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Omniscient POV as Meta-Narrative

all-seeing-eye-of-godThe last half of my “writing life” has involved unlearning much of what I learned in the first half.

Perhaps it’s necessary to teach beginning writers the “writing rules.” Some of those rules are:

  • Show Don’t Tell — Use action and dialog rather than exposition
  • POV — Maintain a consistent, realistic narrative point-of-view; don’t “head hop” from one person to the next in the same scene
  • Avoid Passives — Keep tenses active; Dean strangled the cat is better than The cat was killed by Dean

Of course, there’s many other rules and literary conventions, most of which have developed over time and are reinforced by academics, experts, or people in the know (i.e. published authors). But those are some of the biggies.

One such writing rule that I was taught was to avoid was omniscient Point of View. Sure, much of the dissuasion was not because of an essential flaw in the approach, but that it had fallen out of literary favor. But, alas, like many of the things I was taught to avoid, it appears that OPOV isn’t quite the bugaboo the church ladies told me.

In The Return of Omniscience, novelist Elliot Holt muses about recent appearances of the beloved eye in the sky. Interestingly, Elliot traces the 19th century falling out of OPOV to modernism’s emphasis upon the self and individual consciousness.

Gustave Flaubert believed that the ideal author should be “present everywhere and visible nowhere,” but in stressing invisibility, Flaubert was ahead of his time. Most 19th-­century novelists didn’t try to hide their authorial presence. With modernism’s emphasis on the self and the rendering of individual consciousness, omniscience became unfashionable. ­Twentieth-century realists moved closer to their characters and wrote in the first person or limited third.

So it was a shift away from “authorial presence” to the recognition of other presences, other minds, that inspired the abandonment of omniscience. The author’s “authority” was eventually seen less in her ability to get out of a character’s head and into a character’s head.

It is quite fascinating then to watch the slow return. And as Elliot observes, it has as much to do with postmodernism’s peculiarities as the falling out did with modernism’s peculiarities:

The old metaphor for omniscience was “author as God,” but in our largely secular digital age, authorial divinity could be replaced by a new analogy: author as smartphone. Computers augment our intelligence. Contemporary writers have the power to see streets they’ve never walked on and find historical dates and images in seconds. Browsing the internet is its own kind of omniscience: so much information, and all just a few clicks away. Perhaps the return of omniscient narrators reflects the sense we all have, as internet users, of access to unlimited knowledge.

And, conversely, in a world where our movements are tracked, where our web searches leave cookie crumbs, and where privacy is increasingly compromised, omniscient narrators resonate with readers. We know we’re being watched, by traffic and security cameras, by our employers, by the N.S.A., by random people taking pictures with their phones. We’re aware of the threat of hackers and cybercrime; artificial intelligence is getting smarter every day… Technological transcendence is “spooky”: Perhaps omniscience taps into this collective fear about loss of privacy.

Apparently, the literary world has nurtured modernism’s micro-narrative long enough. Why “head hop” when we can “world hop”, or “time hop”? Authors have proven that they can get under a character’s skin. So maybe it’s time that we return to the bigger picture, the “author as God.” Or should I say, “author as smartphone.” In this way, OPOV is the “meta-narrative”of our technologically transcendent society. Omniscience doesn’t dash the novelist’s need to see through others’ eyes. Rather, it reinforces the novelist as creator — both IN and ABOVE her creation.

In this era of omnipotent smartness, that lost mode of storytelling takes on new urgency. Technology forces us to see the world — and construct the stories we tell about it — differently.

I’m not sure how the country club, the ever-present defenders of the “writing rules” will feel about this. But as an author, it predicts worlds of possibility.

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{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Iola September 9, 2016, 9:47 PM

    I picked up a novel written in omniscient POV about a year ago, and couldn’t read it. I’ve been trained – as a reader and as an editor and writer – to expect there to be a single POV character. I simply couldn’t get into this novel (a classic from the 1950’s) because I couldn’t work out who the main character was, which character I was supposed to care about. The result was I didn’t care about any of them, so I stopped reading.

    This might be one reason why OPOV has fallen out of favour. Another reason might be that bad OPOV can read a lot like third-person with endless headhopping. In fact, I’m not sure I can articulate the difference between the two.

    Any takers?

  • J. S. Bailey September 10, 2016, 8:00 AM

    I’ve never been a fan of omnisicent POV. It’s too distracting–I want to focus on one character per scene, and when a single scene shows the internal thoughts of more than one character, I find it jarring.

  • R.J. Anderson September 12, 2016, 8:34 AM

    Omniscient POV works beautifully in classic children’s literature, or children’s books where the author wants to give it the feel of a classic (like A Series of Unfortunate Events). It’s especially fun paired with an avuncular narrator that makes occasional wry comments on the story (“…leaving the door open, of course, because she knew what a very foolish thing it is to shut oneself up in a wardrobe”) . It works for epic fantasy based on folklore and myth, such as LotR, and it seems to be reasonably common in “realistic” literary fiction as well, again probably because of the influence of the classics. It’s tricky to do well, though, especially as most people have fallen out of the habit of reading it let alone writing it.

    Omniscient third, like first person present, serves a very specific purpose and creates a particular effect which may or may not fit with the story a given author wants to tell. I think the key for authors is not to fall into the trap of thinking, “Oh, this is the hot POV that all the new books are being written in,” but to ask ourselves, “Is this POV the best one for my story, and if so, why?”

  • Jill September 12, 2016, 9:50 PM

    I like omniscient. I like almost all perspectives done well, except extremely limited 3rd, which is absurdist in nature.

    • R.J. Anderson September 13, 2016, 5:00 AM

      How limited is “extremely”? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 3rd-person POV that I felt was limited to the point of being absurdist, so I’m curious to know what you mean. Do you have any examples in mind?

      • Jill September 13, 2016, 12:25 PM

        By “extremely,” I mean deep 3rd-person limited. I don’t prefer that style of writing, and listening to people argue about the rules (never use filter words, etc.) is an exercise in absurdism, in my opinion. My favorite genre, spec-fic, isn’t often done in this POV. Maybe Bujold uses it.

  • R.J. Anderson September 13, 2016, 12:47 PM

    That’s interesting. I’ve never heard the “don’t use filter words” advice used to apply to 3rd person limited specifically — I think it’s reasonably good advice for any POV you happen to be writing in. (Though as with most writing advice it can be taken too far, I see phrases like “I / She looked up and saw” all too often in the work of beginning authors, and it doesn’t take too much of that to make me feel distanced from the entire story.)

    I read a lot of spec-fic as well (indeed, I read very little else!), and it seems to me that 3rd person limited is not that unusual in fantasy and SF. I’ve written seven out of nine books in it myself, so obviously I quite like it. 🙂

    • Jill September 13, 2016, 1:30 PM

      3rd-person limited is probably the most common in spec fic, and in fiction, in general. It’s what I generally write in, too, because it’s a versatile writing perspective. Deep 3rd-person limited is what I’m talking about. Deep POV.

  • R.J. Anderson September 13, 2016, 2:18 PM

    Ah. I didn’t realize some people made such a distinction. I do prefer the deep POV, myself. I find it more vivid and immersive. But it’s hard to do consistently without a lot of obsessive line-editing, and I think a lot of modern 3rd person limited actually bounces between traditional and “deep” 3rd.

  • Jill September 13, 2016, 2:57 PM

    I think it’s the obsessiveness that seems absurd to me, from a writer’s perspective. I’ve been in critique groups with writers like that. From a reader’s perspective, I find the emotional closeness exhausting. I like the distancing that even the hint of the author’s presence brings a story. I love many 1st-person novels, but exhaustion with the character can be a problem there, too.

  • JaredMithrandir September 20, 2016, 9:16 PM

    “Show don’t tell” isn’t a universal rule, there are many stories I feel have hurt by showing what they should have simply told.

    http://jaredmithrandirolorin.blogspot.com/2016/09/show-dont-tell-isnt-universal-rule.html

    An interesting old Novel to study on the issue of the omniscient Narrator is Paul Feval’s John Devil, Brian Stableford talks about it a lot in the Afterword for his BlackCoatPress translation.

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