Point of view is a continual—and often confusing—focus of attention in storytelling critique groups. Had we been keeping track, it wouldn’t surprise us if POV issues have arisen at least every other session of our six-years-and-counting semi-monthly writers’ group meetings at the Library.
The other day Anthony Doerr (right) won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his novel All the Light We Cannot See. The Pulitzer committee describes the book as, “An imaginative and intricate novel inspired by the horrors of World War II and written in short, elegant chapters that explore human nature and the contradictory power of technology.”
The announcement led the FWB to look up some of the author interviews to which Doerr had posted links on his website. In an exchange between Doerr and author and columnist Courtney Maum at the National Book Foundation site (ATLWCS was a 2014 National Book Award, Fiction finalist), Doerr addresses the question of POV with intelligence and clarity. After reading this excerpt, please click through to the entire interview for more writing wisdom from Doerr.
CM: In reading through past interviews with you, I’ve been surprised to see All the Light We Cannot See described as a novel that oscillates between the viewpoints of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a German orphan, because the truth is, although Marie-Laure and Werner are the book’s main protagonists, the novel is peopled with the voices of so many other characters: Etienne, Von Rumpel, Frau Elena, Dr. Hauptman—the evil Volkheimer is given an entire section near the end. To me, the degree to which you let tertiary characters come in to support the narrative felt almost experimental. Did you just follow your instincts as to who got passed the talking stick, or did you have a master plan? Did any other voices end up on the cutting room floor?
Anthony Doerr: Yes, lots of poor souls ended up on the floor. The perfumer, for example, had several more chapters from his point of view in earlier versions, as did Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife. Did I have a master plan? Not really. Mostly I constructed and then cut lots of variations.
When I teach graduate writing workshops, I often see a severity regarding point of view—students like to point out sudden movements: “You broke POV here, you broke POV there.” Students are right, of course, to highlight moments when a narrator breaks into or out of another character’s thoughts, especially if the writer makes that shift unintentionally.
But when I started to worry that my book was becoming too rigidly adherent to the Marie/Werner/Marie/Werner back-and-forth structure (my editor, Nan Graham, used the adjective “ping-pong-y”) I started looking at POV in books that I admire and found that my favorite moments in those books often involved some level of disruption in point of view. A narrator’s privilege gets established and then, later in the book, it expands or frays. Ishmael assumes Ahab’s thoughts in Moby-Dick, or Madame Bovary opens in first person, then promptly becomes a third-person novel.
In [The Great] Gatsby [F. Scott] Fitzgerald establishes what appears to be a strict POV rule: “This novel will be narrated by Nick [Carraway], who will have to guess at Gatsby’s thoughts.” Before long, though, Fitzgerald shatters that rule (“[Gatsby] knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath…”)
That kind of stuff would probably get picked on in workshops. So whenever I found All the Light getting too schematic, too rigidly obsessed with its own symmetry, I tried to remind myself that a novel can be a more organic, digressive, human thing, full of movement and departures and tertiary voices.
In short, there are rules about shifting points of view in fiction writing. But they can be broken—when an author as skillful as Doerr knows what he is doing.—Alex McNab