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Craft Notes & Reviews

Writing in Plain Sight: The Author, the Narrator and the Difference (if any)

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When fiction reading is going well for me, I translate the words into something that’s both fiction and non-. Take the novel The Name of the World by Denis Johnson, which I read recently for the first time. Here’s the first paragraph:

Since my early teens I’ve associated everything to do with college, the “academic life,” with certain images borne toward me, I suppose, from the TV screen, in particular from the films of the 1930s they used to broadcast relentlessly when I was a boy, and especially from a single scene: Fresh-faced young people come in from an autumn night to stand around the fireplace in the home of a beloved professor. I smell the bonfire smoke in their clothes and the professor’s aromatic pipe tobacco, and I feel the general unquestioned sweetness of youth, of autumn, of college—the sweetness of life. Not that I was ever in love with this scene, or even particularly drawn to it. It’s just that I concluded it existed somewhere. My own undergraduate career stretched over six or seven years, interrupted by bouts of work and transfers to a second and then a third institution, and I remember it all as a succession of requirements and endorsements. I didn’t attend the football games. I don’t remember coming across any bonfires. By several of my teachers I was impressed, even awed, and their influence shaped me as much as anything else along the way, but I never had a look inside any of their homes. All this by way of saying it came as a surprise, the gratitude with which I accepted an invitation to teach at a university.

I relate strongly to the narrator, who we learn later is named Michael Reed. The amount of emotional overlap between Michael’s and my life is scary. I too held similar images of academic life, for me perhaps set in the fifties and involving more letterman sweaters, but the same otherwise. Like the narrator, it took me six or seven years to finish college, and involved three transfers. I was also impressed by my teachers, and I also never imagined seeing the insides of their homes. This is exactly what I look for in a novel reading experience, a character who’s as much like me as possible, and telling his—our—story with a compelling, authoritative voice. Telling me, in short, about me.

But at least as important as my strong relationship to the narrator is the strong relationship I feel to the author. I read the above sentences, and I feel like I know the narrator’s shadow figure, Denis Johnson, very well. How can one write of this bucolic college tableau, “Not that I was ever in love with this scene, or even particularly drawn to it,” and not on some level feel the same way? I think of actors, who have to find something relatable in every character they play, even reprehensible ones. Can a writer fake this stuff? If he can’t, then what’s really the difference between Michael Reed and Denis Johnson?

And still there’s a third level in which I feel a deep connection to this work. As a writer myself, I feel a strong professional connection to the author for these perceived overlaps in our histories and psyches. Denis Johnson is a successful—even world-class—writer, and I hope that these emotional/biographical similarities mean that I somehow—despite all evidence to the contrary—am on some kind of path to a literary career. This guy is just like me, and he won the National Book Award! I can’t help but hope, despite my age, lack of comparable publishing success and absence of completed work as riveting as, say, Jesus’ Son, that I am somehow in the same game as Denis Johnson.

So The Name of the World hit me squarely because I relate to the narrator, and the writer, and because I want to succeed like the writer has succeeded. In other words, I’m about as perfect an audience for this novel as there is.

In all my exploration of writers and writing (B.A. in English, M.F.A. in Writing, 25 years of near constant reading and writing outside of class), I’ve rarely heard anyone mention this third, professional angle to readerly empathy. I suspect this is because, back when I was in school, writers still entertained the idea that most of their audience would come from actual readers and not other writers. There were of course “writers’ writers” back then, or those authors who were read almost exclusively by other writers—David Foster Wallace comes to mind. But I still think we were largely in the Saturday Evening Post romance of the reader/writer relationship, that is, educated people sitting down with books and magazines and being sucked in by written pieces. The author Gary Shteyngart gets credited for having said, “The number of people who read serious literature is now exactly equal to the number of people who write it.” Maybe an exaggeration, but probably the healthiest angle from which to come at a literary writing career in 2014.

Despite my deep interest in the writer of The Name of the World, I wouldn’t like the book as much if it were memoir. Imagine if the first sentence of the intro paragraph were “Hi, I’m Denis Johnson,” and “Denis Johnson” replaced “Michael Reed” throughout. I would still be interested in the book, and I’d probably read it and relate to it deeply at points. But I could never fully imagine myself into the narrator’s plight the way I can with the novel The Name of the World. In other words, the memoir The Name of the World would never quite be about me and Denis Johnson the way the novel is. The fiction tag allows Johnson, or any writer, to play both hands: he can utilize a fictional narrator, which allows the reader more leeway to see herself in the character, and he can titillate with suggestions of autobiography, which allows the reader to form empathy with the writer. Somehow these two readerly perspectives aren’t contradictory. The narrator of The Name of the World is both Michael Reed and Denis Johnson, and I’m fine with that.

But what if a writer doesn’t want this blurred line between writer and narrator? What if she wants to remove herself entirely from the narrative, keeping as much attention on the characters as possible? Many have tried. Gustave Flaubert was famous for his attempts to remove his authorial presence. Here’s the first paragraph of Madame Bovary: “We were at prep, when the Head came in, followed by a new boy not in uniform and a school-servant carrying a big desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every boy rose to his feet as though surprised in his labours.”

What ostensibly do we know about the narrator? We know he’s in prep school, we know he’s probably a boy, and we know he’s concerned about this new boy. That’s really it. There are no declarations, here or as the novel progresses, about how he feels about any of this. The solemn “we” is meant to speak for all the boys in the class, further obscuring the narrator, and Flaubert quickly abandons this first person plural point of view for an even more removed omniscient third person for the rest of the novel. I get the impression Flaubert is waving us away from himself, “Keep moving. Nothing to see here,” which always makes me wonder why I’m not supposed to look. Such obstruction seems silly to me. I always know Madame Bovary was written by somebody, and it’s only natural to want to know more about the soul behind the words. It can’t help but lead to a better understanding of the work.

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Even though the examples above are from the first person (singular and plural) points of view, there’s no way for the author to hide even in third person narratives. The novel Rabbit, Run by John Updike starts like this:

Boys are playing basketball around a telephone pole with a backboard bolted to it. Legs, shouts. The scrape and snap of Keds on loose alley pebbles seems to catapult their voices high into the moist March air blue above the wires. Rabbit Angstrom, coming up the alley in a business suit, stops and watches, though he’s twenty-six and six three. So tall, he seems an unlikely rabbit, but the breadth of his white face, the pallor of his blue irises, and a nervous flutter under his brief nose as he stabs a cigarette into his mouth partially explain the nickname, which was given to him when he too was a boy. He stands there thinking, The kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.

Most of the paragraph unravels with a narrative distance of Madame Bovary, but those last two clauses (“The kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.”) seem to invite the reader to imagine both a character and a writer who feel this way. Like The Name of the World, I don’t know how Updike can write such a line and not on some level believe it. I feel these instances touch both the character’s and writer’s souls, and it’s when I relate most to the work.

Seemingly throwing up his hands at this issue, in the novel Operation Shylock, Philip Roth writes from the point of view of a character named Philip Roth. The two have the same name, the same history, have written the same books and know some of the same people, yet the work is fiction. Further, there’s a Philip Roth impersonator in Shylock, and the plot of the novel centers around the narrator Philip Roth going to Israel to stop the charlatan Philip Roth. This almost complete mirroring of the writer in the fictional narrator all but demands the reader see the narrator’s thoughts and feelings as the writer’s. I can’t help but believe Shylock is Roth’s meta-response to author-narrator transference: “What the hell. You’re just going to think it’s me anyway.”

Of course, none of these writers has to have a fictional narrator. In memoir, the writer is the narrator, as in U and I by Nicholson Baker, in which the author chronicles his literary obsession with John Updike. In the passage below, Baker imagines the anxiety of writing a long piece about Updike for The Atlantic:

The prospect of writing a commissioned article about Updike was very frightening; not as frightening as the prospect of his death, but almost—more frightening, that is, than the prospect of my own death. I had almost no idea what I was going to be able to say, only that I did have things to say. And Updike could react, feel affronted, demolish me, ignore me, litigate. A flashy literary trial had some fantasy appeal, except that I would burst into tears if cross-examined by a moderately skillful attorney.

Like The Name of the World, I relate very much to the anxieties of the protagonist. We are both writers who hold John Updike in a special—perhaps unhealthy—regard. I also can see the appeal of writing such a piece for The Atlantic,  the resulting “flashy literary trial,” and I can imagine bawling on the witness stand under cross examination. All this, and the protagonist is a real person! The memoirist’s greatest tool to hooking a reader’s attention is the fact he is also the main character of the story. No more of the cutesy peek-a-boo—“I’m here, I’m not”—of the novelist. “This is me,” the memoirist says. “Take a good look.”

Considering my desire to see behind the curtain of the narrator, the memoir form should be exactly what I want, but I feel like the effect is both a gain and a loss for the genre. It’s a gain because the writing takes on a vitality that fiction can never quite know. “Can you believe this person is telling me this?” But as much as memoir makes it easier to get a reader’s attention, it loses something by sacrificing the metaphoric level of fiction. I relate greatly to Baker’s concerns above, but what of the reader who doesn’t like or even know of John Updike? There’s a sense that the memoir writer must be more on-the-nose than the novelist, that his concerns must match up more directly with the reader’s for the reader to empathize. With fiction, there can be some areas between character and reader that don’t overlap; I’ve never been close to being hired at a university, but that’s not necessary for me to relate greatly to Denis Johnson’s first paragraph in The Name of the World. As much as my thoughts and feelings coincide with Michael Reed’s, many of our actual experiences are quite different, and yet I still engage with the work.

That’s where the power of fiction truly lies: Despite my wanting to know more about the novelists who write the novels I love, reading one isn’t the act of me learning about the writer’s life. It’s a metaphoric meeting place outside both writer and reader where the two come together. The novel can bridge further physical, cultural, emotional and experiential points, creating a connection that feels deeper. “Look at how different we are on the outside, how similar on the inside.”

Writers shouldn’t be looking for narrators to hide behind but to understand the effects their narrator choices have on the reader, and to make decisions accordingly. If the writer’s story is the whole point, and the writer doesn’t mind being front and center, then it’s best to employ memoir (or its longer sibling autobiography). Still, memoir can limit the universality of the reading experience. While fictionalizing a work puts it more readily in the realm of the universal, some readers are always going to be interested in the authorial presence lurking behind the narrative. The choice of point of view in fiction can alter the amount of this presence. A first person point of view (The Name of the World) keeps the author in the fiction to the greatest degree with third person (Rabbit, Run) the more distant mode, although even it doesn’t provide perfect cover. Having a detached third person narrator (most of Madame Bovary) leaves only the vaguest shadow of the author, but it’s still there, if only in its conspicuous absence. While fiction may always on some level be a disguise, its imaginative elements invite us to contemplate why the writer bothered to imagine them at all, and therefore, perhaps, to know him best.

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Art Edwards: Badge, the third installment in Art Edwards’s ten-rock-novel series, was a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s Literary Contest for 2011. His first novel, Stuck Outside of Phoenix, was made into a feature film. His shorter work has appeared in The Writer and Salon, among many others.

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