Tuesday 27 November 2012

A Visit from the Goon Squad and Point of View

I am reading Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad and have noticed that the novel uses point of view in an unusual way. Current wisdom says that a writer should not switch point of view in the middle of a section. That is, point of view in a third-person mode should be third-person limited omniscient rather than omniscient. Egan goes against this current wisdom. Although her text tends to be limited omniscient within sections (chapters or divisions within paragraphs), once in a while point of view shifts in the middle of a section.

I am not sure what to think about this. The book won the Pulitzer Prize, so I would categorize it as literary, but I tend to view breakers of the limited omniscient rule to be older writers (nineteenth century and earlier) or nonliterary: weak writers or writers of formula fiction.

Perhaps this rule of keeping a point of view stable is unnecessary. Furthermore, Egan's book breaks all kinds of rules (genre rules, chronology rules), so that the nonstable point of view is just one of many experiments. Arguably these point- of-view shifts are a sign of a possible negative criticism of today's standard approach to narrative point of view.

The book's shifts in time and its multiple characters can be confusing at times--people who like realist narratives would find the point of view and time shifts distracting, gimmicky and ultimately unnecessary. I still recommend that writers not shift point of view within sections. Each section can have its own point of view, though. Multiple shifts in point of view is risky, so writers who use it must be aware of the risk and perhaps be clearer in other areas (setting, time) to help readers keep track of the narrative's overall arc or theme.

It's fine to break the rules, but the rule breaking needs to have a reason; Egan's book is about memory and the fragmentation of lives, so the rule breaking makes sense.

Monday 19 November 2012

Writing Exercise: Abstract to Concrete

Concreteness leads to specificity; in writing, concreteness usually means representation of sensory inputs.

Here is an exercise in concreteness.  Take an abstract sentence and increase its concreteness word by word. Do this in several stages, so that the next sentence is more concrete than the first.

1. The structure had negative qualities.

2. The building was inadequate.

3. The house was too small.

4. The bungalow had too few rooms.

5. The white bungalow had only four rooms.

6. The white square house next door had four rooms--a kitchen, a bathroom, a sitting room and a bedroom; the basement was a dugout for the furnace and a small storage room. Six people shared these rooms.

7. The Callaghans lived in a dingy white one-level house next to the abandoned gas station at the end of our block. The house had four small square rooms--a kitchen, a bathroom, a sitting room and a bedroom; the basement was a mere dugout for the furnace and a small storage room. Mr. and Mrs. Callaghan slept in the bedroom with the two youngest children, while my friend Peter shared the flowery-print sofa bed in the sitting room with his older brother Matthew. Peter claimed that everyone except himself and his little sisters snored; even the Alsatian and the tabby, who slept at the foot of his and his brother's bed, snored.

Concreteness leads to more words and to more personality.

Monday 5 November 2012

Creativity in One's Life

stock.xchngCreativity means thinking of new ways to achieve a goal or communicate an idea. In that sense, creativity is a key part of everyone's life. This definition of creativity is broad, but its broadness arises from the centrality of creativity in people's lives.

Artists depend on creativity for a large portion of their productive output--the word creativity has the word "create" as its root, after all, which just means "to give birth to."

Not all births are big births, I would say. An artist has to think seriously about creating, though at times self-consciousness can be prohibitive. In that sense, thinking of creativity as normative rather than abnormal is both realistic (true) and useful (conducive to production).

Art may at times have a bad reputation, but creativity rarely does. Some people resist the idea of experimental creativity--extreme newness that threatens tradition. In the Western world after Romanticism, extreme newness became associated with all artistic creation. I am in favour of experimentalism--I like the avant-garde--but not everyone needs to go that way to agree with the value of creativity.