In writing, there are always options. While writing often needs to be evaluated to a standard, a style guide, a syllabus, a list of requirements, a writer need not adhere to these when publishing for themselves.
In some of my earliest training in writing instruction, I was told that I was the expert in writing. They were the experts in their content.
Our positions were always to guide writers in their decision-making, and many of these decisions were about perspective.
Francine Prose (2006) gives similar guiding questions that help writers determine facets of perspective. "Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why? Is the protagonist projecting this heartfelt confession out into the ozone, and, if so, what is the proper tone to assume when the ozone is one's audience?"
Prose focuses on fiction texts, and it would be interesting to get her feedback on the role perspective work plays in nonfiction. When Prose discusses "audience", she's referring to the planning phase of perspective work. She envisions the story that she wants to tell as a conversation between people. The narrator is as engaged a participant as the audience member. Again, we revisit writing as a communicative act.
In this chapter, she engages in a great deal of close-reading, as is her usual method. However, between two lengthy examples, Prose chooses to list several other texts that she does not close read. I don't recommend her method of presentation. While it didn't detract from her close reading, her valid recommendations appeared to be "throwaways".
One of the most difficult tasks for a writer is to set priorities. Sometimes, the "curse of knowledge" sets in. They write based off of their knowledge of the(ir) world as opposed to a viewer's knowledge of their world. Suddenly, every part of the writer's world becomes a priority. This can confuse the viewer. What storyline are they meant to be following? What are they supposed to notice? Why isn't [x] mentioned later in the story since it's described in so much detail in the beginning?
My readings of Prose indicate that her priorities lie in her long form close readings. Those are memorable and they display connections to the takeways that she states at the end of each chapter. As a result, her listed recommendations didn't fit quite as well.
That said, her close readings were highly skilled and combined the types of close readings she gave in prior chapters. Her choices reminded me of novels that experiment with structure and form, specifically Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl (2006). The best way that I can describe this book is that it's a lot of things at once, but form is what ties it together.
"Perhaps the June Bug understood Dad had felt that way about all the others, but armed with three decades’ worth of Ladies Home Journal editorials, an expertise in such publications as Getting Him to the Altar (Trask, 1990) and The Chill Factor: How Not to Give a Damn (and Leave Him Wanting More) (Mars, 2000) as well as her own personal history of soured relationships, most of them believed (with the sort of unyielding insistence associated with religious fanatics) that, when under the spell of her burnt-sugar aura, Dad wouldn’t feel that way about her. Within a few fun-filled dates, Dad would learn how intoxicating she was in the kitchen, what an Old Sport she was in the bedroom, how enjoyable during carpools. And so it always came as a complete surprise when Dad turned out the lights, swatted her ruthlessly off his screen, and subsequently drenched his entire porch in Raid Pest Control.
Dad and I were like the trade winds, blowing through town, bringing dry weather wherever we went."
In this section, the narrator is describing their father's relationships with women, but in this excerpt, the women appear to transform from human to bug, emphasizing his treatment of them. The narrator might be supposed to be apathetic by their description of women as bugs. It's difficult to determine, solely from this section and the wider excerpt, what the relationship between the narrator and their father and how they truly feel about the women in his life.
It's possible to speculate apathy. It's possible to speculate that the narrator takes after their father. However, and I've seen this in novels before, the narrator doesn't state or model these emotional connections or attitudes here, so we don't know, so it might be that the narrator undervalues this perspective. Would they matter, for example, to their father? Possibly not. What matters are the popular publications directed towards women about pursuing relationships and the attitudes they yielded. Both the narrator's father and the women he interacted with followed the same patterns according to the narrator, so it would be understandable if they were numb to it.
The narrator's interiority is solely at their discretion. Their context cannot entirely speak for them, but the excerpt would not be out of place in conversation where the narrator would have no need to describe themselves.
There are options in perspective work, but it's difficult to achieve success in experimental presentations. Intentions don't always breed success, but they can. The narrator doesn't have to be omniscient. There can be more than one narrator. The narrator can be a singular person. There are no hard and fast rules, but ideally, there should be something to follow and something to impress meaning upon.
Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far and to my wonderful colleague who recommended I give Special Topics in Calamity Physics a try. It's incredibly interesting and I had no idea that a syllabus could be used that way.
I am very impressed with Reading Like a Writer and Francine Prose's approach to teaching close reading and how it's coupled with advice and feedback for writers who want to experiment with similar effects to their favorite authors.
If you are interested in either of the titles mentioned in this post, I highly recommend purchasing them from your local independent bookstore or Bookshop.org. Proceeds from Bookshop.org go directly to local independent bookstores.
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As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!
Sources: Pessl, M. (2006). Special topics in calamity physics. New York: Viking.
Prose, F. (2006). Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.). Union Books.