacting with other human beings for the most probable answers to these troubling questions. I only ask — and it’s a little request; it won’t hurt anybody — that those who believe that there is only a single way of looking at any person, situation, or institution occasionally admit the possibility that the whole complex, wonderful world is not reducible to a single point of view, that they would not try to silence those who do not see the world as merely a reflection of their own minds. Or at least that they would not insist that anyone who sees something from a different perspective should be hounded.

Enough about me and my books, however — let’s get back to how POVNs can affect you and yours.

Regardless of your own POV preferences, it’s important that you know that there are people out there who will want to impose their stylistic preferences upon yours, because they turn up with some fair frequency in agencies, as contest judges, as editors, and as critics. They are statistically more likely to be Baby Boomers than Gen Xers or Gen Yers, however, so they are less likely to be agency screeners than in years past. (Being a manuscript screener is generally someone’s first job in the business, not one kept for decades.) Nevertheless, they do turn up, sometimes in agents’ chairs and behind editorial desks, so it’s best to be prepared for them.

To make it clear what the stakes are, I would guess that roughly 2/3rds of fiction submissions are written in the third person, so obviously, the question of POV choice in third person narrative is thrust upon agents and editors on a practically hourly basis. Of those 2/3rds, a hefty majority will include more than one POV in the narration. So, really, a POVN reader has a significant advantage in rejecting the day’s submissions speedily: if you were willing to stop reading the moment a second character’s impressions show up, you could reject most manuscripts before the middle of page 2.

This is not to say that you should abandon multiple perspectives if you love them, or that you should systematically strip your submissions of any insights but the protagonist’s, out of fear of rejection by a POVN. Again, personally, I don’t believe that a single POV does most characters or situations justice, so I tend toward a broader narrative view, particularly for comedy.

Call me wacky, but if I want to hear a single POV, I reach for a first-person narrative.

These are merely my personal preferences, however; I am perfectly willing to listen to those who disagree with me. And there I differ from the POVN, who wishes to impose his views upon everyone within the sound of his voice, or reach of his editorial pen. To put it in terms of my posts of the last few days, the POVN wants all of us to regard his preferences as hard-and-fast rules.

When your work is attacked with phrases like, “well, it’s more or less impossible to pull off an omniscient narrator,” resist the temptation to throw the entire Great Books fiction shelf at the speaker. Recognize that you are dealing with a POVN, and take everything he says with a gargantuan grain of salt. You can’t convince a true believer; you’ll only wear yourself out with trying. Cut your losses and move on.

But before you do, consider the possibility that the critique may be useful to apply to your manuscript of the moment.

You’re surprised I said that, aren’t you? But really, POVNs do occasionally have a point: too-frequent POV switches can be perplexing for the reader to follow. One of the more common first-novel megaproblems is POV switching in mid-paragraph, or even mid-sentence — and therein lies the POVN’s primary justification for dismissing all multiple POV narratives as poor writing.

But heck, that’s what the RETURN key is for, to clear up that sort of confusion, isn’t it? When in doubt, give each perspective its own paragraph. It won’t protect you from a POVN’s rage, of course, but it will make your scene easier for your reader to follow.

Let’s take a look at how the POVN works in practice, so you may recognize him in the wild, to decide whether you want to join forces with him or not. Suppose that Jane Austen took the following paragraph from PRIDE AND PREJUDICE to her writing group, which contained a cabal of POVNs:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

As an editor, I might quibble about Austen’s use of semicolons here, but it’s not too difficult to follow whose perspective is whose, right? Yet, as the POVNs in her group would be the first to point out, there are actually THREE perspectives rolling around promiscuously together in this single brief paragraph, although there are only two people involved:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry…” (Elizabeth’s POV)

“but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody” (the POV of an external observer)

“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her…” (Darcy’s POV)

Now, a POVN in our Jane’s writing group would undoubtedly urge her to pick a single perspective (Elizabeth’s would be the logical choice) and stick to it consistently throughout the book; a POVN agent would probably reject PRIDE AND PREJUDICE outright, and a POVN editor would pick a perspective and edit accordingly — or, more commonly, send out an editorial memo saying that he MIGHT consider buying the book, but only if Jane revised it so all of the action is seen from Elizabeth’s perspective only).

Let’s say that Jane was cowed by the vehemence of the POVNs and scuttled home to take their advice. The resultant passage would necessarily be significantly different from her original intention. It would probably ending up reading rather like this:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody. Darcy remained silent.”

My gut feeling is that Jane would not be particularly satisfied with this revision, both because some characterization has been lost and for plotting reasons. At this rate, the reader is not going to know how Darcy feels until Elizabeth learns it herself, many chapters later. This would, of course, mean that his proposal would be a greater plot twist, coming out of the blue, but the reader would also end up with absolutely no idea how, beginning from initial indifference, Elizabeth charms began to steal over Darcy, over his own objections. Which would mean, really, that the title of the book should be changed to just PREJUDICE.

(I’m assuming for the purposes of my argument here that every single one of you has read PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, which is perhaps not a warranted assumption. However, if you are even vaguely interested in writing humorous scenes in the English language, you really should do yourself a favor and check Aunt Jane’s work out of the library.)

Yet if I may pull up a chair in Jane’s writing group for a moment (oh, like this whole exercise wouldn’t require time travel), allow me to point out how easily a single stroke of a space bar clears up even the most remote possibility of confusion about who is thinking what:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody.

“Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed, were it not for the inferiority of her connections, he should be in some danger.”

The moral here, my friends, is once again that you should examine writerly truisms very carefully before you accept them as invariably true in every case. Grab that gift horse and stare into its mouth for a good, long while. You may find, after serious consideration, that you want to embrace being a POVN, at least for the duration of a particular project; there are many scenes and books where the rigidity of this treatment works beautifully. But for the sake of your own growth as a writer, make sure that the choice is your own, and not imposed upon you by the beliefs of others.

To paraphrase the late Mae West, if you copy other people’s style, you’re one of a crowd, but if you are an honest-to-goodness original, no one will ever mistake you for a copy.

Keep up the good work!

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