Wednesday, November 14, 2007

In Defense of Third Person Omniscient

Yesterday, a customer asked me if I could find him some recent fiction written in the third person omniscient point of view. ('T.P.O.' as I'll refer to it from here on out, is when a story is told from the perspective of a god-like narrator who can see every character's actions and thoughts.) My initial reaction was, damn, what a stupid way to find something new to read. Then I set off around the store to find one. But you know what? I couldn't. Not one. It seems that the majority of the novels being published today fall into one of two p.o.v. camps: first person ("I did this," "I went there," etc.) and third person limited (a character's name is used instead of "I", but chapter to chapter, scene to scene, we get to 'hear' the thoughts and 'see' the observations of whichever character is being featured).
So what the hell happened to T.P.O? Looking around online, the majority of folks seem to deride it, calling it "head-hopping," or "lazy writing." Another common claim is that publishers frown on it because it "creates...distance between the reader and the story," while "making it hard to form any emotional attachments to the characters."
Well, I say mother-eff those folks. T.P.O. is the Robert Altman of fiction -- a unique and exciting way to experience the lives of a wide variety of characters, all at the same time. And to call it "lazy" is ludicrous. Switching back and forth between the p.o.v. of a group of characters in a manner that never confuses...that's anything but easy. Jane Austen used to use the T.P.O., and she's no slacker. J.R.R. Tolkien did, too, and he was a literature professor. Hell, even your mother and/or father used T.P.O. when they told you bedtime stories, and that supposed 'distancing' never stopped you from peeing the bed in terror, did it?
In closing, let me pass on this quote from Molly Maquire, herself quoting Stephen Koch. The two of them sum it up perfectly:

"Whenever arguments over the sanctity of certain POV protocols arises, I think of Koch's take on the furor:

'Too often, this rather fussy doctrine pointlessly constricts writers’ options and narrows their range. As for the claim that the reader can’t follow multiple or shifting points of view, it is simply false on its face. The whole history of the novel is testimony to the contrary, from Jane Austen to Thomas Pynchon. In masterpiece after masterpiece, the narrative point of view readily changes from page to page, or even from sentence to sentence and only delights as it does so. In fact, one of prose fiction’s grandest strengths, which it exercises for once in effortless superiority over all other narrative media, including the movies, is its ability to dart in and out of any character’s mind at will. To forgo this splendid artistic advantage in the name of some pallid academic theory is really madness.'
–Stephen Koch, The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, page 90"