Wednesday, January 24, 2007


This semester I'm tutoring for Daily Themes again -- a course in which students are assigned 300 words a day in response to prompts that ask them to exercise a variety of prose-writing skills. Some have to do with aspects of fiction writing, such as characters and dialogue, others simply with a greater awareness of the resources of diction and sentence rhythms, still others involve special forms -- like fable or critique. The lectures -- particularly as taught by Bill Deresiewicz, the instructor the last two times I've taught for the course -- combine exhortations and provocations about writing with mini-meditations on selected passages, pointing out how writers, such as Joyce, Dickens, Austen, Hemingway, Updike, and the like, achieve their effects. It's a heady class because on any given day -- in discussion with a student (I talk with each one for 30 minutes a week -- often more like 40) -- I'm forced to talk about what makes a piece of writing interesting, and about topics that are intrinsic to the art of writing.

This week's topic was Point of View. Point of view, which is always implied in every kind of writing, is only discussed as a technique in fiction writing. In other words, fiction manipulates point of view so as to make it part of its arsenal of effects. The reason, it seems, is that point of view as orientation is assumed to be static in non-fiction writing, and consistency is its ideal. In fiction, shifts in point of view -- because of characters and different levels of discourse driven by the point of view's spin on its material -- are common and can be exploited to immense effect. Point of view, however distinctive it may be (no two person's point of view can ever be identical), is only intelligible to the reader through changes in language, or in focalization, but the latter, as a change -- like taking a picture from two different angles -- simply alters our focus or attention. Changes in disposition -- signaled linguistically -- are much more telling and constitute the really remarkable aspect of fiction writing. So much so that one way of judging students in this initial week is on how comfortable they are with the problem of point of view. In other words, those who know how to manipulate and signal significant changes in point of view have the makings of fiction writers. As opposed, say, to someone for whom exposition or dialogue is the main controlling technique.

Point of view is implicated in how a piece holds together and, ultimately, in what it means. This is because point of view inflects every sentence; the reader's grasp not only of who is seeing and saying but of what is shown and said relies upon a coherent point of view. Students like to use third person to avoid the problem of "who" -- but for this to work, the "omniscient" voice must be free of the pitfalls of inexact wording, clichéd phrases, and inappropriate diction (not easy to achieve!), otherwise the loss in believability severely curtails our willingness to accept the point of view as a "window" on an actual world. First person point of view is actually safer since it is inherently performative and so can be allowed a host of idiosyncrasies and unexpected variations. Third person is probably inherently more conservative than first person, but it is also potentially far more extensive in its reach and able to register experience more subtly.

We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue
-- Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue," (1975)

1 comment:

Andrew Shields said...

C. Dale Young made some remarks recently about how he applies such considerations in poetry workshops. That is, as you put it, he wants poets to "manipulate point of view to make it part of their arsenal of effects." I've been thinking about that ever since!