Due to their very bad shipping methods, I just received my December 18th issue of the London Review of Books a couple of days ago. (The issues are meant to arrive every two weeks, but guess what? They don’t.) In it is an interesting article by Tom McCarthy on realism in writing that got me thinking about the possibility of objectivity and how we should consider it when writing fiction.
Foucault, Nietzsche, and many others pointed out that what we consider “real” is always structured — or, to perhaps put it more accurately, filtered — by how we think, how we view the world. You can detect these thoughts in Wittgenstein too in his post-linguistic turn, and it is one of the major reasons that logical positivism died an ignoble death towards the middle of the previous century. Personally I think that there is something to be said about speaking and/or writing in purely empirical terms, i.e. a “factual vocabulary” (see my paper “Don’t put mouths in my words” on the bottom of this page on my personal site, as well as chapter five in Tomorrow, as the Crow Flies, available on this page of my personal site), but that is a topic for another day.
At any rate, now to the main: If the world we inhabit is one that is necessarily perspective-oriented, and if these perspectives are individually bound even while being (largely; almost entirely?) culturally constructed, then how do we write about what happens to our characters in a way that reflects this? There are of course a number of approaches that could be considered here but two ends of the spectrum stand out for me: that of the internalized head-tour (if you will), and that of the external narrator. The head-tour puts us in our character’s head and keeps us there; we see things as she does and we experience the world through her and how she reacts to it, even if we find ourselves with very different intuitive responses to the events while reading about them. Paul j Rogers does an excellent job of this in his forthcoming book (more on that in the months to come). The second option listed, that of the outside narrator, poses an interesting dilemma that itself allows a number of responses. Does not the narrator himself have his own perspective on the world, on the occurrences being described, and his own biased beliefs regarding the character’s reactions to them? There is a lot of room for play here, and the more approaches taken to this issue the more interesting available fiction will become.
When working on a project, it strikes me as important to consider these aspects of how you will write from the outset and then commit to following the guidelines you have set for yourself. Change can always be introduced, but we readers would need a reason of some kind to make that shift in perspective believable. There are a thousand plot doors to be opened here. What might be really intriguing, and potentially quite jarring, would be to introduce an alteration in the external narrator’s worldview midway through the story. I leave it to all of you writers out there to wow us with your own takes on the “real”.