Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.”
How We Spend Our Days / OCTOBER: DAVID JAUSS
JODI: A book that I think should be required reading is one of yours—your essays, On Writing Fiction and particularly “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View,” a version of which is archived at The Writer’s Chronicle in the September 2000 issue. In Glossolalia, as well as in your previous story collections, you tell stories in both the first and third person. You’ve also used multiple points of view, such as in the story “What They Didn’t Notice.” In your essay, I remember clearly how you take point of view to a much deeper level than a lot of material I’ve been able to find in other craft essays. You discuss long-range and close-up perspective and that point-of-view is not just the use of “person.” Would you be willing to talk a little about your point of view on point of view?
DAVE: I think point of view is the most poorly taught, and therefore the most misunderstood, aspect of fiction. Most craft essays and creative writing textbooks focus on the narrator’s person, not on the techniques the narrator uses, and the techniques are vastly more important than the person. To make matters worse, the authors of these essays and textbooks tend to write prescriptively rather than descriptively, asserting that certain techniques, like omniscience, are available only to certain types of narrators. If we look at the actual practice of writers, however, we’ll see that all of the techniques that comprise point of view—the presentation of only what can be seen and heard, as in drama; omniscience; indirect interior monologue (aka free indirect discourse); direct interior monologue; and stream of consciousness—are available to any narrator regardless of person. There are innumerable examples of first-person omniscience throughout literary history, for example, including the Decameron, Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, The Great Gatsby, and, more recently, works by Barth, Beckett, Borges, Díaz, Eugenides, García Márquez, Grass, Kundera, O’Brien, Rushdie, and Welty, not to mention our most recent Nobel Laureate. Still, virtually everyone who’s written on the subject of point of view claims that omniscience is the sole province of third-person narrators. And the most commonly used term for indirect interior monologue these days is “close third,” a term that belies the fact that first-person narrators can, and do, use this technique as well.
Also, because it’s generally a bad idea to shift person in a work of fiction—to have a first-person narrator suddenly morph into a third-person one or vice versa—textbook authors have leapt to the conclusion that point of view should be singular and consistent. That may be good advice when it comes to the narrator’s person but it’s definitely not good advice when it comes to the narrator’s techniques. As I tried to show in my essay, the techniques that truly constitute point of view are inevitably multiple and shifting. For example, the point of view we call third-person omniscience may be consistently third-person but it is not consistently omniscient, for the narrator must of necessity shift from omniscience to the dramatic point of view whenever she deals with a character whose mind she doesn’t enter. And narrators shift from one narrative technique to another not only within a story or novel but also within a single paragraph—and sometimes even a single sentence. In one brief paragraph from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, Joyce shifts from omniscience to indirect interior monologue to dramatic point view.
It pained him that he did not know well what politics meant and that he did not know where the universe ended. He felt small and weak. When would he be like the fellows in poetry and rhetoric? They had big voices and big boots and they studied trigonometry. That was very far away. First came the vacation. It was like a train going in and out of tunnels and that was like the noise of the boys eating in the refectory when you opened and closed the flaps of your ears. Term, vacation; tunnel, out; noise, stop. How far away it was! It was better to go to bed to sleep. Only prayers in the chapel and then bed. He shivered and yawned.
Joyce starts simultaneously inside and outside his protagonist’s consciousness, then goes deeper and deeper inside, and then concludes completely outside the character. In short, in this one paragraph he does what he and every other writer worthy of the name have done in their works: move from outside to inside, from long shots to X-rays, and back, modulating the psychic distance between the reader and the character to create the effect and meaning they desire.
One final point: defining point of view in terms of person ignores the fact that first-person narrators use third person whenever they talk about other characters and that they sometimes even talk about themselves in third person (witness Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum and, more recently, Kevin Brockmeier’s O. Henry Award-winning story “These Hands,” which begins, “The protagonist of this story is named Lewis Winters. He is also its narrator, and he is also me”).
As for how I choose what point of view I use in my fiction, all I can say is “I’m not sure.” It’s a whole lot easier to analyze point of view choices once they’re on the page than it is to explain how those choices were made. Basically, I just try several approaches until one feels right. I wish I could give you a more specific and helpful answer, but if I did, it wouldn’t be an honest answer.
JODI: For writers wanting to learn more from Dave on all aspects of craft, I highly recommend, On Writing Fiction, previously published in hardback as Alone With All That Could Happen. Thanks so much for the interview, Dave. Enjoy the rest of October!
Many thanks to JODI PALONI for Catching Jauss.
Jodi can be found at a Stone’s Throw, where she sometimes blogs. She is a freelance writer, as well as a creativity coach, and her writing has been published in Carve Magazine, upstreet, Whitefish Review, Contrary Magazine, and Spartan, among other places. Her story “Deep End” won the 2013 Short Story America Prize for Short Fiction and will be anthologized in Short Story America Volume IV. She also placed second in the 2012 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest for her story, “The Third Element.”
October 1: How We Spend Our Days: David Jauss