Author-Narrator-Character merge

There's an article in February's Writer's Chronicle (remember that?), a copy of which I swiped from that desk in the Dey House, by Frederick Reiken, who teaches writing at Emerson, called "The Author-Narrator-Character (ANC) Merge: Why Many First-time Novelists Wind up with Flat, Uninteresting Protagonists."

It begins by describing his first novel, which he wrote in close 3rd with 3 POV characters. No one would buy the thing. Comments boiled down to "We love the writing, blah blah beautiful, blah blah great descriptions, but we were bored and uninterested in the characters. It's almost like you're not seeing them."

He shelved it, wrote another that sold, started teaching. He then noticed that those comments were his very own when reading a lot ("at least half") of his student work. He identified the problem with merged, flat characters as

"...the narrative structure that occurs when an author, for reasons ranging from naivete to authorial narcissism (which often go hand in hand), fails to invent and/or reinvent -- i.e. in the case of autobiographical novels -- the main character, both visually and in relation to some objective external context. What is happening, unconsciously, is that the author has not separated himself or herself imaginatively from the character being written, and hence inhabits that character from the vantage point of being stuck inside the character, usually right behind the character's eyes."

But the character has to be "an other," a fully imagined creation separate from the author. He then goes on to detail the separation of author/narrator/character, very simply, like this:

Author (Narrator(Character))

The author is forever outside the text. The narrator provides context for the character. And the character is inside the story developing the action. He says this is true even in an autobiography and goes on, to my mind, to prove it. Using Catcher in the Rye as an example, he easily shows the separation of the here-and-now Holden as narrator from the back-then Holden and claims it is this distance that provides context for the reader to determine the meaning of the text, as well as derive the pleasure.

Now, this is a much more sophisticated analysis of point of view than the one Ethan espouses, for example, where the goal seems to be to climb as far into the character's head as possible, the infamous close 3rd -- which Reiken says is called free indirect discourse. Maybe Ethan in his own writing is able to unconsciously provide the narrative distance and so doesn't think to teach it.

It struck me as I read that the narrator provides the second "eye," making what would be a flat perspective into a 3-D one. It made a lot of sense to me. One other quote poked itself out to me:

"Most third-person narratives proceed with constant modulation of the psychic distance, moving like a camera eye between long-range establishing shots to very limited, close-range character POV, [and out again]. But in a case where the author has not fully imagined the point of view character -- often because the author has not yet truly conceived the character as a bona fide other -- the ANC relationship gets structured in such a way that there is little or no psychic distance between narrator and character, no way for us to see the character moving through a setting or situation, and hence, though unintentionally, what I am calling a merged affect."

Again, a subtler, more detailed view than the one I got from the Workshop.

He uses other examples, such as the fact that the Bloom sections of Ulysses are more vivid and engaging than the Stephen sections, speculating that Bloom is a better realized character because Joyce conceived him as an other, whereas he pretty much saw himself as Stephen Dedalus.

How many stories did we read and write with merged ANC? Countless, as I think back. Thoughts?


Jane said...

This is dead on. In fact, one of the things I found most frustrating about Ethan's instruction was the fact that he didn't seem to value the fact that zooming in and out of narrative distance is a big part of what makes character work. (It's not surprising that Ethan also said "there's no difference between the first person and the third person.")

He criticized a story of mine once for too much narrative distance from the main character at the outset of the story (a place where often, I think, narrative distance starts wider, like the opening shot of a movie -- an aerial or wide angle shot that gradually moves in closer. At least in my writing)

He said the story didn't start where he thought the main character (3rd person) would start telling the story if he or she was sitting in a bar telling it to a stranger. Which is absurd; that's not what literature is. If it was, we'd have a bunch of books that started "My wife is such a goddamn bitch. You wanna know what she did?"

ian said...

1) If you read Ethan's fiction — particularly his best work, the novellas "The Palace Thief" and "Accountant" — he has the narrative distance thing nailed.

2) Ethan's "sitting on a bar stool, talking to a stranger comment" is a metaphor. (Although, now that you mention it, many works of so-called literature might be improved by the opening line, "My wife is a goddamn bitch.") A story must begin at the moment where the author/narrator/character realizes s/he has a story worth telling. This could be a widescreen shot or an intimate moment.

3) By close third-person (and, by extension, first person), I've always thought Ethan meant not necessarily a breathless, "you-are-there" lack of psychic distance, but rather that the narrator or author simply thinks deeply about what the character would notice, not what would make a "literary" piece of writing. If the character would begin with a widescreen description of a mountain, then so be it.

Of course, I'm a well-known Ethan partisan, so I'm sure this won't change anyone's point of view.

Brando said...

Grendel, this is maybe the most helpful thing I have ever read on the Internets (all of them). Thanks for the post.

I also have to say that a story that begins with "My wife is such a goddamned bitch, you want to know why?" would probably put at least two paragraphs worth of premium into my interest tank. Although I much prefer this line:

Elaine: The pig says, "My wife is a slut."
Jerry: Now that's a complaint!

Pete said...

Yes, well. Pardon my feeling of deja vu.

My only problem with the concept of "deep imagination" is that it casts a net so wide that it can be vague. I think a lot of the arguments I (and others) have had with the concept have less to do with rejecting it than trying to pin it down within the larger concept of POV.

But what it means to me now is pretty simple: deep POV is a result of having total sympathy for a character while avoiding sentimentality and coddling. (Perhaps I'm just coming at Reiken's point from another angle: I think we are most inclined to sentiment and coddling when it comes to ourselves. If we cannot separate ourselves from our characters, this attitude extends to them).

kclou said...

When grading student essays--and at times, this is all I do--I often find that the biggest thing preventing the student from articulating his or her point clearly is the inability to recognize that what is perfectly clear in his or her head has been taken for granted in the writing of the essay. As literary criticism goes, this is a nightmare; you simply don't know what the student is attempting to argue. I don't think this is necessarily true of fiction writing, though, especially first-person fiction. I think good narrators often take a lot for granted; they assume the reader doesn't need much personal information to be engaged with the narrative, if the narrative is good enough. The way the narrator then tells the story tells the reader all he or she needs to know about the narrator. This seems to require two things, which are hard to come by: 1) Confident storytelling 2) Kickass story to tell. While I think Ethan's POV views can be simplistic, I do think that the idea of deeply imagining a character is good basic advice, in that offers story a priviliged position over narration, which I think can make narration more confident. I think of _American Pastoral_ where the narrator is so eager to tell/invent the Swede's story that the narration reads effortlessly. And isn't Zuckerman deeply imagining The Swede, once things get going?

Jane said...
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Jane said...

OK, now, I may be an Ethan detractor, but I AM aware that the barstool thing is meant as a metaphor! Just a little joke there, kids.

Of course it's of key importance to find the right moment from which to begin a story. But there's no hard fast rule that says it has to be the same place where the POV character would start it if he or she were telling the story himself. (If we're talking about 3rd person, which I am). That was the implication Ethan was making in the instance I'm talking about, and I disagree.

The narrator must have license to be a separate consciousness from the POV character if he or she chooses. Otherwise, they might as well just write in first person. (Oooh, there's a provocative statement if there ever was one!!)

Jane said...

There's another good article on narrative distance and point of view from a back issue of the Chronicle at:


ian said...

I apologize that my previous post was harsh in tone. It frustrates me, though, that during my time at Iowa Ethan was — and apparently remains — a whipping boy of sorts. Was his advice at times conservative and/or maddeningly vague? Yes: I got along very well with him but still wanted to punch him when he told me part of my story needed to be "more brilliant."

That said, I don't think his aesthetic is as prescriptive as many believe, nor does it somehow exclude narrative distance. Rather, I think in its way his aesthetic is speaking to the same concern the writer from Corbin's original post addresses. Take something like Remains of the Day. That is -deeply- imagined. The first-person narrator describes -exactly- what an expert butler would notice. And this not only deepens his character, but it provides the crucial ironic distance that's more or less the point of the book—or, certainly, essential to its effect.

Yet what's easier to teach? How to create a first-person narrator who doesn't realize a) his beloved, esteemed master is an anti-Semite, and b) a chance at love has passed him by - or - how to tell an interesting, compelling story from a deeply imagined POV and see what complexities arise organically from that? Hell, maybe Ishiguro had it all mapped out from the start. I'd like to think not, though.

As for third-person, and Ethan's infamously beloved close-third, I'll grant it's not to everyone's taste, and in the wrong hands can be suffocating. War and Peace would've sucked if the whole thing had been written in the close third-person. Yet there are parts of War and Peace where Tolstoi is breathtakingly deep inside his characters, conveying on one hand a nervous adolescent girl pining for her first love, on the other the mystical appeal of Free Masons to an otherwise layabout bourgie. It's a strategy, one of many necessary to write a work of any length and depth.

Where Ethan's advice gets skewed—and why it irritates me that so many of his students hold it against him, apparently—is that its importance as a strategy is intensified by the requirements of short fiction. It's difficult, I think, to pull off a short story of any depth or complexity when you aren't close to the character or characters. The importance of every detail is heightened, and if even a single detail isn't what a character would notice—or, from a more distant narrator's POV, a detail not revelant to the character or the story—it can torpedo the whole fucking thing.

Ok. So I'm done putting words in Ethan's mouth. I owe the guy a lot, though, so if you're going to criticize him—and please do: I'm thinking more clearly about my own work right now than I have in weeks, thanks to this debate—I'll have a word or two to share.

And Jane, if you're ever in St. Louis, drop me a line. I owe you a beer.

Jane said...

Dear Ian -- nothing would please me more than a beer in St. Louis with you, though I admit I don't get there too often. If you ever come to Boston, the offer stands on this end, too. You certainly have the right to defend a teacher from whom you learned a lot.

I learned a lot from Ethan, too, believe it or not. And I am an actually an admirer of his writing. I guess I just had trouble with how he packaged his teaching--as if it was scientific law instead of heartfelt, passionately believed-in advice. I guess Frank did the same thing, to some extent, but for some reason it didn't bug me as much. Who knows why?

Actually it's funny; looking back at the whole Iowa experience, I now wonder if my sometimes-hostile response to Ethan's teaching has more to do with my state of mind at the time in general than with him in particular. (Really, I think he's a good guy and like him a lot.)

I do however feel Ethan he was wedded to a certain aesthetic, and wasn't as open to other techniques and approaches as I would have preferred.

But I also don't really like cheesecake. And I've been told countless times that I'm crazy, and that cheesecake is objectively, undeniably good. So, I'm probably crazy.

I don't like olives either, but I wish I did.

Jane said...

please pardon all the typos in the above post, incidentally. I'm a little doped up on cold medicine at the moment...

Pete said...

What's hard about teaching writing, I think, is being able to tell the difference between hard, aesthetic fact, and passionate, personal advice. It's eerily like preaching; you have to believe the advice you give to be objectively true if it is to be worth saying at all. It's proscelytizing, in the best sense of the word.

The real boon for me at Iowa wasn't being convinced of anything in particular, but developing my own ideas via interaction with a whole pantheon of view points. (That, incidentally, is where the religious metaphor reaches it's limits, except maybe for Mormons, Hale Boppers and Unitarians.) At the heart is the paradox of all communication; you never know if what you're saying is precisely what is being heard. Of course, that goes the other way as well. And it's probably not as agentless as I make it sound. Personalities (and the compatibilities between them) play a part too.

(This feels a lot like group therapy, doesn't it? I feel like we're working through a lot here. Ethan, the absent patriarch, the silverback himself, has left a mark on all of us. Isn't there a Faulkner novel about this sort of thing?)

segall said...

As I Lay Workshopping. Ends with a pilgrimage to the Yacht Club. Pour out a little Mike's Hard Lemonade.

Good times...

Grendel said...

Yeah, I wasn't really trying to knock Ethan, just pointing out that his aesthetic is limited -- and he never pretended otherwise, I have to say. I got a lot out of his workshop. He's very good at dispensing tips and tricks, and of course it's a good thing to deeply imagine a character. But his take on writing is just one color in the spectrum, one that tended to obscure all other colors. It's almost as if his workshop was in close third person: deeply inside the view of one character -- Ethan.

His was the only workshop, though, in which I felt that sometimes my (and other people's) points were being summarily dismissed, and instead a consensus was being imposed through subtle intimidation, a kind of you're with me or against me feeling that was fueled by the simple fact of his power as an extremely good writer and the leader in the room. There was a political component to the atmosphere there that I didn't feel in the others. Still, I'd have to say I got a bigger heap of concrete, practical advice in his workshop than in the others. But it was limited to exploring a fairly narrow band of literary devices, to the exclusion of other, more narrator-driven techniques.

This discussion has clarified to me that I often am more interested in the narrator of a book than the protagonist. Take Lolita, one of my all-time favorites. Humbert as narrator is one of the most fascinating, satisfying, hilarious things I've ever come across in any piece of writing. Humbert as character ... despicable, pathetic man. The chasm between the two is what makes that book so delicious.

I just wish I'd learned more about the narrator in the workshop, but maybe that's what I'm doing now. Pete's right. The value of the workshop comes from constantly honing and articulating one's own esthetic by bouncing it off all the other opinions flying around.

Grendel said...

Also, thanks for the link, Jane! I like that article, too.

PJKM said...

To add a little (or possibly nothing) to this conversation: a teacher's personal preference for writing in the close third person shouldn't discourage his or her students from experimenting with the full range of the third-person point of view.

Third person, as we all know, allows us to move from omniscient into multiple close POVs: it's that flexibility that makes it so fabulous. Reading "Runaway", the title story in the new Alice Munro collection, is a great reminder of this - characters can be described by the narrative voice without waiting for some other character to oblige (or for the character in question to look in a bathroom or rearview mirror, or some other chestnut of a reflective surface).

Perhaps the thing that chafed some members of various workshops (Ethan's, Frank's, Marilynne's, etc) was the apparently proscriptive nature of the advice, especially if we entered the workshop interested in exploring and expanding our range rather than learning a set of rules.

TLB said...

The funny thing is, Ethan (from whom I learned a great deal, and owe much to, despite the worst ass-whupping of my life I got in his class) espouses the close third, especially in regard to Alice Munro's stories, which he often used as examples, but reading some of those same stories over again, it was clear to me that she zooms out and jumps around as much as she wants, breaking every rule Ethan ever had as she goes. The close third does not limit the writer unless s/he feels limited by it; in the best hands it's supple and varied.

These days I feel that the so-called "rules" were really guidelines, in Ethan's class, Frank's, and others, and maybe they took for granted that we knew that. When you're in the workshop, it's easy to feel that the advice you get is set in stone, but I think as we all write more and more we'll know what to use and what to forget. Hell, if Ethan and Frank and Marilynne knew it all, they would be writing more books.

PJKM said...

Very true, TLB - the main things I remember from workshops are "it's only eight pages" and "Kundera is a fraud".

I also have my list of gonzo alcholics to refer to anytime my memory gets hazy.

dunkeys said...

(A few small, late comments)

If I remember, the author of that WC article says that even though the Bloom sections of Ulysses are stronger than the Stephen ones, the Stephen ones are still really good, only because Joyce himself was a genius and therefore interesting (and so avoided being a boring character).

This observation shifts the author's equation to:

*Boring* Author (Narrator(Character))

And when you have a stupid equation like that, the subjectivity is exposed, and the logic comes tumbling down. Who defines 'boring'? _On the Road_ is a perfect example of author/narrator merge; I think it's a terrifically dull novel; many don't. Is the character Sal interesting? I say no. Others disagree. The argument could go on forever. This could apply to SO many books that it's hardly worth delving into, but here are a couple examples: _The Moviegoer_ seems pretty flat in terms of story, and I'd guess that Percy and Binx merge . . . but I think the weird introspective Binx is interesting, even if all he does is go to movies.

Has anyone here read Gilead yet? On the surface, of course, Ames (narrator) is far different from Marilynne. But I don't think it's a stretch to say he's really a mouthpiece for her. Is this a good thing? A bad thing? The answer lies in personal reader preferences. It's not 'right' that she and Ames merge; it's not 'wrong.' It's whether or not you like the book . . . and then what we always do, as readers, is backfill our emotional subjective responses with logical reasoning. And so pretend we're rational.

This is what drives me mad about Writer's Chronicle articles: they all attempt to serve up a truth about fiction. And I'm pretty sure there aren't any. That's why I like what Pete said about the difficulty of teaching writing . . . it seems to me that the most honest way to 'teach' is to couch everything in the subjective, and just do a very honest job of explaining your opinions while remembering they're just that. Generally, a good teacher will have MUCH BETTER REASONS for his/her opinions than the students in the class, and that is often the value in a workshop class: learning how other people see/think about fiction.

Ian wrote, "Yet what's easier to teach? How to create a first-person narrator who doesn't realize a) his beloved, esteemed master is an anti-Semite, and b) a chance at love has passed him by - or - how to tell an interesting, compelling story from a deeply imagined POV and see what complexities arise organically from that? Hell, maybe Ishiguro had it all mapped out from the start. I'd like to think not, though."

I disagree with Ian quite a bit: I think the former is by far the easiest of the two. Because it begins with organization rather than relying on serendipity; because, in the revision stage, the central concept is already there, so there is a place to revise toward, rather than face the risk of having a story that has gone in a 'new' direction . . . and that may go in a new direction again, and again, and again. (Note: I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with writing from a pov and seeing what happens; I just think the other way is more efficient, generally.)

I also think Nabokov was dead-on when, after being asked about how much *control* he has over his characters (as in, does he just write and 'see' what happens next?), said succinctly, "My characters are galley slaves."

It's funny that Kevin mentions _American Pastoral_ as an example of Ethan's dictum, as Zuckerman is 'deeply imagining the Swede.' Because that 'deep imagining' of the Swede is entirely artificial, of course. Roth is writing the story; he's always there, dwelling on the outside. I'd bet that he began with the story with the Swede, in fact, and then incorportated the Zuckerman narrative only because it served his thematic purposes -- not the other way around. He's a writer who seems to begin with theme, not luckily happen upon it. It'd be interesting to know for certain, though.

(all that is just my opinion, of course)

cj said...

Sorry to intrude (I am class of '98, but still live in I.C. and am friends with El Gordo and Michelle '04), but I can shed a little light on one thing. When I was in the workshop Ishiguro came to read (from, I think, The Unconsoled). Frank had, of course, been urging us to take our cues from the story as it unfolded, and not to try to force the story to fit a predetermined plan. At the same time, Frank was a big fan of Ishiguro's, sometimes holding up The Remains of the Day as an illustration of successful first-person narrative. During the Q&A after the reading, someone asked Ishiguro to what extent he knew in advance what course his stories would take. (In my memory, the questioner specifically asked about Remains of the Day, though I don't trust myself on that point.) His answer was, basically, that he had mapped it all out in advance.

This was a long time ago now, and my characterization of Ishiguro's response may be a bit distorted by the fact that we all enjoyed the idea of Frank's advice being contradicted by an author he had held up as exemplary. The Workshop must have a tape of the reading, if anyone's really curious; it must have been around 1997 or so.

My other memory is of someone later asking Frank what he thought about Ishiguro's response. Frank stuck to his conviction that mapping it all out in advance was a recipe for bad fiction, and said that Ishiguro couldn't really have meant it the way it sounded. Classic Frank . . .

dunkeys said...

That's awesome. I very much wish I could have been there. Nothing like refusing to be contradicted!