Friday, June 3, 2016

On the First Person Point of View

Looking at popular fiction today it certainly seems that the first person point-of-view is more popular than it used to be, and one might wonder why.

Certain highbrow critics (I won't name names, but I've reviewed the work of at least one of them here, and not that long ago either) would have us believe that this is because third-person omniscient is "passé."

Such remarks say more about them than they do about fiction today--their Modernist prejudices, not least their love of unreliable narrators and ambiguity for its own sake.

It also reveals another failing of this type of critic: their utter obliviousness to and disinterest in the more practical aspects of the writing life--which seems to supply the real reasons why we are getting so much first person writing, two in particular:
1. Given the preference for "dramatic" rather than "epic" storytelling (I'm using the Goethe-Schiller terminology here), and the emphasis on being "relatable" above all, they are understandably looking to foster an intimacy that will make the reader identify with the narrator. Not a new technique, just one stressed more than it used to be.

2. The old problem of telling and showing. "Show, don't tell" remains the pat advice of those who don't actually write to those who do--and is followed much, much less often than we are led to believe, for good and obvious reasons. One is that, as compared with showing, telling is much easier to read--which is enormously important in today's market. It is also much easier to write--which matters all the more given the expectations increasingly placed on writers (low pay rates, longer books, lots of hours devoted to publicity, all without their getting to quit the day job save in a few, fortunate cases).

The result is that unless one really regards Flaubert as their Penelope (and ready to spend five days agonizing over one page in the manner of the man who gave the world Madame Bovary), setting aside all concerns but pure literary craft, they will, in spite of the conventional wisdom (truly conventional but never wise) serve up much more "tell" than "show."

But in fairness there's often a certain sleight-of-hand involved, and that's exactly what the first person point-of-view permits. Because of the pretense that we are in the narrator's head, directly listening to their voice, their telling looks a bit like showing--and most of those flogging the old "Show, don't tell" saw let them off the hook.

My Posts on Literature

June 2016

On the First Person Point of View

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Review: E. Philipps Oppenheim's The Double Four

As The Double Four opens country squire Peter Ruff is summoned to Paris to meet with the mysterious old woman heading the titular organization, with which he has previously been deeply involved. At the meeting he finds the leader on her deathbed, from which she tells him that he is to be her successor--a charge he is reluctant to accept, though it is also clear that he has no choice in the matter. Afterward he is promptly set up in London as grandee Baron De Grost.

Over the course of the story we never get a comprehensive image of just what the origins, purposes and activities of the Double Four are, but it is quite clear that it was at least in part a notorious criminal organization, that it has since distanced itself from such activities, and that its primary concern is now espionage. By and large, this espionage seems to be conducted on behalf of the alliance of Britain and France, against Germany, and it is this which occupies Ruff's time--in particular, his successive battles with German agent Bernadine, the Count Von Hern.

The luxurious atmosphere, the genteel but ruthless and ultimately deadly duel between Ruff and Bernadine, are classic Oppenheim--and so are the plentiful melodrama, hokey plot twists and right-wing propaganda of yesteryear. Less familiar to me was the book's structure. A collection of short stories turned into a cut-up novel, the book is not just loose, but essentially episodic--between the first and last tales Ruff and Bernadine fighting out some issue to a conclusion, and then the book simply returning to them at the outset of the next battle. In fact, the order of several of the stories in the middle could have been rearranged without the reader's experience being compromised.

The fact that the book does consist of so many short bits was initially a bit jarring, so much so that I was tempted to charge them with being more thinly sketched than they should have been. (Like every other reader of my generation, I suppose I've simply--for better or worse--become used to taking my spy fiction in doorstop-length doses.) Still, it was a light, quick read with a pronounced retro interest, perhaps not so satisfying as The Great Impersonation but also suffering from less of that book's weaknesses as well.

The Spy Fiction of Edward Phillips Oppenheim
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
My Posts on Spy Fiction
My Posts on James Bond
A History of the Spy Story, Part II: The Life of a Genre
A History of the Spy Story, Part I: The Birth of a Genre

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

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