June 13, 2012

The Objective Narrator, or the Merged Narrator

Two-face, by Bruce Timm

A recent book deal posted on Publisher’s Marketplace (by my lovely agency):
Professor of History and Director of the Institute of African Studies at Emory University Clifton Crais's HISTORY LESSONS: A Family Memoir of Madness, Memory, and the Wonders of the Brain, part memoir, part narrative science and part detective story, using the tools of his training as a historian, the author reconstructs his own personal history, and examines the neuroscience of memory and forgetting, from the ways in which experience shapes the developing brain to the mechanisms that cause the chronic childhood amnesia from which he suffers, to Dan Crissman at Overlook, by Jessica Papin at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management (World English).
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it?

But what really struck me about this description was the narrative stance of the book.  It’s a memoir, so it’s about personal things, yet Crais also brings in his expertise and gives an “unbiased, objective” point of view.

Just to be clear.  Every book has a narrator.  It represents the storyteller’s voice in the text, but it is not the author ~ even in books with narrator’s named the same as the author.  It is a creation, a character.  In journalism and nonfiction, it’s that even-toned voice we know so well that we don’t even think of as a voice.  In third-person fiction, the narrator is sometimes very prominent, hopping from head to head and telling us what to think.  In first-person, the narrator and the protagonist are merged.*  (For a fabulous piece on narrators, read “The Author-Narrator-Character Merge: Why Many First-time Novelists Wind up with Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists” by Frederick Reiken in the AWP Writer's Chronicle, 2004-05, Volume 37, no. 4, p. 55.)

This makes me think about the many manifestations of the objective narrator. We’re used to the objective narrator in journalism and nonfiction ~ the “unbiased” voice that gives it to us straight.  It inspires confidence in its approach, and we believe what it says.

But the above deal post made me think about the objective narrator in forms of memoir and fiction.  Memoir and fiction are all about point of view, about the personal experience, and so we don’t often think of the narrator as being objective.  But often the best memoir has a narrator that is both deeply invested but also pulls out her professional or scientist hat too.  The above description is a good example.  It enriches the work if the narrator gives context as well as personal experience.

And we see the more personal tone much more in nonfiction these days ~ sort of an acknowledgement that the world is subjective.  The narrator ~ most often identified as the author ~ addresses the reader. 

Handling your narrator is very tricky.  You don’t want to overmanage, and the omniscient narrator is out of fashion, but you don’t want to have no narrator at all.  Your reader wants to feel sure that he is in good hands.  That’s where a seemingly objective narrator comes in handy.

Even though we live in an age of irony and skepticism and Everything's an Argument (a book about rhetoric), we still need a narrator.  And it helps as a writer to be very knowledgable and deliberate about our narrative choices.

It would take a book itself just to sufficiently address the subject.

*Although not totally merged. See Reiken's great essay for more detail. Sorry ~ it's not online.

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