Perspective in fiction: part three in a series

So, some time back I started writing blog posts in response to themes in Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Then — you know, life — I lost momentum on it. But the other day I found myself on a website devoted to helping writers of speculative fiction, and read a couple of articles on the teasing subject of POV choice, and it reminded me of this chapter of Alter’s book, which was the chapter I found the most insightful of all of them, and which has borne a lot of influence on how I think about the question of perspective.

In fact, I recommend Alter’s book on the strength of this chapter alone, because among other things he takes the trouble to sketch the history of narratology both as practiced by writers and examined by critics. I can’t do justice to the entirety of his argument, so for this post I’ll just tackle two of his points: 1) That “the proliferation of narrative theory has brought with it a sometimes bewildering proliferation of competing views and terminologies,” which tends to garble both how we evaluate what we read and how we advise people to write, and 2) that “there is no hierarchy of narrative perspectives” and that great writing flows from an author’s choices of innovating or nuancing the “fluctuating play” of perspective, which gives “experiential depth and conceptual complexity” to the reader’s experience of the text.

Though I have lasting memories of graduate seminars in which diagrams and boxes were drawn (in chalk, because I am An Old) of narratological frameworks, the most sustained discussion of perspective and authorial choice I’ve encountered is in the arena of fanfiction. One reason for this is pretty obvious: the source text, the “canon,” of a book or TV show or film, has already got an array of established perspectives which the fanwork creator can either hew closely toward, or diverge from. Part of the pleasure, or lack of it, in reading and writing fanworks is to weigh the comparison with the source: is the author trying to match the canon? are they taking a different viewpoint of the same events? does the invention of an original character add perspective to the ‘verse?

Naturally, in an environment where lots of fiction is being written and read, there are undulating trends, and discussions of craft to go with them. For a long time, there was a prevailing trend of writing fanworks in tight third-person POV using the present tense — a trend which may parallel similar trends in modern original fiction, but in both cases was influenced by a small number of very skilled writers who used this perspective to great effect. The trend was and is so strong that in one of the articles on the site I linked above, the author actually recommended sticking to a close third-person perspective, as it was easier to master and also more desirable than “distant” third-person in terms of vivid and immediate wordcraft.

I…don’t agree with either of those assertions, and never have. Where to start? I guess I should start with what I absorbed as a young writer imitating different styles. I don’t remember reading a lot of tight-third stories, or at least not ones I wanted to emulate. What I read were stories with an omniscient narrator (Watership Down) and first-person narrators (To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn). Though I wasn’t attracted to tight-third perspective per se, the principle behind it certainly had its influence: namely, that really good fiction drew the reader into an encompassing reality, a world with immediacy, in which author intrusion was minimal.

Now, Richard Adams is so good that it was years before I noticed he’d written my favorite book in omni. And in part that was because he conceived the narrator of that story as a voice and perspective just as present as the rabbits whose journey he was following. But for the twentieth century it was an old-fashioned approach. The real cutting edge then was experimental perspectives that completely filled the frame and excluded the author-as-narrator to the greatest extent possible — Virginia Woolf, maybe, or James Joyce. Good writing became synonymous with that particular kind of immediacy, even bewilderment, that the reader was meant to share with the focal perspective of the text.

(Here’s a reason to read this chapter of Alter’s book if nothing else. He examines a passage of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent — a book on the Edwardian Lit seminar syllabus that I did not enjoy, unlike The Man Who Was Thursday — and teases out the nuances of the perspective in a single pivotal paragraph, something that is not simply reportage or contextual storytelling or locked-in psychological sequence, but a threading of three needles at once. Alter reveals that one paragraph as a tour de force, and nails down his point that perspective is not a spreadsheet or a schematic. Gave me a better appreciation of Conrad’s abilities, too.)

I didn’t get much success with trying to write first-person narratives — an abandoned novel project and any number of first pages that never went anywhere. When I began to write fanfiction, however, I experimented with a perspective style I called “wide-angle” third (and which the Mythcreants author termed “distant” third — ye gods, the pejorative!) — and grew increasingly confident using it. I found it especially useful writing stories with an ensemble cast, using multiple POVs. Now, you can write ensemble casts in tight third POV, and a lot of people do. But for my purposes, I found it extremely useful for writing, say, Buffy Summers without having to present her thoughts as well as her dialogue in her inimitable voice. Especially if I was writing a story that also included the POV perspective of Giles, whose voice is, well, different. Too, I was writing stories with lots of angst, and there’s nothing worse for an angsty story than too much on-the-nose emoting. A wide-angle perspective, I reasoned, could give a reader the whole picture at any given time, without actually delving into omni.

I liked this so much that I actually went back to my first-person novel project and started it over with a wide-angle third perspective. It worked enough to reveal to me the real problem with the story, which was that it required some heavy research I didn’t care enough to do. So the story is still mothballed, but I feel less bad about it.

So, having written five hundred thousand words of fic (in one fandom) using wide-angle third, and having bridled at all the fandom praise being lavished on the opposite approach — and then getting over it, as one does — I was more or less free to consider what I wanted for my original fiction, with less arbitrary inward constraint or pressure of outward trends. For Ryswyck, I felt for and found a set of filters that would accommodate five very different POVs, which allowed for a bit more unabashed narration, especially when I wasn’t opening a scene with dialogue. Almost one of my first decisions in framing early drafts was to take a cinematic approach — or, something that would correspond to a cinematic approach if the story were being filmed: jump cuts, Sorkinesque walk-and-talks, repeated motifs: Speir being served a cup of tea on an artillery platform followed in the next scene by Douglas reaching for his cup on the desk — things that don’t have to be noticed, and are less apt to be noticed in a text medium, but which keep the eyeline steady from scene to scene.

And here’s a thing I miss about the old fandom venues: fic memes like “DVD commentaries,” in which the author of a fic interpolates comments on the process of a particular scene or story, including POV choices. It’s nice to discover (or tell) just what kind of on-purpose things a writer has done to achieve their effects.

Which brings me to the principle that undergirds all that I’ve learned about writing in the last twenty years. As a teaching assistant and adjunct instructor I used to tell students, “You have to know the rules to break them successfully,” and along with that goes its corollary: You can break almost any rule so long as you do it on purpose. That is — as the result of a decision process you came to about what would work better than any other technique in a given situation. This serves Alter’s larger point about how literary art is both craft and art, which can provide a reader with challenge and enjoyment, can speak to and evoke recognizable reality. If I were teaching now, I’d want my students to know something about the wider goals of using perspective, even as I drilled them on the disciplines of different perspective choices: how a take-six feels in the fencer’s hand, on the way to knowing without discursive thought when to use it in a bout.

Once you’ve encompassed that, the piste is wherever you say it is.

Review: Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

I admit my reading is a bit peripatetic. So often do I clamber wearily through my weekly schedule without the energy to do anything more than open up, say, a Vorkosigan omnibus to some random place so I can have something to read while eating dinner, that it takes a critical mass of recs and/or an opportunity of mood to pick up something new.

This weekend, however, I haled my neurodivergent ass over to B&N and picked up A Memory Called Empire to read while consuming egg drop soup and dumplings. I read four chapters and let the remains of my dinner get cold — and the tea, too. Then I took the book home and read the rest of it in one gulp.

It’s not a short book by any means, but it does read very quickly, and the pacing is snappy without being frenetic or irrational. This is my second court-intrigue novel in a month — and strangely, like The Goblin Emperor, it involves a murder mystery, where the mystery is not really about who committed the murder as it is about why the murder was committed and the serious implications of the aftermath for the succession of the throne. Are a lot of court-intrigue stories like this? I’m not sure I’ve read enough of them to discern a pattern.

In any event, this is a particularly ambitious story. Apart from the court intrigue plot, Martine introduces us to a highly mannered and poetry-inflected world via a foreigner, the POV character who is the new ambassador to the Teixcalaan Empire’s central planet. Mahit was chosen as the hasty replacement of her murdered predecessor in no small part because she had fallen in love with the empire’s literary tradition and similarly struggles with the simultaneous insult of being branded a barbarian and desire not to be one. We find out all about the meaningful details of dress and mode of language and apparent alliance through her eyes. To add to this bewildering sensory onslaught, each chapter is headed by epigraphs from Teixcalaanli poetry, or history, or correspondence offstage and out of the POV character’s ken. It’s a lot to take in, and without the snappy pace of the plot itself, it might have been too much.

The characters, too, help carry the burden of introducing such a vivid and complex world. They are nearly all of them memorable individuals that have arcs of growth and nuance as the story unfolds. But if I want to be honest, the parts I want to reread — the parts I have gone back to reread, several times — are the parts where Mahit interacts with her imago memory implant, a technology of her home station whereby the experience and skill of previous generations is grafted onto the new people in their roles, with great psychological care taken to integrate them with their predecessors’ personalities. Not to spoil a major plot point, but Mahit’s relationship with Yskandr, the former ambassador whose murder she is investigating — hampered by sabotage early on in the conflict between her home and the Empire — became the heart of the story for me. I found the concept fascinating and exceptionally well-drawn, and I particularly loved the theme behind the idea, of being seen and understood and not alone, with all the intimacy and peril that implies. That, too, chimes somewhat with a theme in The Goblin Emperor, though the implications are not at all drawn out in the same way.

I gave this a solid four stars on Goodreads and would rec it unreservedly for people who like the kinds of things I’ve described. It was hard for me to not read it like a writer, which I’m not sure is a fault at all, but it did put a small remove in my own intimacy with the story, and in any case it was so well written that it didn’t suffer by that undercurrent of examination. Definitely worth the purchase.

The Love Between Enemies

Somehow, while I wasn’t looking, I became a Fandom Old. I mean, notwithstanding that the last three years have aged me about ten, somehow all the frivolous jargon of internet fandom when it was new is now, little by little, becoming museum pieces.

One such phrase is “bulletproof kink.” It used to be a catch-all term for any trope that reliably gets the user’s attention, whether it had anything to do with romantic/sexual relationships or not. I don’t see it being used anymore, and that’s a shame, because I don’t know of any replacement that really gets at that sense of idiosyncratic enthusiasm which is the whole point of participating in fandom in the first place.

All of which is to say that I have a bulletproof kink that has driven my interests since I was very small, and that is the trope of enemies who love one another.

There are a lot of things I don’t mean by that. I can enjoy stories about enemies becoming friends, enemies becoming lovers, or friends/lovers who have to be enemies for some reason, or enemies who are forced to be allies by some emergent situation. And I’m definitely not alone in enjoying such dynamics between characters.

But what I love in any of these stories is not at all based on the transmuting of enmity into something else. What I hunger for are stories about the love between enemies as a specific form of love in itself.

A love like that can manifest in all sorts of ways. Like “I will kill/insult you but by God I will not stand there and let anybody else kill/insult you” is one. Or, a series of encounters in which the enemies speak on a level of mutual respect even as they work uncompromisingly to thwart one another. G.K. Chesterton understood this love: the entire plot of The Ball and the Cross turns on it. There were some aspects of it in the Harry-Snape relationship in the Harry Potter series, but I was disappointed in my hope that there would be an endgame scene where they were forced reluctantly to fight back to back. I got one episode of Father Brown where he and Inspector Sullivan had to work together, but it was totally robbed at the end by an erasure of Sullivan’s character development; Chesterton would not have approved!

Catch Me if You Can and its daughter-story White Collar are favorites of mine because of this dynamic; and, now that I think about it, I could go down the whole list of books and shows I’ve made fanwork for and point out how a spark of this dynamic drew my interest. But the point is, a love between enemies exists not in spite of the enmity, but as a function of it. It is not a comfortable love; nor is it a destabilizing one. If I had my druthers the proportion of books and movies driven by this trope would dwarf that of media full of squabbles between people who call themselves friends and lovers.

So naturally, any story I write is going to have this trope in it, in spades. And probably the other suits as well. And I’m just getting started. I’ve been in the process of storyboarding Ryswyck‘s sequel, and the most fun lately has been hatching in the dynamic not only between Speir and du Rau, but Speir and Selkirk as well. Love for enemies is definitely Speir’s jam.

So if, like me, you have a bulletproof kink for the love between enemies, I’m here with my scoop, dishing it out.

Turning point books

It’s the dog days of summer, which I suspect to be an astrological expression but in my case means that lying around rereading books is much more my speed than anything else. So I thought I would respond to a meme going around FB and do a post about books that are meaningful to me. Specifically, I thought I’d write about fiction books that entered my life at certain watershed moments and stuck with me to the present.

Richard Adams, Watership Down

Let’s start with the earliest. My recollection is that a relative rented the movie for a cousin’s birthday party, thinking hey, animated film, should be good for a kids’ sleepover, right? I was the only person left finishing it. So when I was in a used bookstore some time later and ran across the paperback, I picked it up. I carried that book around with me everywhere I went for a year. When my mother took us to get our Social Security cards, the person at the desk demanded a second form of ID for me, so I ran out to the car and got Watership Down and showed her my name on the Garfield bookplate sticker inside the cover, carefully inscribed with a felt-tip calligraphy pen. I no more understand why that was sufficient than why they demanded more ID in the first place, but okay. Sometime in the future Richard Adams’s book will figure in a post I plan to make about POV, but for now I’ll just say that it has what have turned out to be some of my enduringly favorite tropes: found family, loyalty to unlikely leaders, deceptions with cover identities, journeys, uncanny connections between individuals. And stories. It’s the only book I know of where the epigraphs consistently add something to the text and the glossary is not a vast annoyance. Of all the books that could have found me at a formative time, this one was a great piece of good fortune.

G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

I have talked to people who read this book hoping to like it and were disappointed. I was fortunate; I approached it from the opposite headspace, because it was a book I had to read for a graduate seminar on Edwardian literature. You’re not supposed to like books that you have to read, but I found myself crying with laughter when Syme starts planning the exact dialogue by which he is going to challenge an enemy to a duel. And it had an even more profound effect than that. Syme, as Thursday, sets out to topple the fearsome Sunday, precisely, he says, “because I am afraid of him. And one should never leave in the universe anything of which one is afraid.” There’s something so quixotic about Chesterton in general, but the idea of going up to strike God in the mouth changed something in my viewpoint forever; revealed to me the utter safety of expressing my anger in the presence of the divine. This is not something I would have discovered in my environment up to that point: I had never experienced anger, my own or anyone else’s, as anything but chaos and peril. I don’t know where I’d be, spiritually, without this book.

Connie Willis, To Say Nothing of the Dog

I could have chosen for this spot another book, like The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, a comfort read that introduced me to online fandom and some of my oldest friends. It was on the RUSS-L book discussion email list that I heard about TSNOTD, and many other enduring favorites, like the Lord Peter Wimsey series. I could have put Gaudy Night on here, which opened up a world that is small in itself but from which you can see everything — all the kingdoms of this world and the glory of them. I could have put Doomsday Book on here, which I read much later and which unlocked a great grief that I had been unable to access. But this is the book that I referenced for all my online handles for the next fifteen years, the book that reconciled me with chaos by making me laugh. Connie Willis can write Very Serious, and she can write Very Slight, but this one strikes the perfect knife-edge balance. It’s brilliant and awesome and, for good and ill, is more and more of an AU to our world, but it remains a needed reference point.

Charles Williams, Descent Into Hell

Let’s just say it: Charles Williams is the most difficult of all the Inklings to read. None of his books are long, but they are full of sentences so intensely calibrated to get at spiritual states of being that one has to put down the book and recover from the brain-ache for a while. Descent Into Hell is no different; in fact it may be the most impenetrable of Williams’s books, but at the encouragement of the friend who recced it to me, I persevered with it and was deeply rewarded. Somehow it addressed things in me that I had forgotten to hope could ever be articulated — nameless fears, unphysical joys, simple loves. And of course I wound up shamelessly stealing the Doctrine of Substitutionary Love for Ryswyck. If Williams has a fault, it’s an over-reliance on masculinity and femininity as essential archetypes; but he’s able to see and name so much else with astounding accuracy that I can forgive him that with this book in particular.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary Justice

I’ve already said stuff about Leckie and Ancillary Justice on this blog, so I won’t repeat myself. I was too shy to go up and talk to her at her booth when Worldcon was in Kansas City, which is a shame as I’m not a huge con-goer and may not get another chance. But the cumulative effect of reading this trilogy coincided with a process in which I finally understood the not-brokenness of my human instrument. For many years I had suffered under a debilitating — and highly gendered — suspicion of myself as incapable of right perception and possibly even evil at bottom. Events unrelated to this book led me to quietly unravel that mesh of beliefs; and so when I read a book in which all humans were referred to as “she,” I understood the revelation that I don’t have to step outside myself to be representative of humanity, or perceive its essence, or write about it. Oh, these were all things I knew intellectually, but there’s something about taking them in in story form that sets them off in living color. Not to mention more of my favorite tropes: there’s a vast amount of hurt/comfort in this series, along with the found family, non-romantic love, and unlikely leaders.

I could do a different post with all different books that I love for other reasons, but these are books that I met at important nodes of my life and which stick with me even to this day.

I aten’t dead

Such used to be a favorite heading for when people posted to their LiveJournals after an unexpected hiatus. I found it amusing even before I knew the context, but of course now that I have read an appreciable amount of Discworld stories about Granny Weatherwax, it’s even more so.

The author in all her convalescent gravitarse.

Of course, to switch fandoms for a moment, I didn’t exactly have time for being even Partially Dead, but gastroenteric infections are no respecter of to-do lists. At least I got rested up from my adventures in two different emergency departments in time to write the sermon I was slated to give today!

I’m now feeling better and oddly pain-free, so perhaps I may post something this week in between catching up on my bullet journal and triaging my work email.

Meanwhile, I would just like to note my gratitude for the kindnesses shown to me by friends — beyond expectation in some cases — and even by people I don’t know, like the nice person in Panera who brought me a blueberry muffin for the road when I was packing up after finishing my sermon. For the nurse who covered me in warm blankets and the doctor who listened attentively to my case. Nobody’s obliged to be hospitable.

But it sure does brighten the universe when they are.