The Narrator Behind the Curtain

This is the next part in an ongoing series on a writing style I’m calling Novelization Style. It may not make much sense unless you’ve read Part One and Part Two.

If you look back at the first post in this series you’ll notice that I identified the narrative voice that opens The Haunting of Hill House not as “Shirley Jackson” but just “the narrator.” I don’t know that the omniscient narrator of The Haunting of Hill House_ bears any resemblance to the literal Shirley Jackson. There’s a concept in criticism called the implied author. It’s a mental image of a work’s author composed of traits and opinions you, the reader, infer from the text. In other words, the implied author is the kind of person you think wrote the story, judging purely from the story. It may not have anything to do with the actual person. For instance, my implied author version of Robert Heinlein resembles Foghorn Leghorn.

The implied author is not necessarily the narrator. The narrator of The Left Hand of Darkness is Genly Ai; the implied author is the idea you get from reading it of Ursula K. Le Guin. Of course, in that novel the first-person narrator is a character (which can be an actual named character, or just a narrator with a personality–for instance, the narrator of Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel The Slynx is just a nameless third person narrator, but speaks the language of the novel’s fictional world). In a book like The Haunting of Hill House, in which the narrative voice is just… well, a narrative voice, it’s entirely practical to treat the narrator and the implied author as the same thing. (I’m pretty sure the narrator of Terry Pratchett’s novels is Terry Pratchett.) A narrator and an implied author are alike in that they have points of view and opinions, and make assumptions.

A recurring discussion in SF criticism revolves around defaults–the cultural and material details a story assumes go without saying. What customs, lifestyles, habits, and technologies do our stories treat as normal? What do they treat as alien? What don’t they think to imagine could even be different at all? Every story makes assumptions about the way the world works, but in a genre full of imagined worlds these questions take on extra significance.

Failure to question assumptions is a basic hazard of SF. A lot of “golden age” SF projected mid–20th century gender roles into the future, casting women as nurses, secretaries, and space telephone operators. Not that translating parts of our own society into other worlds is always a problem, even when it’s unrealistic. SF is about the real world, and written for an audience that lives in the real world, and SF writers have to do a certain amount of “translating” other worlds into forms that make sense to their audience. I mean, I’m really glad Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings in English and not Elven, y’know? The problem comes when stories unthinkingly duplicate our defaults when we ought to be asking whether they could, or should, be different.

Or, rather, when narrators duplicate our defaults. For assumptions to be made there must be someone to do the assuming. This is where Novelization Style becomes a problem. Novelization style uses transparent prose, which tries to present the story as though transmitted directly to the reader, unmediated. It uses close third person narration, which tries to present a character’s point of view and nothing beyond it, as though transmitted directly to the reader, unmediated.

In effect Novelization Style has no narrator–or, at least, the narrator, and the implied author, is neutral, impartial, and devoid of personality. No one is telling this story. It’s a camera, pointed at a set, with no one behind it.

So you don’t ask “Who is the narrator?” which means you also don’t ask questions like “Why is this narrator telling this story? Why did they make these decisions about the plot, or the characters? What do they want me to think about all this, and do I agree?” The story feels less like something someone made, and more like something that just sort of happened. This does not exactly encourage you to think about what you’re reading. When I read a book like Leviathan’s Wake it’s a struggle to actively engage with the book instead of… well, just sort of skim along the surface with it.

This is where the writing gets tricky, because this disengagement is an accidental side effect. But it’s going to sound a bit like I’m accusing writers of writing this way to discourage questions about what they write. This is not even remotely any writer’s goal. I thought I should pause to explicitly note that, to forestall confusion.

Because maybe, if we’re reading something like those old space operas with no place for women, reading thoughtlessly reinforces ideas we’d be better off questioning. A few years ago, because it seemed popular at the time, I gave Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy a chance. What I remember is that the pro-democracy, reformist male lead gained some political power and quickly became a dictatorial tinpot general because, gosh, going all Pinochet just worked better. The books seemed barely aware they were making a political argument.

When I return to old SF I read as a child, I’m always surprised how much sexism, weird politics, and general dodgy philosophizing just did not stick in my memory. It’s partly because at that age my brain was good at editing out anything it didn’t care to notice. But mostly because in the stuff I was reading (mostly conventional-wisdom “classics” like Asimov and Heinlein, because those were the books I had heard of and as a child I had no taste[1]) took crappy assumptions for granted, and I came across hardly any SF that didn’t take crappy assumptions for granted, and I just uncritically assumed that this was How SF Worked.

Not that the people who write these stories were, or are, Bad People Who Write Bad Things and Must be Censured. It’s just that every writer is a fallible human beings with blind spots. And, again, this isn’t the effect Novelization Style is aiming for. I think Novelization Style is after the stated goal of transparent prose advocates: writing that gets out of the way of the story. But in chasing that goal it reaches for an objectivity it can’t have. Fiction is never objective, because it’s fiction. Someone made it up. Everything in a story was put there, consciously or unconsciously, by a creator.

I implied way back in the introduction, and hinted at a couple times since, that Novelization Style is heavily influenced by movies and television. I’ll start to explain that more in the next post. For now the point is that when we watch a film it’s easy to sink into the assumption that the camera’s view is “objective.” Not in the sense that the movie itself is somehow “real,” naturally, but in the sense that, unless a scene is explicitly framed as a dramatization of a story told by an onscreen character[2], we assume the camera is not an unreliable narrator. Or any kind of narrator at all. It looks like the story is just being, y’know, shown to us.

Which isn’t necessarily the case. It’s harder to notice, but video is narrated as well. I don’t want to get too far into a different medium (for more detail I’ll direct readers to an essay at Eruditorum Press which really explains this better than I could). For my purposes the important point is that a scene’s framing, lighting, editing, and music tell us how to think about the action and, crucially, how the filmmaker thinks we ought to think about it. If you doubt it, take a look at that trailer for The Shining that was famously recut to look like a family comedy. The same performances from the same script. The same footage. But different editing and music change the meaning entirely.

Most importantly, that alternate Shining trailer changes the meaning of the shots just by choosing what to show, and what not to show. It uses scenes that could just as easily appear in a family comedy and not, say, the bit where rivers of blood pour out of the elevators. In any medium, what a story includes and what it leaves out will be a major influence on what meaning we, the audience, take from it. That holds true even when we don’t notice what’s left out, or don’t question what’s included–which become more likely the more the story we’re reading or watching has a veneer of illusory objectivity, a frequent characteristic of Novelization Style.

That veneer is an artifact of the “transparent prose” notion: treating a medium as a pane of glass. I think it’s reinforced by the ways Novelization Style borrows from visual media. That’s going to be the subject of the next two or three posts, because this essay really is rambling excessively. Next up: how Novelization Style tends to focus on physical action, surface thoughts, and immediate goals.

  1. I’m one of those people who distrust social media, and think our attention spans are dying, oh woe is us, et cetera. But I still wish I’d had the internet when I was a kid, just because it might have directed me to some better, less famous SF books a whole lot earlier.  ↩

  2. The classic example is Rashomon.  ↩