More on Authorial Omniscience + InsideStorytime STUMBLING

Henry James, in an 1897 letter to Grace Noron, lamented that there is in Kipling “almost nothing of the complicated soul or of the female form or of any question of shades – which latter constitutes, to my sense, the real formative literary discipline.” He accuses Kipling of having descended “from the Anglo-Indians to the natives, from the natives to the Tommies, from the Tommies to the quadrupeds, from the quadrupeds, from the quadrupeds to the fish, and from the fish to the engines and screws.”

A narrator as confident as Kipling or Jack London can write from the point of view of a quadruped while also delivering a comprehensive, coherent view of the world. Part of the problem, of course, is that this magisterial approach is resonant of political tendencies we wish to distance ourself from. Although in fairness to Kipling, his Anglo-Indians, natives, Tommies, etc. actually do have complicated souls. Kipling recommends that “all men count with you, but none too much” -- keep sight of the big picture.

To write from an animal's viewpoint, you have to really feel you know how the world works. For James, the individual point of view is what counts – he gets inside a character, finds a subtle take on what's happened, rejects this for an even subtler take on what's happened... this anxious plumbing of ever-greater depths of subjectivity has its own satisfactions and frustrations. It's hard to imagine James writing from the viewpoint of a dog. He disliked the over-simplification required for feigned authorial omniscience -- and literary fiction to a considerable extent turned its back on Kipling and followed James. We might say that genre fiction was left to pick up the slack.

Tonight: InsideStorytime STUMBLING at San Francisco's Cafe Royale. Tonight Catherine Brady will be reading from her story collection The Mechanics of Falling, Nona Caspers from Little Book of Days, and Maria Espinosa from Dying Unfinished. Also reading will be Jarret Rosenblatt and William Ayers. With MC Ransom Stephens. Tell us you learned about the reading from this blog, and we waive the customary $3-$5 cover charge.

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3 thoughts on “More on Authorial Omniscience + InsideStorytime STUMBLING”

  1. Have you read Shklovsky’s piece on Tolstoy’s writing from the pov of the horse? Omniscience is a fun device to play with. I like your Jane Austen example in the previous post because you can (if you want) read sarcasm into it. The minute you have 21st C narrator saying “This is how the world works,” you’ve created an asshole. To manipulate this wisely, oh the power of writing!

  2. Funny – I actually do see why James would say that Kiplings’ writing contain “almost nothing of the complicated soul or of the female form or of any question of shades,” but he loses me on the descendants…

    I don’t, however, agree that writing well from an animal’s pov is impossible. I can’t imagine it’s very easy though!

  3. Irony is usually a way of pretending to divert attention from the fact we mean exactly what we say.

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