I open this piece with an admission: The title is a thinly veiled conceit to allow me to discuss the limit to which a writer’s voice should intrude into their own writings. However, as I do have some minor gripes with Dickens, and to avoid being sanctioned under the Trades Description Act, I will deal with him first.
As I suspect that to some the mere idea of criticising Dickens is like committing literary regicide, let me first say that ‘A Christmas Carol’ is narratively perfect (as evidenced by how little the various recorded adaptations tend to vary from the source text). The beef I have with Dickens is the way he intrudes into his own stories with such monotonous regularity. To my mind for a ‘reader’ to be invested in a story, whether literary or theatrical, a certain suspension of disbelief is required for the duration. Dickens breaks the flow all too often, stopping to offer commentary on his own plot, as if he doesn’t trust his own narrative powers, only serving to remind you that what you’re reading is fiction. And while his comments are occasionally amusing, as when in ‘Oliver Twist’ he says with biting sarcasm, “What a noble illustration of the tender laws of England! They let their paupers sleep!” mostly I find it annoying.
Now, it may be that Dickens did this to appeal to his younger readers, but Philip Pullman manages not to be so patronising, so what’s stopping Dickens? The one thing he does do exceptionally well though is endings. ‘A Tales of Two Cities’, ‘Hard Times’, even ‘David Copperfield’, all are brought brilliantly to their conclusions. It’s just a shame that the reader is required to trudge through pages of turgid, staccato text to reach them. Give me Twain, Zola, or Dostoyevsky any day.
The only place where the author’s voice should be allowed to interfere is through a first person narrative. This is the choice which faces the writer, first person opinion versus third person omnipotence. Going to a concert, you accept a reduction in sound quality as the cost of seeing your music gods perform live. And with writing, the first person perspective is the sacrifice one is required to make to earn the right to express a subjective view. Either hover over a scene, narrating, but offering no opinion above a sub-textual level, or pick a character and get in the game. I would be here all day if I attempted to list every great first person novel, but ‘The Great Gatsby’, ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’, ‘Moby Dick’. ‘The Secret History’ and ‘Dracula’ are a random selection of the best. In ‘Frankenstein’ we have Captain Walton writing to his sister, telling her the story Victor Frankenstein had told to him, which at one point includes the monster’s tale as told to Frankenstein by the monster. Here we are at the limits of the first person perspective, for additional suspension of disbelief is required to accept the story was not modified in the retelling through second hand, even third hand accounts. For Mary Shelley it works, as it would not for less skilled narrators. Again, this is the decision which confronts the author.
George Orwell, near the end of his life, offered his take on the pros and cons of writing in the first person. Briefly, he states the pros to be that you can get a novel stated quickly and the reader is liable to believe anything told them by the ‘I’, as a narrator lends credibility. But the author is never really separate from the narrator, who ends up a three dimensional character in a world of 1d shadows. Moreover, as the tale is told from one person’s perspective, character’s end up being far more publically candid than they would be in real life. Finally, “there are many kinds of appeal that you can make on behalf of others, but not for yourself.1" In Orwell’s view, the pros are outweighed by the cons. Perhaps that’s why he only wrote one of his novels in the first person.
In defence of the first person perspective, I would have to point to any of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels. Marlowe is certainly their most three dimensional character, but then Marlowe would seem alive, vivid and vital in most any novel. The same can be said of the Sherlock Holmes stories, all but a handful of which are told from the point of view Dr Watson. The plots are mostly ludicrous, the clues on which Holmes solves cases bearing little relation to reality (see, ‘The Speckled Band’). Yet they are also highly enjoyable. Most detective tales are told from one particular point of view to lend the story a sense of mystery. Where is the mystery when the narrator has third person omnipotence? Readers of thrillers fancy to pit their wits against the story’s great detective. That thrill is lessoned where there is even a suggestion that the narrator knows (has always known) the solution. Which is of course is true of all fictional works. It just doesn’t do to remind the mystery reader.
As with Marlowe, so with ‘Jane Eyre’, or ‘Dracula’ (with its multiple first persons), while the other characters may not seem as vivid as the narrator(s), isn’t this a closer approximation of life? How many people are there in our lives that we have known for years, whole lifetimes even, yet still know little about? In the real world there are no omnipotent world views, even someone who believes in a higher power cannot claim to have seen from that lofty height. Kierkegaard believed that the only truly objective being was God: As He is omnipresent, so He is infinitely subjective, seeing from all perspectives. By this reasoning, tales told in the omniscient third person are a sham.
And I’m not having a go at Orwell. I admire the man greatly. Yet he wasn’t literature’s greatest novelist. As with Dostoyevsky and ‘Crime and Punishment’, read ‘Nineteen Eighty Four’ first, just to get it out of the way, safe in the knowledge that there are greater riches which await you. I have eulogised ‘Animal Farm’ in a previous essay, but it is with his non-fiction that Orwell outshines all other writers. ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, ‘Homage to Catalonia’, as well as his collected essays, these are the jewels in the Orwellian cannon. In non-fiction not to express a transparently subjective view is to be treated instantly with suspicion. George Orwell can never be accused of that. He was a man passionate in his beliefs and this passion pours from every journalistic passage he wrote. You don’t need to agree with every word (that would signify a lack of understanding), but you can admire the conviction with which he lived his life. Indeed, it is an ideal to which we would all do well to aspire.
I trust writers like Orwell, Naomi Klein and Chomsky, not because they are regarded as ‘left-wing’, but because they start out by letting you know that they are subjective creatures and from thence comes their passion. I don’t trust Fox News because it scans as ‘Fair and Accurate Reporting’, yet watch it for thirty seconds (laughing hysterically or merely agog, both work equally well) and you can draw your own conclusions. As Gutman says in that greatest of all third person novels, ‘The Maltese Falcon’, “I do like a man that tells you right out he’s looking out for himself. Don’t we all? I don’t trust a man that says he’s not.” As with all Murdoch ‘media’, only one person’s opinion is ever trumpeted. And yet it is usually Sun journalists that attack the likes of John Pilger for the personal style of their journalism, as if there’s is any other kind. Subjectivity is always preferable to being merely a subject.
A novel is a facade with which to tell a tale, the skilled writer can express a dozen different opinions and still not reveal his own. No such construct exists in non-fiction, even in the retelling of historical events. As Howard Zinn notes, history is an infinite series of events and to tell any historical account one must select from those events. That selection is always subjective (As Zinn says, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”) and anyone who claims objectively in this field should be asked to come back when they have a more honest reply. Historians are one of the most trenchantly subjective of all the professions, who obstinately insist on their own objectively, effectively rendering mainstream history stagnant (see for instance the received historical wisdom that because Hitler was evil, that gives carte blanche to absolve the allies of all their crimes). Such people, to paraphrase Gutman, are asses and asses that are “going contrary to the laws of nature.”
To conclude, I do actually like writing in the third person, I also like writing in the second person, they each have their particular uses. In ‘Modern Fable’ I used the third person together with a lack of inner voice to remove any sense of inner monologue for the fascists. In my series of letters, Epistles to the Foxnewsians, the second person makes obvious sense. I just believe in treating each voice with a little more respect. But then this is non-fiction, so this is subjective (for I am passionate too), so this is my personal opinion. You may love the way Dickens writes, and good for you if you do. I guess what I’m saying is he’s not always to my personal tastes. And yet I know I want to read ‘The Pickwick Papers’. But as I warned you, the conceit was always thinly veiled. In the words of Johnny Rotten: “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” But as Elwood Blues so perfectly replied, “What do y'all want for nothing? A rubber biscuit?”