Hello, readers –
I have received some interesting responses to Monday’s post about the relative weight public and private history should bear within the context of a memoir or novel (Getting the Balance Right, April 17). A couple of people have asked: what about objectivity? Aren’t there times when an objective statement of what is going on in a situation is appropriate?
A good question, and one that certainly deserves discussion.
Obviously, there are writing situations where a certain narrative distance from the subject matter is helpful to telling the story, but I’m not convinced that narrative distance, even far narrative distance drained of personal commentary, is inherently the best way to describe anything. Nor is it actually objectivity. Objectivity, it seems to me, does not lie in discounting the personal experiences of the individuals actually affected by the larger phenomenon being described, or in stripping a story of emotional content; these, too, are reflective of the storyteller, conscious choices in selecting a style of narrative. True objectivity, I think, consists of showing a complex story in all of its emotional roundness without judging the characters.
Or, as Mme. de Staël put it, “Philosophy is not insensitivity.”
I know, I know: this is most emphatically not how we generally hear the term objectivity bandied about. Most often, we hear it when the news media praises itself: they like to plume itself on presenting stories objectively. However, as anyone who reads a newspaper regularly can tell you, how journalistic objectivity tends to be more about balance than distance.
The imperative to balance, as if there were two – and only two – sides to any issue, often results in articles that are only superficially objective, or in presenting only the extreme ends of the opinion spectrum. In an effort to be fair to both sides, both of the sides presented are depicted as equally reasonable, and often as though humanity itself were split absolutely 50-50 on the point. Which in turn often gives the impression that every group involved is equally large. (I’m not giving the obvious example here, just in case any future president should want to appoint me to the Supreme Court.) And while the journalists who write such articles seem to be adhering strictly to the rules of objectivity they were taught in journalism school, the necessity of selecting which two POVs to highlight as the only two relevant arguments, and which to relegate to obscurity, is in itself a subjective choice.
We’ve all seen such articles, right? The structure is invariable: begin with personal anecdote about Person A on Side 1; move to description of overarching phenomenon; state what the government/institution/neighborhood proposes to do about the phenomenon; bring in the opinion of Person B on Side 2; discuss what that side would like to see done; project future. Then end with an emotion-tugging paragraph on the lines of, “But for now, Person A must suffer, because of all of the events mentioned in Paragraph 1.”
Now, is that truly objective? It is balanced, sure, insofar as Side 1 and Side 2 are both presented, but since the structure dictates that the reader gets more personal insight into Person A’s plight, doesn’t the choice of which side to highlight first dictate where most readers’ sympathies will tend?
How a journalist or any other writer – or a researcher, or a pollster, for that matter — chooses to frame a question is necessarily subjective. Heck, how we decide what is important enough to write about is a subjective decision. If you doubt this, I suggest an experiment: the next time a telephone pollster calls, pay attention to how the questions are worded. Are they encouraging certain answers over others? How many questions does it take you to figure out who commissioned the poll?
I’m not saying that writers should throw objectivity out the window; far from it. However, I think we are all better writers when we recognize that how we choose to define an objective stance is in itself a subjective decision. Once a writer acknowledges that, taking authorial responsibility for those choices rather than assuming that distance equals objectivity, and that objectivity is good, all kinds of possibilities for nuance pop up in a manuscript.
Which bring me back to my original point: from the reader’s POV, the objective facts of a story are only important insofar as they affect the characters the reader cares about – and that can be liberating for the writer.
Movies and television have encouraged the point of view of the outside observer in writing, because no matter how close a close-up is, the camera is always separate from the action it is filming to some extent. But not every story is best told from the perspective of a complete stranger standing across the room from the action; even in an impersonal third person narrative, the author can choose, for instance, to take into account the observations of the crying toddler being held in the arms of the protagonist. It is not better or worse, inherently, than the detached, across-the-room perspective; it is merely different. Considering it as a possibility, along with a wealth of other perspectives, gives the writer much more control in producing the desired emotional impact of the scene.
Not all editors, writing teachers, or readers would agree with me, of course, but as there were so many writers trained in the early-to-mid 20th century that a Graham Greene-like narrative detachment was the best way to tell most stories, resulting in a generation and a half of schoolchildren being taught that the third person SHOULD mean complete narrative detachment, I’m not too worried that all of you out there won’t hear the other side’s arguments.
I’m not a journalist, after all; I am under no obligation to show you Side 2.
One final word on objectivity for those of you who write about true events: many, if not most, members of the general public confuse their individual points of views with objectivity, as if we all went through life testifying in an endless series of depositions. They insist that their individual, subjective POVs are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and therefore the only possible version of events.
I bring this up, because literally every author I have ever met who has published a book about real events that took place within living memory (myself included) has been accosted at some point by someone whose life was touched by the events depicted in the book. These accosters then summarily inform the author that she is WRONG; the events certainly did not take place that way, and no reasonable person could possibly think that the author’s POV on the subject was accurate. Obviously, then, the author must have maliciously twisted the facts on purpose, to create a false impression. Because facts are objective, by gum: in a well-ordered universe, everyone would tell every story exactly the same way. And the author is left standing there, open-mouthed.
I just wanted you to be prepared.
Sadly, there is little the author can do in response to this sort of attack. It’s been my experience, and my true story-writing friends’, that it does not aid matters to try to explain the basic principles of subjectivity vs. objectivity or point of view to people who insist there can be only one POV. It’s easiest to treat such vehement amateur readers as you would a professional POV Nazi: thank them warmly for their input and get out of the room as fast as you can. If you see them in future, run the other way. (For further tips on handling the POV-insistent, see my posting, Help! It’s the Point-of-View Nazis!, April 4 and 5.)
I honestly do wish that I could give all of you who write about real events a talisman that would protect you, but this is one of those areas where writers tend to view the world very differently than others. If you doubt this, just try explaining to someone who has never tried to write what it’s like to be so grabbed by a story that you feel compelled to lock yourself up for months on end to get it on paper, without anyone paying you to do it. By non-artistic standards, the creative drive just doesn’t make sense.
I say that we should just embrace the fact that we think differently from other people. Let’s revel in our subjectivity, because insightful subjectivity is the cradle of original authorial voice. Let’s not be afraid to tell stories from various subjective POVs, where that’s appropriate. And above all, let’s not fall into the trap of believing that there is only one way to look at any given event. Or even two. Because that kind of attitude robs writers of the power to choose how best to tell the story at hand.
As Flaubert tells us, ”One does not choose one’s subject matter; one submits to it.” Let the story’s complexities dictate how it needs to be told.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini