A major milestone, and the return of the Point-of-View Nazis!

I have two reasons to celebrate today: first, my major novel revision is in the mail, on the way to my agent (and they said a year’s worth of revisions couldn’t be done in a month!); second, this is my hundredth post on my new blog site! Hooray!

For those of you new to my ramblings, this might be a touch confusing, seeing the 1600 pages or so (figured in standard format, naturally) of material on this website. Until mid-July, I was the Resident Writer for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association, dispensing advice on their website, before I struck out on my own. So while there are obviously more than hundred posts archived here, only the last hundred were written for here.

I’d like to ask two favors to mark the occasion. First, please do tell your writing friends that this blog is here; since it switched locations rather suddenly last summer (and the PNWA’s new Resident Writer would not allow me to post a goodbye message, or even my new URL, for quite some time), some readers got lost in the transition.

Second, if you have been reading for a while but have never posted a comment, please consider chiming in. Start a discussion; join a discussion; ask a question. The more I know about my readers, the better I can tailor the blog to fit their needs. I know a LOT of folks in the industry; if I don’t know the answer to your question, chances are good that I know someone who does.

Back to the day’s business. For the last few posts, I have been tossing around the term “Point-of-View Nazi” in passing, while discussing the differences between what is a hard-and-fast rule in the industry (like, say, 1-inch margins all around) and what is a matter of style (like, for instance, whether to put character thought in italics). As I’ve mentioned over the last few days, not every writing guru makes a sharp distinction between the two. Nor, typically, do agents and editors speaking at conferences make a point of telling listeners which of their rejection criteria are widely-regarded bloopers, and which merely their personal pet peeves.

And that can be very confusing to those on the querying trail, can’t it? We’re all left wondering if that agent’s diatribe about how swiftly she rejects submissions written in the first person plural means that:

(a) every agent in the industry feels the same way,
(b) the agent in question just tends to market to editors who prefer another type of narrative voice,
(c) the agent in question was in an MFA program with some really annoying writer who insisted upon writing in NOTHING but the second person plural, and she never wants to hear it again as long as she lives,
(d) a wandering Greek chorus attacked the agent when she was a child, so first person plural brings back all kinds of bad memories, or
(e) the agent just didn’t like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES much.

Unfortunately for us all, every single one of these options is equally plausible. The moral: choose your dogmas with care.

Which brings me to the garden variety Point-of-View Nazi, a fellow with whom long-time readers of the blog are already familiar. Typically, he’s the most strident voice in any “only an amateur would do THAT” crowd.

No, I did not invent the term: it’s fairly widely-known industry jargon for any self-styled writing expert who will tell you — and anyone else who will listen — that his particular stylistic preferences are the only ones any sane writer could possibly pick. And, contrary to the experience of anyone who has actually spent any time leafing through volumes in the fiction section of a relatively well-stocked bookstore, a Point-of-View Nazis will often, like the disparager of italics, insist that any manuscript that does not follow his dictates has the proverbial snowball in Hades’ chances of being published.

Sound familiar yet?

Allow me to define the term more specifically. A Point-of-View Nazi (POVN) is a reader — often a teacher, critic, agent, editor, or other person with authority over writers — who believes firmly that the ONLY way to write third-person-narrated fiction is to pick a single character in the book or scene (generally the protagonist) and report ONLY his or her (usually his) thoughts and sensations throughout the piece. Like first-person narration, this conveys only the internal experience of a single character, rather than several or all of the characters in the scene or book.

Now, of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style of narration, inherently: it combines the advantages of a dispassionate narrator with the plotting and pacing plusses of a single perspective. It permits the author to sink deeply (or not) into the consciousness of a chosen character without losing the emotional distance of an omniscient narrator. Since no one else’s POV is depicted, it can render the later actions of other characters more surprising to the reader, which can in turn help build suspense and conflict on the page.

It is not, however, the only third-person narrative possibility — a fact that drives your garden-variety POVN mad with rage.

All of us have our own particular favorite narrative styles, naturally, and many of us have been known to lobby for their use. What distinguishes a POVN from a mere POV enthusiast is his active campaign to dissuade all other writers from EVER considering the inclusion of more than one POV in a third-person narrative.

Just ask one — trust me, he would be more than glad to tell you so. He would like multiple-consciousness narratives to be wiped from the face of the earth with all possible speed. He has been known to tell his students — or members of his writing group, or his clients, or the writers whom he edits or represents — that multiple POV narration in the third person is, to put it politely, terrible writing. It should be stamped out, by statute, if necessary. Feh.

So much for most of the fiction currently being published in the English-speaking world, I guess. And so much for Jane Austen and most of the illustrious third-person narrative-writers of the 18th and 19th centuries, who used multiple perspectives to great effect.

I bring up our forebears advisedly, because one of the reasons that POVNs are so common is that in the post-World War II era, the prose stylings of the 18th and 19th centuries tended to be rejected as old-fashioned (and therefore bad) by writing teachers. “Downright Dickensian,” many a POVN has cried, covering her students’ first forays into fiction with gallons of red ink. “How can we possibly follow the story, with so many characters’ perspectives?”

I should stop here and make a distinction between the POVN and a good reader or editor who objects when a narrative that HAS been sticking to a single POV suddenly wanders into another character’s head. That can be genuinely confusing to any reader, regardless of preexisting belief systems. If a book has been looking out of the protagonist’s eyes, so to speak, for 147 pages, it is a little jarring for the reader to be abruptly introduced to another character’s thoughts. The implication is that the protagonist has magically become psychic, and should be benefiting, along with the reader, from hearing the thoughts of others.

A POVN, however, is not merely the kind of well-meaning soul who will point out this type of slip to aspiring writers. No, a POVN will jump upon ANY instance of multiple perspective, castigating it as inherently unacceptable, even unpublishable writing — and will rather smugly inform the author that she has broken an ironclad writing rule by doing it. They believe it, too. Many of today’s more adamant POVNs are merely transmitting the lessons they were taught in their first good writing classes: for years, many English professors set it down as a general rule that multiple POVs were inherently distracting in a third-person narrative.

Take that, CATCH-22.

Pop quiz, all of you who have read my posts over the last few days: is the POVN’s view on perspective a matter of format, and thus a rule to be observed religiously, or is this a matter of style, to be weighed over thoughtfully while deciding what narrative voice would tell your story best? (Hint: the POVNs will tell you it is one, and I will tell you it is the other.)

Personally, I think the focus of the narrative voice is a stylistic choice, up to the writer, rather than something that can be imposed like the Code of Hammurabi on every novel wavering on human fingertips, waiting to be written. I like to read an author’s work and consider whether her individual writing choices serve her story well, rather than rejecting it outright because of a preconceived notion of what is and isn’t possible.

To be fair, though, as an inveterate reader of literary fiction, I have a special affection for authors whose talent is so vast that they can pull off breaking a major writing commandment from time to time. Alice Walker’s use of punctuation alone in THE COLOR PURPLE would have caused many rigid rule-huggers to dismiss her writing on page 1, but the result is, I think, brilliant. (Fortunately, she already had an agent when she wrote it.)

Similarly, I had always been told that it is a serious mistake to let a protagonist feel sorry for himself for very long, as self-pity quickly becomes boring, but Annie Proulx showed us both a protagonist AND a love interest who feel sorry for themselves for virtually the entirety of THE SHIPPING NEWS (and BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, come to think of it), with great success.

And so on. I love to discover a writer so skilled at her craft that she can afford to bend a rule or two. Heaven forfend that every writer’s voice should start to sound alike — or that writing should all start to sound as though it dropped from a single pen.

Which is precisely what hard-and-fast rules of narrative style tend to produce, across a writing population. One effect of the reign of the POVNs — whose views go through periods of being very popular indeed, then fall into disuse, only to rise anew — has been the production of vast quantities of stories and novels where the protagonist’s POV and the narrator’s are astonishingly similar.

(And, wouldn’t you know it, those POVs are overwhelmingly upper-middle class, college-educated thinkers rather than doers. The kind of people who might, say, have the time and resources to go through a low-residency MFA program. Astonishing coincidence, eh? Couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that the POVN’s teachers were also the ones who kept barking, “Write what you know!” could it?)

The POVNs have also given us a whole slew of books where the other characters are EXACTLY as they appear to the protagonist: no more, no less. The rise of television and movies, where the camera is usually an impersonal narrator of the visibly obvious, has also contributed to this kind of “What you see is what you get” characterization, if you’ll forgive my quoting the late great Flip Wilson in this context.

The result: often, I find myself asking while reading a manuscript, “Why wasn’t this book just written in the first person, if we’re not going to gain any significant insight into the other characters?”

I suspect that I am not the only reader who addresses such questions to an unhearing universe in the dead of night, but for a POVN, the answer is abundantly obvious. The piece in question focused upon a single POV because there is no other way to write a third-person scene.

Tomorrow, I shall, I suspect, take issue with this. Keep up the good work!

3 Replies to “A major milestone, and the return of the Point-of-View Nazis!”

  1. Congrats on getting your revisions out! Here’s a question that isn’t relevant to today’s post but since you’ve opened the door to questions… I was wondering if it would make sense to enter an annual contest with a revised version of a piece one had submitted before. Do organizations such as PNWA have the same judges from year to year?


    1. Ooh, this is a good question — I’m going to need to do a post on this, because I don’t think I’ve ever addressed it directly.

      Here’s the short answer, though: yes, it would, and yes, they do. Next!

      No, but seriously, it does make sense to enter a revised manuscript in a subsequent year’s contest. Most contests specify that you cannot enter exactly the same pages in subsequent years, but they usually leave it up to the author to decide how much revision consitutes significant change. (If memory serves, the Faulkner contest is the only major one that specifies how much must actually have changed from last year — although I do know a very good poet who won third place with identical poems in the Faulkner two years back-to-back. So I don’t know how seriously they enforce it.)

      You’ve hit the nail on the head, though: the way that an entrant would get caught would be by a returning judge. Most contests’ judge rolls are swollen with those who have done it before — it’s a big time commitment, after all. However, which judge gets which entry is randomly assigned, so the chances of a judge getting the same submission two years in a row are rather slim.

      It does happen, though — in fact, it has happened to me as a judge. Personally, I was rather tickled to see that the writer had improved so much!

      If you are entering something in the 2007 PNWA contest, it’s entirely possible that your work will end up seen by the same group of judges as in 2006. If you submitted the same work prior to that, however, i suspect that the chances of its being the same judges plummet — but that’s a PNWA-specific phenomenon. There have been several major shake-ups at the PNWA over the last year or so, and a lot of the former contest judges and section chairs resigned. I probably shouldn’t go into it more than that, but suffice it to say, many of the 2006 judges had not done it before.

      So I say go ahead!

  2. My take on the POVN’s! I set out to write my story in third person and from a single point of view. There were times when it was extremely awkward and difficult to maintain that exact perspective in telling the story. So, I fudged a bit now and then. Should I have gone to first person? The original story, written decades ago was in the first person, but I found it too hard to brag, even if it is the protagonist doing it. Too embarrassing to say, “I did this or that,” rather than, “He did that!”

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