By Christine Sunderland
We are told to write from close third person point of view. This is the POV of choice for today’s audience and publishers. And yet I notice from time to time a yearning for omniscient POV, among readers as well as writers, perhaps a nostalgic yearning for a time when the storyteller knew everything, saw everything from on high, as God would. A day when, truth be told, questions had answers.
That is, after all, how fiction was born. It grew out of nonfiction, personal accounts that expanded into storytelling. Boccaccio’s The Decameron, an early example (mid-fourteenth century), is a collection of ten stories told by Florentines escaping plague in the city, told as though they were true accounts. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (late fourteenth century) is a collection of tales told by pilgrims journeying to Canterbury. So, in a sense, these works are nonfiction.
For centuries fiction was not regarded as respectable as nonfiction, since it was deemed not to be true. But sometime in the nineteenth century the novel outgrew this stigma with works by Austen, Trollope, and Dickens. Even so, the narrator’s omniscience structures these stories, with occasional commentary, giving the appearance of a true story: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man of good fortune must be in want of a wife.” This opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is clearly the narrator’s voice and not Elizabeth Bennet’s. And so the reader trusts the author, an omniscient narrator who will see and tell all. Today, to be published, Jane Austen would have to write, “Elizabeth Bennet firmly believed (often considered, wondered, etc.) that it was a truth…”
Some have commented that when the Western world lost faith in an omniscient God, it lost faith in an omniscient narrator as well. Relative truth replaced objective truth, which, in the end, means that truth does not exist, it’s all in your head, personal. As Christians, we know this isn’t true. Truth is the bedrock of our faith.
And so over the last century nonfiction has become personalized just as fiction has become interiorized. I find this troubling, but true. And I’m not sure what the antidote is, for art reflects culture. Or is it the other way around? Does art have a responsibility to affect the culture? Do Christian artists have such a mandate? This may be a truth (far from) universally acknowledged.
I would like to see Christian publishers encourage the return of the omniscient POV and welcome a little moralizing such as we see in Thackeray, Dickens, Trollope, and Austen. Unfortunately, writers today cannot forge this trail without losing their agent and publisher. With close third-person, or first person POVs, we encourage the belief that all is personal and relative; we relativize truth; at times we mummify and bury it.
Cultural relativism was largely birthed by the Reformation’s Wars of Religion (1524-1628). The reaction to those years of iconoclastic violence and purging pogroms is known as the Enlightenment (or Endarkenment, depending on your point of view). To keep the peace, it was thought, it was wise to distance oneself from belief, separate religion from daily life, confine it to a Sunday. Cool reason ruled and was defined (sadly and untrue) as faith’s opposite. Today, with the rise of Islamic terrorism, we hear the argument again, one that bullies religion underground.
We are told not to moralize or preach. My own novels do so in spite of this injunction, and I am grateful to the publisher that looked kindly upon them. They are not omniscient, but close third person, for I haven’t been brave enough to venture that far. But they are didactic and polemic, I will admit, with a growing fan base. My characters are the essayists, pausing to consider mere history and mere faith and mere truth, in relation to the story. But we are told not to pause and consider, not to make judgments.
Thomas Mallon wrote recently in a review of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (Wall Street Journal, August 22) how Thackeray through his omniscient narrator moralizes in essays placed outside the narrative of his novels. In other words, he preaches. Mr. Mallon, a novelist, wonders “whether this great work’s essential feature, its assertive and essayistic storyteller, has any chance of being resuscitated in contemporary fiction… to overthrow 167 years of intervening literary form and custom and save the novel from its own Waterloo by accepting reinforcement and rescue from the essay.”
I wonder too. If assertive opinion is brought back to life, it’s a great opportunity for the birth of the Christian apologetic novel. The time, I fear, has passed for subtlety, symbol, and allegory in the tradition of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy L. Sayers, or Gilbert Keith Chesterton, although novels in this tradition will always be appreciated.
But let’s not fear writing about today’s cultural collapse in fictional form. Let’s encourage great expectations in this secular age that we can rebuild and redeem our world with an educated Christian electorate. Authors and publishers may find that many are hungry for truth portrayed in a serious literary novel of mere morals.
Christine Sunderland is author of five award-winning novels: Pilgrimage, set in Italy, Offerings, set in France, Inheritance, set England, Hana-lani, set in Hawaii, and The Magdalene Mystery, a quest for the true Mary Magdalene and the historicity of the resurrection, set in Rome and Provence. Her novel-in-progress, The Fire Trail, about the renewing of our civilization, is set in Berkeley, California. She serves as Managing Editor for the American Church Union (www.AmericanChurchUnion.com) and Project Manager for the Berkeley Center for Western Civilization (www.WesternCivCenter.org). Visit Christine at www.ChristineSunderland.com (website and blog).