Not the center of the universe

I was talking recently with some writer friends about the lost art of omniscient narration. Today, they said, if you submit fiction to an MFA program that’s in third person, it’s considered shocking, avant-garde. Almost everything now is wrapped in a first-person perspective. Even articles that may have once been written as straightforward journalism are peppered with “I,” centered in the author’s voice.

We invest so much, as 21st-century readers, in the identity of the speaker. 

In our cultural moment, flooded with an endless stream of media, it has become imperative to know who the writer is, where they went to school, what they look like, and how they vote. Because we’re confronted with so much text all day long, it seems efficient to make snap judgments about an author’s biography before we invest in reading a piece. When a writer puts herself into the story, too, we perceive this as a credentialing, comforting gesture. We demand to know some surface-level facts about the author before we will deign to hear her story. 

I may be a naïve, old-fashioned English major, but I miss the detached writing of bygone eras. Returning to the omniscient voices of Tolstoy, Flaubert, or George Eliot is deeply refreshing to me. I yearn for the austere, deliberate journalism of decades past, written by the likes of John McPhee or the Pulitzer Prize–winning power couple Susan and Neil Sheehan, who would not dare to insert themselves into the stories they were relaying.

As my own writing suggests, however, it is far easier to place ourselves at the centers of the stories we tell. But what would it take for us to remove ourselves from the narrative? What is lost if we keep insisting that our point of view is the only way a story can be told?

To take a cue from Tolstoy, we lose the great benefit of exploring other perspectives. Consider how much less rich and gloriously multifaceted War and Peace would have been if Tolstoy had written it in first person. We’d only ever hear Natasha’s thoughts from a drawing room, which would frustratingly limit our grasp of the created universe. 

If we are so invested in storytelling from our exclusive vantage point, we grow blind to the ideas and motivations of others. Perhaps we ought to practice detaching ourselves more often: to consider that other stories, especially those that diverge from our own, might be just as worthy. 

Maybe my thoughts aren’t the fulcrum of the known world. Maybe other people have tales to tell too. Maybe I could be a vessel for other voices, if I could put myself aside for just a moment.

From this week’s issue of Story Matters

. . .

“Surely this is just the theme with which we began: the way an environment of high informational density produces people of low personal density. A world that seems to give us infinite choice actually makes choice nearly impossible: the informational context chooses for us. And what that means—Rousseau brings us something new here, something essential—is that our web of information determines what we love. Thus Saint-Preux: from day to day, ‘I cannot be sure what I will love.’”

— Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread With the Dead

. . .

Moses turned 2 on Mother’s Day, fittingly, and he seems to become more and more like a kid every day. Still has no idea what’s coming in a few months, that his charmed, solipsistic life is about to be totally upended by a little baby. It’ll be good for him (for all of us, I hope).