8.02.2006

Third Dimension

Dear Miss Snark,

You might not be the person to ask this, but I'm not sure who to approach. And since I already know you (sorta)...

Have third-person narrators gone out of fashion? My writers group says anything told by a "narrator" (as opposed observed or thought by a POV character) is the author giving information to the reader, hence "author intrusion."

When I studied fiction in college though, it was accepted that the "narrator" was often someone other than the POV character, though he/she was not always defined.


You can do anything if you do it well. Third person narrative included. Third person is telling, but not in the same way that "show not tell" is objecting to. It's hard to do well.
Here are three recent books that do it very well:

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass (I loved this)
Company by Max Barry (no one writes better corporate satire. He's absolutely the best)
Triptych by Karin Slaughter

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Fashion--ugh. You have nothing as a fiction writer if you don't have your own style and sense of story. And if that means using a 3rd person omniscient narrator, do it. What never goes out of fashion is good writing. Tell your critique group you'll take your chances.

archer said...

Oh, please. Tell me Bonfire of the Vanities isn't a completely successful and hugely entertaining novel. It's state-of-the-art author-omniscient narration and it holds up to a fourth and tenth and twentieth read, he said, not seeing the three Third Person Limited partisans glaring at him through the window.

mimi said...

yeah, and what about darling Toni's Sula? (lurve it)

Stephen said...

Um, OK, archer. Bonfire of the Vanities is not a completely successful and highly entertaining novel. It's not the narrative voice that is the problem, nor is it the big scenes, which he can write brilliantly. It's just the whole pace/plot/structure bit that lets him down.

Katrina Stonoff said...

You must be on to something, Miss Snark. I looked at "The Whole World Over" on my public library's website, and there are 80 holds--that is, 80 people are in line waiting for it. Both the other two have nine holds each.

Time to go to the bookstore for an education.

Anonymous said...

What about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell? It has a quasi-scholarly unidentified 3rd person narrator. Neal Gaiman does 3rd person omniscient very well, for example in Stardust and Neverwhere. One of the all-time classic novels, Tom Jones, has the author intruding all over the place, to great comic effect. I second the sentiment that good writing never goes out of style. Your critique group needs to rethink their priorities.

Adrian McCarthy said...

Did Max Barry change the spelling of his name? My copy of _Jennifer Government_ shows "Max" with one _x_. Amazon has _Jennifer Government_ with "Maxx" (two x's) but _Company_ with one x. My wife has _Syrup_ out from the library which also has two x's.

Anonymous said...

I think we need some clarification here. "Third person" narrator doesn't always mean "omniscient" narrator. Most books today are written from a third person limited viewpoint, aren't they? My UK editor won't consider novels written in the FIRST person; he says they all sound whiny.

Anonymous said...

Get out of that writers group fast because they're idiots. As if a first person narrator is somehow something other than a constructed character not "telling" a story. Let's wake up to the fact that all writing is "told" because you only have the medium of language in which to present it. Wayne C. Booth exploded the showing/telling dichotomy in about 1963: it's all the same thing. The issue is all about artifice, how you straddle the line between mimesis (voice of the poet) and diagesis (voice of another). Either we believe it or we don't. And if we don't, the writing's not working anyway so it won't matter.

So ends your theory lesson for today.

archer said...

Oh, okay, Stephen, I went overboard. But the camera work in BOV really is good and that's what I was thinking about. Look at the first "Kramer" chapter--I think it's Ch.2--with its close-in character introspectives and big long omniscient shots of the Bronx. It's so much damned fun.

Virginia Miss said...

Excellent question, it seems like every "how to get published/sell your novel/find an agent/write your novel" book or article I've ever seen recommends third person limited (except for chick lit, in which first person is preferred). I love omniscent. Some authors who do it well include Marcia Willet, Mary Sheepshanks, and Sarah Woodhouse.

archer said...

There is a good commentary on POV and a good set of POV exercises in Ursula K. Le Guin's Steering the Craft.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Miss Snark I am now sold on Max Barry:

It would be an exaggeration to say he took a job at Zephyr because of the beauty of its receptionist, but during his interview he was very enthusiastic.

Kimber said...

Don't forget Wuthering Heights, which is narrated by a completely uninvolved third party who seeks shelter at the house during a storm.

Dan Lewis said...

Two words: Jane Austen.