Do we Miss Authorial Omniscience?

I just read Jack London's The Call of the Wild. I'm struck, considering that London is here mostly writing in the close third person viewpoint of a dog, at how good he also is at being omniscient. Any time a new dog, moose, or man appears in the story, London sizes up their fitness to survive -- and his estimates, of course, are invariably borne out by subsequent events. One character, Hal, and his brother-in-law are marked for an early death by Hal's ostentatious belt “that fairly bristled with cartridges” --

"This belt was the most salient thing about him. It advertised his callowness – a callowness sheer and unutterable. Both men were manifestly out of place, and why such as they should adventure the North is part of the mystery of things that passes understanding.”

This is very satisfying. A bad writer couldn't bring Hal off -- he's every bit as alive and three-dimensional a character as he needs to be, but now a whit more. And we can see his belt so vividly. Sure enough, he turns out to be the kind of greenhorn who ignores the locals when they warn him the ice is about to crack.

London is at his most Kiplingesque in The Call of the Wild, a book that tells you, this is how the world works, here's everything you need to know. There are a few movies that deliver this kind of life's like this comprehensive certainty -- “The Seven Samurai” and “The Godfather” come to mind. One can perhaps think of these movies as having omniscient directors?

A hundred years ago or so, writers of literary fiction began distancing themselves from this kind of effect, so that it's now found only in genre fiction. Patrick O' Brian has the kind of authorial authority I'm talking about, as does Lee Child. But while nobody would accuse Vladimir Nabokov or Mark Helprin of being insufficiently opinionated, or of lacking conviction, the worlds they deal in are nonetheless built up of multiple incommensurate radical subjectivities. They don't try to simplify reality, or to make it seem more understandable than it is -- this refusal has come to be part of what we mean by being literary.

Part of the attraction of Jane Austen is that she deals in truths universally acknowledged. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Jackie Collins also deals in such truths, as does Sex and the City, a collection of dating columns by Candace Bushnell, wherein it is a truth universally acknowleged that a woman living in Manhattan will only have sex with a man if he makes over $200,000 a year, and that he won't call her the next day. The Call of the Wild and Sex and the City provide a similar sort of vicarious experience, of being forced into subjection, obliged to learn the rules of a harsh, immutable realm. Many readers go for that sort of thing. Universally acknowleged truths are hokum, but fun.

6 thoughts on “Do we Miss Authorial Omniscience?”

  1. Balzac and Stendhal, like Dickens, were both great at omniscience. People are always telling me Le rouge et le noir is horribly written, and I wonder if it’s because of the omniscient narrator (or bad translations — or perhaps they’re right and I simply have no taste).

    The narrators of Balzac and Stendhal often make ridiculous unwarranted generalizations (as does Carrie Bradshaw), but I don’t mind because I feel I know these voices — imaginative, opinionated, hidebound, sometimes brilliant (well, not so much Carrie). In the end, a traditional omniscient narrator isn’t so different from an unreliable first-person narrator. There’s no attempt at effacing the author’s biases, so you always know where you stand, for better or worse. Whereas you might read one of O’Connor’s stories and have no idea the author was deeply religious.

    And omniscient narrators do always seem to take that role of shepherding the naive reader through an “immutable realm,” which ends up giving you a brief illusion of superior knowledge, too. (Ultimately you only learn more about a tiny corner of French history or English mating customs or whatever, but it’s still satisfying.)

  2. Re: “Sex and the City, a collection of dating columns by Candace Bushnell, wherein it is a truth universally acknowleged that a woman living in Manhattan will only have sex with a man if he makes over $200,000 a year, and that he won’t call her the next day.”

    Ahem! Carrie dated Aiden, a carpenter who probably made about as much as she did when they first met (and she is a starving writer type). Miranda (the loaded successful lawyer) married a bartender. Samantha dated a waiter/actor who she turned into a star AFTER dating him!

    I would say that you got the moral of Sex and the City all wrong James! 🙂

  3. Maybe those things happen in the movie version — if so, the movie is very unfaithful to the spirit of (what I’ve read so far of) the book.

  4. Movies always do that. The ending of the movie “He’s Just Not That Into You” also betrayed its own basic premise. Same deal with the Robert Morley movie based on Stephen Potter’s lifesmanship books.

  5. From Primo Levi's The Periodic Table —

    "If you do not begin as a child, learning how to steal is not easy; it had taken me several months before I could repress the moral commandments and acquired the necessary techniques, and at a certain point I realized (with a flash of laughter and a pinch of satisfied ambition) that I was reliving — me, a respectable little university graduate — the involution-evolution of a famous respectable dog, a Victorian, Darwinian dog who is deported and becomes a thief in order to live in his Klondike Lager — the great Buck of The Call of the Wild."

    Is it not astonishing that, in Auschwitz, Levi could have recalled London's work with pleasure? This must be a testament to something.

  6. Your original point here is like something Cynthia Ozick wrote in her book Art & Ardor (she is praising Thomas Hardy) — "And though we may not, cannot, turn back to the pre-Joycean 'fundamentalist' novel, it is about time it was recognized that too much 'subjectivity' has led away from mastery…"

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