You Guys, Ursula K. Le Guin Doesn’t Hate Omniscient POV!

When I turned to “Point of View and Voice” in Steering the Craft, I was prepared for yet another author’s dismissal of omniscient out of hand as an inadequate, shifty, or obtuse point of view. After all, if Samuel R. Delany dismisses omniscient POV (see the Appendix of About Writing: “Such tales cannot turn on any sort of mystery or character revelation, so that it becomes hard for the writer to keep them interesting.”) then surely Ursula K. Le Guin would do the same.

Of course, people differ in opinion. But I’d gotten so used to omniscient’s relegation as the unloved stepchild of writing books, I expected, well, more of the same, maybe a different hand-waving.

I couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, she gave me more vocabulary with which to handle omniscient POV: the two kinds of omniscient POV, “involved author” and “detached author”. Strangely, examples of how awful omniscient POV is read like they mix the two modes, which of course isn’t going to turn out well.

What’s the difference? As it turns out, “involved author” could, to my mind, be read as “caring author”, and in a way it’s the most natural of viewpoints for an author; we must care about all our characters on some level. “Detached author”, on the other hand, has no dog in the race, and reports from a truly objective, uninvolved point of view. “Clinical” in other words.

For me, then, the POV I most want to write in is “involved author”.

Le Guin says this:

Involved author is the most openly, obviously manipulative of the points of view. But the voice of the narrator who knows the whole story, tells it because it is important, and is profoundly involved with all the characters, cannot be dismissed as old-fashioned or uncool. It’s not only the oldest and most widely used storytelling voice, it’s also the most versatile, flexible, and complex of the points of view—and probably, at this point, the most difficult for the writer.

Yes, yes, yes! Oh Le Guin.

She even talks about “involved author” the most in this chapter, giving full examples from older texts. Oh thank you, Le Guin.

On the shifting of viewpoints in “involved author”: it should be so well-done that there is no overt signaling (ETA: there must still be some sort of signaling) and yet the reader is both unconfused and entirely involved with the story. On War and Peace, Le Guin says,

I’m a little shy about telling anybody to go read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, since it’s quite an undertaking; but it is a wonderful book. And from the technical aspect, it’s almost miraculous in the way it shifts imperceptibly from the author’s voice to the point of view of a character, speaking with perfect simplicity in the inner voice of a man, a woman, even a hunting dog, and then back to the thoughts of the author… till by the end you feel you have lived many lives: which is perhaps the greatest gift a novel can give.

Naturally, I’m pretty sure I’ll never live up to Tolstoy, but he did apparently rock the house on “involved author” omniscient.

I’ve just now scanned a bit farther in Steering the Craft before I read it; the next chapter is on changing point of view. “You really can’t shift between detached and involved authorial voice within one piece. I don’t know why you’d want to.” I know why someone would want to—because they think that’s what omniscient is, and thus decide to write a piece in it to show off how bad the POV is.

Also relevant to Hal Duncan’s Rule 4 for New Writers, she says:

Particularly disturbing is the effect of being jerked into a different viewpoint for a moment. The narrative is being told from inside Aunt Jane’s viewpoint. Then for one sentence we’re in Uncle Fred’s viewpoint. Then we snap back to Jane’s. With care, the involved author can do this (Tolkien does it with the fox). But it cannot be done in limited third person.

And she mentions something I’ve already noticed while retyping Pride and Prejudice:

Involved author and limited third person have a wide overlap, since the involved author can and usually does use third-person narration freely, and may limit perception for some while to a single person.

I feel blessed. Even though I know the work is going to be hard and there’s going to be a lot of missteps on the way. For whatever reason, I want to do the hardest thing OMG with respect to POV.