Bones of Contention: an occasional series

(3) Point of View

Is this the biggest bugbear of the lot? Are you irritated, like me, by readers who raise an eyebrow at any change of viewpoint? By those who say, “I was just getting interested in Kate when Hugh poked his nose in”? Or worse: “The whole thing should be told from Harry’s viewpoint”? Perhaps you feel like retorting, as Ian McEwan did to Philip Roth in another context, “But that’s the novel you would write; it’s not the novel I want to write.”

Which is not to say there are no issues here. Point of view is a daunting topic to which reams of literary theory have been devoted, and blame for this is often laid at the feet of Henry James, the author credited with promulgating the idea of the “commanding centre” or “controlling intelligence”. But James, it seems, is misrepresented; he was not interested in issuing “laws” of fiction. The real culprit, it’s said, is Percy Lubbock, a Jamesian critic who took it upon himself to interpret the Master’s ideas in a prescriptive way. Lubbock’s axioms particularly annoyed Forster who, in “Aspects of the Novel”, argues that everything depends on the writer’s ability, in his famous phrase, to “bounce” the reader into acceptance. And Forster’s rebellion is now general; few writers now subscribe to the “old rules”, a shift attributed to many factors: to the influence of cinema, of literary modernism, to the theory of relativity, to the world as revealed by twentieth-century physics and quantum theory. Like Blake, the modern writer seems to deplore “single vision”.

But is that the end of the matter? Do we now believe that “anything goes”? Some critics say, with regret, that we do; that in our rush to abandon the old rules we have slung out the baby with the bath water. They argue that it’s acceptable to change viewpoint if there are good reasons to do so, but not if the change is wanton, careless or in violation of the logic of narrative. Multiple viewpoints, they claim, particularly when they occur within a scene, or worse, within a paragraph, confuse the reader through loss of focus. James himself, without laying down rules, writes that he can see “no breaking up of the register … that doesn’t rather scatter and weaken”.

And yet, and yet, and yet … do we underestimate the reader? Think of what we cope with on television or in the cinema, where long stretches of narrative pass without a hint as to who or what we’re watching. And think of the loss if writers abandoned multiple viewpoint. How would Stephen King write at all? Or David Hewson, who claims that he wrote his first three books, all bestselling crime novels, without being aware that an issue called “point of view” even existed? Think, too, of Clarissa Dalloway’s party, where the viewpoint passes from guest to guest in a brilliant panorama that would be sadly reduced, would shrink to tunnel vision, if the viewpoint were confined to the hostess. Something similar happens at the Ramsay’s dinner party on Skye. James was after a particular aesthetic effect, but fiction is surely a broad church, and Woolf’s use of multiple viewpoint does not, in my view, scatter and weaken. Rather, it opens up and enhances.

I apologise for the length of this. I’m going to take a break now, but I’ll be back when the bug bites; this is an “occasional” series, after all. Meanwhile, please share your own thoughts, on this or any other topic.

23. Jul 2019
Les Brookes