by D.W. White
July 19, 2023

Rosencrantz: What are you playing at?
Guildenstern: Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.
        —Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Editorial Note: This piece is one half of an essayistic diptych on point-of-view, contemporary literature, and narrative mode. The companion work, “Someplace Between the Damned and the Dreaming: Narrative Mode and the Rendering of Consciousness in Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport and Mathias Énard’s Zone,” an in-depth exploration of heterodiegetic vs homodiegetic narration via close textual analyses of those novels, is available at A Thin Slice of Anxiety.

​In his magisterial study of reality in Western literature, Mimesis, Erich Auerbach asserts, in a rather bold aside, that our conception of the Judeo-Christian God can be ascribed to, in effect, point-of-view.  (1)  Auerbach’s point is about the two branches of narrative mode that came to dominate storytelling in the Western tradition—split between a direct Homeric mode and a more fractured Biblical one—but there is something resonant about the nature of that mercurial beast. Point-of-view—which, here and elsewhere, I have and will use to mean the narrative mode employed to render a given perspective, which itself is narrative alignment with a specific character—is the engine of fiction. It is what makes literature literature and not journalism; (2) on another level, it is what makes fiction fiction and not, say, personal narrative. In the world of narrative, it is how the story is told, as opposed to simply what takes place, that makes it worth telling.

This distinction between the what and the how is a central component to literary theory of the past century, and has been articulated in a number of complex and contradictory ways. (3) Effectively, however, it’s a question of point-of-view. (4) I prefer to think of this dynamic as a book’s textual and narrative functions—these are imprecise analogues, suited more as they are to a writer’s definitional requirement than a scholar’s—taken to mean the book’s acting as a crafted piece of writing and its telling of a fictionalized story, respectively. Under whichever label one likes, however, I would (and have, and do) argue that point-of-view is that which defines fiction as such and give it its singular ability to alchemize life into art. The ‘right’ narrative mode, one that unlocks a work’s potential, one that is in accordance with all the innumerable characteristics of a piece as it comes together, is what allows it to achieve the fundamental purpose of fiction--to immerse the reader in a fully imagined and realized fictive world.

Why, then, given this centrality of point-of-view (against which, as a fundamental point, I find it rather hard to argue, even if one does not feel quite as strongly the above paragraph), do so few writers seem to have much of an idea about how it works? Part of this surely is its intricacy on the one hand—far more daunting and theory-based than, say, characterization or setting—and intelligibility on the other—unlike voice or language, it can actually be studied and understood in relation to one’s own praxis. (5) Another culprit is the nature of creative writing instruction, especially at M.F.A. programs, where the workshop is king and theory is left for the ‘academics’. But another reason (one also tied in with the two previous), perhaps, is the rather odd notion that writing is something one simply does, and there is little or no need for a serious, aspiring writer of literary fiction to actively improve their abilities beyond blasé ‘craft’ talks and the dubious feedback of the workshop room or writers’ group. This stems, it seems, from two opposing (mis)beliefs. First, the devaluation of literature as an art form—itself fueled, I contend, by the fact that everyone writes every day, which seems to cause many to believe there is nothing special in it, and the novelist is simply someone good at coming up with stories. (6) Second, a misplaced notion of artistry or literary genius, an idea that true art is simply received and put on the page—that Joyce never got an M.F.A., etcetera.

Of course both of these ideas are nonsense. There is an incredible amount of learned knowledge, skills, to accompany talent in literature, just as there is with any art form. As a key point of this essay (which we will, in fact, eventually come to) will attempt to show, it is very easy to spot work by writers who have not labored to refine their abilities into precise instruments of the literary art. And all great writers were learned people, who not only revised and read widely, but studied their craft in order to improve. Joyce, to follow the example, was incredibly erudite and educated, learning Norwegian to study Ibsen and adapting a then-unknown technique by a little-known writer into what we now call ‘stream-of-consciousness’. (7) Art requires both inspiration and knowledge, talent infused with a study of theory, of technique and mechanics, of the interplay between the elements of fiction. The mutual support of the innate and the acquired is essential to truly effective writing.

So, back to the point. What might we learn by thinking about point-of-view in contemporary fiction, especially as seen on those apocalyptic front lines, the slush pile? As an editor with two literary journals, I am increasingly interested in how an understanding of this most essential component of fiction (or lack thereof), manifests in the work that comes via unadorned approach to the hot gates of the literary world. A problem with point-of-view persists in general submissions: how to adhere to the traditional workshop dictum of “show don't tell” while managing (or attempting) to avoid unwieldy and insipid stretches of exposition and achieve verisimilitude in writing.

This question—more specifically defined as one of narrative distance as it relates to point-of-view in first- vs. third-person fiction (8) —is both representative of many of the problems in contemporary fiction and a point of effective ingress into the higher-order workings of literature. Let us go then, you and I, to examine these dangers and try to explore the central difference between a discursive first-person and a close third-person narration: while in the former, the character talking to someone (usually the reader), in the latter, the character talking (or thinking) to themselves. As a result, as we shall see, the third-person can allow for much greater access to a character's interiority while retaining the fidelity sought after in realistic fiction.

I Do Declare: Risks and Rewards of First-Person Narration

What is the first person? For many emerging writers, it is the default mode—after all, I have a story, why shouldn’t I tell it? The relative simplicity and ostensible (if illusory) reflection of real life that it offers is magnetic. With the rise of autofiction—and an unending emphasis by professors and billboards to ‘live your truth’—there is an inherent, immediate appeal to the first person. It’s so easy, anyone can do it—just start talking!

Of course, as with many things, it gets slightly more complicated than this. The first person is, above all, declarative: it asserts itself, not only as the protagonist (usually), but as the narrator, as the creator and the subject of this world, as God and Man. As such, it is a bold, striking narrative mode, one that—and this we shall come to more fully in a moment—therefore loses much flexibility and adaptability.

        I looked in her eyes and put my arm around her as I had before and kissed her. I kissed her hard and held her
        tight and tried to open her lips; they were closed tight. I was still angry and as I held her suddenly she 
        shivered. I held her close against me and could feel her heart beating and her lips opened and her head went 
        back against my hand and then she was crying on my shoulder. "Oh, darling," she said. "You will be good to 
        me, won't you?" What the hell, I thought. I stroked her hair and patted her shoulder. She was crying. "You 
        will, won't you?" She looked up at me. "Because we're going to have a strange life." After a while I walked with
        her to the door of the villa and she went in and I walked home.(9)

This excerpt, taken early from Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, (10) is illustrative of our idea. The context is hardly important for our purposes; it is quite clear what interests the narrator (who here is also the protagonist), and what does not. For Hemingway’s purpose, this rigid first-person works quite well, but think about what is lost by the point-of-view in this section. What might the woman be thinking? What, even, is our narrator thinking? What does her cryptic line mean, and what does the scene look, feel, and sound like, besides the physicality of her body? We have no idea. We simply have an I, declaring himself to the world and the scene, and we can be interested in and only in that which interests him, or we can stop reading.

Most effective first-person is of this nature: strong, central, commandeering, controlling. (11) When we only see the world through the eyes of one person, especially a fictive world and associated plot line with texture and activity, we are inherently tied to her way of seeing it. The I declares, it asserts, it delineates. There is no room for others. (12) As the reader we often tend to lose sight of this rather quickly, which is in many ways the point of first-person writing: that the fictive world ‘as-is’ becomes, sooner or later, synonymous with the world as seen by our narrator.

        Bert didn't know what to do with me. 

        Every day for two weeks, he asked how he could make me happy. I couldn't possibly answer him. He tried 
        chocolate and flowers, and finally a little zirconia heart on a gold chain, I guess because those were the ways 
        men made women happy on television. I couldn't say what I really wanted was for Bert have some decent 
        semen meet up with a healthy egg and please bring the zygote to me in a petri dish: that would make me 
        happy. But I didn't want to hurt his feelings, so I accepted the sweet, ordinary gifts he gave me, and when he 
        was sleeping or watching basketball, I’d toss them out in the big gray garbage bin on the side of our house.

        It's true I wanted to die, but I didn't want to do the dirty work, so I hung around in my body to breathe and cry
        and hate the world.

        Burt suggested meditation. (13)

The world, in the first person, is what the narrator says it is, inside and out. We take her at her word, about what happens: what she wants, thinks, feels; what others wanted, did, said, thought. She can be the most empathic and thoughtful of narrators, attuned and attendant to all those she meets (and this is very rarely the case), but everything will be filtered though her understanding, opinion, slant. That which dominates the workings of her mind comes to dominate her depiction of her world. (14) 

But ay there’s the rub, as another rather declarative protagonist once said: this tunneled worldview, delimited not only by what the narrator does (or, hopefully, did) (15), but also how she evaluates, reacts, desires—this all creates an inherit bias, a lack of perspective, a narrowing to the point of isolation in how the fictive world and the character herself are presented. First-person fiction will never be able to get as close to a character’s consciousness as could be done in third, a paradox often misunderstood by emerging writers who instinctively feel that the best way to align a reader with their hero is to have him talk about life. But this approach straightjackets a work an inherently self-serving and self-aware worldview, and to attempt true fidelity of the mind in the first-person is a bit like trying to see one’s own eye—it is impossible without the use of some outside tool, a mirror that necessarily distorts the vision. Because we all are the sole inhabiters of our minds, and as all good undergraduates know, one source does not an adequate account make.

A Lantern Down the Void: The Depths and Detail of Third-Person Narration

All the relative simplicity of the first-person is equaled and then some in complexity by the third. It can range from Tolstoyian omniscience to Joycean subconsciousness, with alternatives—such as a nouveau roman cool dispassion (Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy comes especially to mind) or hysterical realism’s frantic urgency (many examples; Lucy Ives’ Life is Everywhere and Lucy Corin’s The Swank Hotel are notable from the last few years)—abounding in between. For our purposes, and space, we will stick with what is commonly known as a close third, a narrative mode largely built on free-indirect style that maintains a clear external narration while blending in often and well with a given character’s mind and worldview. 

​        The powerful stench of Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, sometimes led the overwhelmed and perplexed 
        stroller to glance thought the open door into the darkness of the garage. There his eye feel upon a fleet of large
        tin hot dogs mounted on bicycle tires. It was hardly an imposing vehicular collection. Several of the mobile hot
        dogs were badly dented. One crumpled frankfurter lay on its side, its one wheel horizontal above it, a traffic 

        Among the afternoon pedestrians who hurried past Paradise Vendors, Incorporated, one formidable figure 
        waddled slowly along. It was Ignatius. Stopping before the narrow garage, he sniffed the fumes from Paradise 
        with great sensory pleasure, the protruding hair in his nostrils analyzing, cataloguing, categorizing, and 
        classifying the distinct odors of hot dog, mustard, and lubricant. Breathing deeply, he wondered whether he 
        also detected the more delicate odor, the fragile scent of hot dog buns. (16) 

Innumerable examples could be used, but the resplendent, immense, endlessly harangued hero of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly, is as good (and lively) as any. Much of Ignatius’ personality and worldview comes via Toole’s superb dialogue, and his narration is clearly not his hero—in fact, the two are not all that closely bound, and the perspective will move around, leaving the protagonist in order to more fully realize the world which he dominates. What the above selection gives us, then, is a look at classic intermediate-range third-person narration—not delving into the deep waters of “stream-of-consciousness’, but clearly infused with the character’s way of seeing, thinking, and feeling. At this level there is a distance between hero and reader that is greater than in first, and much of the inner world is achieved via the direct address in conversation. As we will come to, the third person can be quite a bit closer than this, but at this range the distance created nonetheless allows the narration to do quite a bit unavailable to the first-person: movement between perspectives, scenic context, and a more impartial view of the protagonist, one that can offer a fuller portrait than a narrator could paint of himself.

So what we have then are two distinct angles of reflection, or distance between character and reader, found in a traditional, discursive first and a relatively conventional third. As we know, there are still rather unconventional levels to available to the third-person. Let’s return to the point we glimpsed earlier, that of access to a character’s mind. We saw how a first-person narrator can give an account of the world only as she sees it, and often the focus is on her mental-emotional state (as with all character-driven fiction). But is there something lost? For all the declaration and the disquisition, can a first-person narrator—and therefore the reader—get as close to themselves as an impartial narration could? Is there, perhaps, less true access to a character’s mind—unabridged and unfiltered—in the first-person than that which might be found in the deeper waters of third? (Reader, there is).

        Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this 
        moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

        His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.

        He was baby tuckoo. The moocow came down the road where Betty Byrne lived: she sold lemon platt. (17)

The famous opening to Joyce’s Portrait is illustrative of the abilities, within the third-person, to fashion a point-of-view that brings us far closer to a given perspective than that character could ever provide in their own words, i.e. in the first-person. The excerpt above, besides being well-crafted and technically sound, is especially useful here, as it captures Stephen Dedalus as a small child, one who could not possibly write his own account of that moment as it happened in the fictive world. Of course he could have written it in the first-person past tense, looking back years later, at the time of the narrating, to recall his first memory. But it would be filtered, by time and self-interest, into something else, a warped and sanitized iteration of the event. In the first-person this scene would be a memory instead of a moment, an approach that can and very often does find success and be highly effective, but which would lack the fidelity found above. It is only in the third, and using the messy, challenging, razor-sharp techniques developed around a century ago and today called ‘stream-of-consciousness’, that we can achieve an access to a character’s interiority, and a faithful rendering of the scene soi-même, with the greatest possible verisimilitude the art of fiction allows. It is only, in other words, with a bit of risk that the magic happens.

What’s At Stake Here? Risk-Taking and Narrative Distance

The wild underworld of close and ever closer third-person narration—replete as it is with all manner of grammarless demons and dark cities of single sentences—is the land of unconventionality in fiction, of what we at both my journals call risk-adept writing. The sheer possibilities of the third-person, the depths to which consciousness can be explored, the range of voice and style that can fit within an external narration, allow for far more experimentation and innovation than does the first-person.(18) 

Examples are manifold—it is with great restraint I am not now quoting Finnegans Wake—to the point that any reader who’s made it this far in this piece has not the need to see one. (Besides, we will come to a preeminent case later on). The revolution in form that was Modernism, and countless novels since, showcase with the luminance of human artistic expression the range and power of third-person literature.

But while the presentation of consciousness is dominated by the third-person, that is not the only form which allows for stylistic innovation and risk-taking. It can be found in first, profound and bold, given the right understanding of a piece and what it has set out to do. As I have written elsewhere, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, as inventing (as far as I can tell) a technique I’ve termed first-person free-indirect, wherein the narrator elides her own interiority to provide complete access to a series of interlocutors, is literary innovation par excellence. (19) Other instances from recent vintage include Mark Haber’s rollicking St. Sebastian’s Abyss and Emily Hall’s incredible answer to the dangers of temporal immediacy and consciousness presentation in the first-person, The Longcut. For all their differences in both design and execution, what all these novels have in common is a unity of form and function, an understanding of how a work of literature is constructed, and the fearless vision to carve their own way ahead.

And this is where the need for a comprehensive grasp of point-of-view, and theory generally, is felt, especially among newly minted M.F.A.s and other emerging writers. In the slush pile—not to mention to bookshelves of Barnes and Noble or the New York Times’ bestseller list—there is a dearth of truly risk-adept work, writing that challenges the reader at the sentence level in service of a wholly understood and theoretically sound fictive constitution. One need only to look at which debut novels actually make it to publication by a major press in the current literary landscape to see how dire the problem is. Nearly without exception, these books are accessible, digestible, tame, simple, and above all marketable. The trend runs down to all levels, as well—stories that demonstrate a true understanding of the nuances of fiction and literary theory, as well as the audacity to try something new, are depressingly few and far between.

An all-too-common manifestation of this disquieting trend is in exposition, especially in the third-person, where the narration is in service merely of churning out the facts of the plot as quickly and easily as possible. In the first-person, this type of ‘turning to the reader’ (often manifesting as backstory and explanation) is far more organic—after all, the narrator is already talking to us. But in a close third it is not only superfluous but often fatal to the aims of the work. The narration in such a work should not be justifying its information or its access—it is, after all, god—but far too often the emerging writer nonetheless feels a debt and labors his reader through explanations he simply does not owe us. There is neither need nor room, in effective close third-person narration, for large stretches of exposition that lay out for the reader in neat and easy prose all the information the author (mistakenly) thinks that we need to understand the story. Instead, in third, there is a different creature lurking beneath the surface, one capable of nearly anything, often without being noticed at all.

What I Mean To Say Is: Words and Definitions in Narrative Mode

The complementing essay to this one deals extensively with two novels, Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport and Mathias Énard’s Zone. To make its argument—essentially, that they are rendered in vastly different narrative modes, despite their superficial similarities—the piece employs terminology that replaces our usual labels of first- and third-person. Gérard Genette classifies the ‘person of the narrating’ into two broad types: homodiegetic (a narrator who is in the story) and heterodiegetic (a narrator who is not in the story). (20) Why these alien terms for, essentially, first- and third-person? What do they signify? Genette’s theory, and those who have built on his work, is multilayered and varied, but at a fundamental level it encourages a reader, critic, or indeed (or especially) a writer to think about point-of-view in a different light, to categorize the two principal methods of narration in a way that more accurately reflects the underlying possibilities and limitations of each.

While no linguist or even full-bodied theorist, writing as I do from the artist’s, not the academic’s vantage-point, the view from here (from this point…) indicates that reports of the author’s death have been greatly exaggerated. At times lost in the philological shuffle is the fundamental nature of a novel as a crafted work of art, a product both of vorstog and vdokhnovenie, to invoke Nabokov via Zadie Smith. In most third person texts, especially those of the close third fashion of the 20th and 21st centuries, there is clear colorization of the narration, passages neither of scene or summary, but rather opinion, spoken by someone, by something. (21)

        The rain fell on Arlington Park, fell on its empty avenues and its well-pruned hedges, on its schools and its 
        churches, on its trees and its gardens…All night it fell, until with a new intensity, just before dawn, it emptied a
         roaring cascade of water over the houses so that the rain was flung against the darkened windows.

        In their sleep they heard it, people lying in their beds: the thunderous noise of the water. It penetrated their 
        dreams, a sound like the sound of uproarious applause. It was as if a great audience were applauding. Louder 
        and louder it grew, this strange, unsettling sound. It filed the night: it rattled the windows and made people 
        turn beneath their covers and children cry in their sleep. It made them feel somehow observed, as if a dark 
        audience had assembled outside and were looking in through the windows, clapping their hands.(22) 

This is the best example that I know of a third-person narration defining and delimiting its point-of-view boundaries to open a novel. Moving with the coming storm through Rachel Cusk’s titular suburb, the narration shows us precisely what it can and will do—access to interiority, freedom of movement between character and situation, poetic license in describing its fictive world.

The slant of the narration in heterodiegetic novels, those moments not belonging to dialogue, description, or detail, this is at the heart of powerful, voice-driven third-person fiction of the last hundred years. It is a creature we might call the Narrative Entity, because, unlike terms such as ‘narrative function’, it is a being with a mind of its own. Those advocating for the narratorless model of fiction—which, in any event, could never exist, regardless of whether it would be a good thing if it did—miss the mark. The idiomatic narrative entity is what propels strong third-person narratives—just as traditional voice propels compelling first-person novels—delineated by the fictive gods to whatever powers it may have.

        Many years later as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant 
        afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses,
         built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and 
        enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to 
        indicate them it was necessary to point.(23)

Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude—selected here with its memorable opening—is a supreme example of the far end of the powers available to a third-person idiomaitc narration. A book such as his, spanning (you guessed it) a century, and following a host of characters, relies not on a single protagonist, time, or even situation to play the leading role; rather it is the narrative entity itself that is the hero, it is the unmistakable and addictive third-person voice and worldview that shapes the fictive landscape, provides narrative momentum, and even witnesses the birth of creation. Mechanically we may never get all that close to the characters—we’re not too terribly far down in the Hades here—but there is a singular propulsive force running through the novel, a manner of speaking and seeing that provides texture and influence to a highly accomplished work. This force is the narrative entity, and it is a creature unto itself. And lo, you will know them by this sign: Irony, Philosophy, Commentary, Subtlety: The Four Horsemen of Idiomatic Narration. 

        “‘What ails you, Polyphemus,’ said they, ‘that you make such a noise, breaking the stillness of the night, and 
        preventing us from being able to sleep? Surely no man is carrying off your sheep? Surely no man is trying to kill
         you either by fraud or by force?’

        “But Polyphemus shouted to them from inside the cave, ‘Noman is killing me by fraud; noman is killing me by 

But of course it was always someone, there was always some brave actor sharping the spear and hiding under goats. Whether we can see him or not…well, that’s another matter.

yes I said yes I will Yes: Molly Bloom and Narrative Self-Abnegation

Like Odysseus, fiction always comes home. To close our studies here, and to complete the thought on narrative mode and the borderlands of first- vs third-person/homo- vs heterodiegetic narration, it might be useful to look at perhaps the most famous speaker in the English language novel.

At some deeper levels of “stream-of-consciousness”—down towards what Cohn has called autonomous monologue, the ungrammatical and free reproduction of a character’s running mental processes—third-person narration (grammatically—not using I), (d)evolves into first-person present tense diction. So what prompts such a thing? When does a narration cross the borderline from one world to another? When, in short, does third become first, and when does it fall back again?

When thinking of how our minds work, moment-to-moment and day-to-day, it becomes apparent that our thoughts are not the orderly niceties of soliloquy or dramatic monologue; we do not think in complete sentences. Rather, consciousness is a sporadic, volatile place, where memory and thought tangle incessantly in, as Woolf put it, “an incessant shower of innumerable atoms.” (25)  We can perhaps half comprehend our own minds, and the people we once were. Such is life, especially inner life, where amongst logical progressions of thought fly like crosswinds on a precarious bridge glimpses of the past, imaginings of the future, arcane references and obscure allusions we at times can but only guess at.

And so, to the most dogged and idealistic practitioners of realist fiction, there comes a breaking point in close third-person narration where the diction and grammar of third-person past tense becomes untenable, ill-suited to the task at hand. It is a rare creature, Cohn’s autonomous monologue, but an illuminating and fascinating one. There is no better instance of it than the close of Ulysses, where Molly Bloom lies in bed and, quite simply, exists.

        make him want me thats the only way a quarter after what an unearthly hour I suppose theyre just getting up 
        in China now combing out their pigtails for the day well soon have the nuns ringing the angelus theyve nobody 
        coming in to spoil their sleep except an odd priest or two for his night office or the alarmclock next door at 
        cockshout clattering the brains out of itself let me see if I can doze off 1 2 3 4 5 what kind of flowers are those 
        they invented like the stars the wallpaper in Lombard street was much nicer the apron he gave me was like that
        something only I only wore it twice better lower this lamp and try again so as I can get up early Ill go to Lambes
        there beside Findlaters and get them to send us some flowers to put about the place in case he brings him home
        tomorrow today I mean no no Fridays an unlucky day first I want to do the place up someway the dust grows in
        it I think while Im asleep(26)

Joyce’s narrative entity is across the event horizon here, so close to its character that it has completely left the stage. There is no intermediary between Molly’s pure, unadulterated thoughts and the reader of Ulysses. We are, in “Penelope,” far closer to Molly’s interiority than she could ever bring us in the first person, even in present tense, as we have here unfiltered access—no bias, no discrimination, no hesitation. But at the same time it cannot be said in any real sense that Molly is “speaking to us”, that she is directing her thoughts “our” way: this is heterodiegetic narration. The narrative entity, to be sure, has all but recused itself from the task at hand, but it nonetheless provides the conduit by which we are granted access to Molly’s inner world. The narration, for whatever else can and cannot be said of it here, is surely not within the story. And thus, by borrowing Genette’s rather more precise terminology, we can see the point where a distinction between the first- and third-person breaks down, where point-of-view, that alpha and omega of literary fiction, does the almost impossible work of doing almost nothing, removing itself from the narrative act in order to create the most precise, realistic, and powerful narration possible.

The essay, I hope, has examined the dangers and demonstrated the differences between a discursive first-person and a close third-person narration, showcasing that while in the former, the character talking to someone (usually the reader), in the latter, the character talking (or thinking) to themselves. This affords the third-person much greater access to a character's interiority while retaining the fidelity sought after in realistic fiction. To the emerging writer—the kind we see so often in our slush piles, and whose makes up an essential part of what we publish at both West Trade and L’Esprit, it is paramount to understand the essential utility and protean functionality of point-of-view, to see that, somewhat paradoxically perhaps, fiction in the third-person can always achieve a closer, more honest, and more natural depiction of a character's mental state than can first. With this understanding, a writer working in either mode can fashion a point-of-view fit exactly to the needs of their piece, they may allow themselves to plunge directly into the heart of their story, trusting the authenticity of consciousness to guide the reader and propel the narrative. Reality, after all, is simply a question of appearances. 


(1) Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton Classics, 2013. Pp. 8
(2) Or history—see Dorrit Cohn’s excellent piece on some of these concepts, upon which I have drawn: “Signposts of Fictionality: A Narratological Perspective.” Poetics Today 11, no. 4 (1990): 775–804.(3)
(3) We have, for example, fabula/syuzhet; diegesis/mimesis; langue/parole; histoire/discours; story/discourse; récit/narration, and E. M. Forster’s refreshingly straightforward story/plot. For a nice primer to these terms, see The Living Handbook of Narratology.
(4) This is a bit of an oversimplification—it might be better to say that point-of-view is the tool by which a writer accesses and employs the effects granted by a certain narrative mode, a certain way of defining the two elements of fiction relative to each other, as opposed to other ways they might have been arraigned.
 (5) Despite what apparently all involved seem to think, there is in fact room and reason for the novelist to study literary theory.
 (6) Most people, for example, don’t paint or sculpt or play the violin every day.
 (7) While SOC is a family of techniques, not a single one, Joyce’s method in Ulysses and Finnegans Wake is traceable, as he freely admitted, to the rather unwieldy monologue intérieur of Édouard Dujardin’s 1888 novella Les lauriers sont coupés. If I may: "We'll To The Woods Once More," L’Esprit Literary Review, June 2022
(8) A word, if we must, on the second person: it almost never works. While there are always exceptions, as a general rule what is written in second would be better in first, and probably better still in a close third. If verisimilitude is the goal—to distill life via fiction into art—then the bare contrivances and garish scaffolding of the second person is usually fatal.
(9) Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms, Scribner, 2012. Pp. 23.
 (10) As much of this essay is, in effect, about bad writing (yes, such a thing exists, despite what the rampant positivity of our current times might imply. Ineffectual is really what we mean by bad, of course—fiction that does not succeed on its own terms, that fails to achieve its goals), I was in something of a quandary with examples. Truly bad writing doesn’t get published (much), and I thought pulling from the slush pile was a bit beyond the pale. So instead we’ll look at quotes that, while they are from excellent books, are illustrative of the extremes of point-of-view and its effects.
 (11) This certainly does not mean that most first-person narrators possess these attributes, simply that their narrative mode does.
 (12) Almost—we will, as all my critical work does, eventually come to Rachel Cusk.
 (13) Malone, Margaret. “Welcome to Samsara” in People Like You, Atelier23 Books, 2015. Pp. 135.
 (14) This line of argument about the declarative nature of the first-person I, and its associated effects on decision-making in narrative mode, derives from a brilliant point made by my L’Esprit Literary Review compatriot Jessica Denzer during a conversation we had about a piece found in our slush pile.
 (15) The blight that is first-person present tense is more fully dealt with in this essay’s companion, LINK
(16) Toole, John Kennedy. A Confederacy of Dunces, Grove Press, 1980. Pp. 152.
(17) Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Penguin, 1964. Pp. 7.
(18) It is important to emphasize that this point—and the entire essay—is engaged at the sentence-level, discussing risk-taking in style, not in story or content. That type of risk and experimentation is also very important, a focus of both journals with which I work along with many others, and can be done as well in the first- or third-person, but is simply not the topic at hand.
(19) As her protagonist is attempting to define and understand herself via filling her life and being in from an outline of a person, and achieves this through so precise and oblique a manner, the series is also my preferred example of the unification of the textual and narrative functions in a novel. I have written more about this here.
(20) Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse, Cornell University Press, 1980. Pp. 244-5.
(21) For her excellent discussion of many of the concepts found in the second half of this essay, see Cohn “Signposts of Fictionality”. Pp. 789-90; 793-94; 798.
(22) Cusk, Rachel. Arlington Park. Picador, 2008. Pp. 7.
(23) García Márquez, Gabriel. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Harper & Row, 1970. Pp. 11
(24) Homer, The Odyssey, Book IX.
(25) Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction” from The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 4: 1925 to 1928, McNeille, Andrew, Ed. The Hogarth Press, 1984. Pp. 160.
(26) Joyce, James. Ulysses, Penguin Random House, 2022. Pp. 930.

The Schemes of Poseidon: Point-of-View, Narrative Distance, and Risk-Taking in Contemporary Fiction

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D.W. White writes consciousness-forward fiction and criticism. Currently pursuing his Ph.D. in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he serves as Founding Editor of L’Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in 3:AMThe Florida ReviewAnother Chicago MagazineNecessary Fiction, and Chicago Review of Books, among others. Before returning to Chicago, he spent nine years in Long Beach, California. He’s on Twitter at dwhitethewriter.

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