This afternoon, while watching the plumbers install a new toilet, I was standing near my shelf of how-to-write books. On impulse I pulled out Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction. I had bought this fat scholarly treatise a few years ago, and was quickly overwhelmed and set it aside, but I think I may now be ready to give it another try.
When advice is given these days to aspiring writers, it’s usually very limited in both depth and scope. We’re advised against authorial intrusions, for example, as if there were a single thing called an authorial intrusion. But on the page to which I opened at random, Booth makes clarifying distinctions among several types of narrative strategies, any of which we might call an intrusion.
A few pages later, he says this: “If the reason for discussing point of view is to find how it relates to literary effects, then surely the moral and intellectual qualities of the narrator are more important to our judgment than whether he is referred to as “I” or “he,” or whether he is privileged or limited.” The term “privileged” is, again, a more complex and precisely delineated business than “omniscient.”
I wouldn’t want to suggest that all the advice given to students of writing is wrong, but it’s clear that in the hands of a good writer, the precepts that are shoveled out and heaped upon the shoulders of the hapless novice are irrelevant. The good writer will be aware, or become aware through reading and experimentation, of a great many approaches to narration that would raise the hackles of any second-rate writing coach.