Objective Point of View in the Modern Age

One of the bridges to cross in learning writing technique is that of objective points of view. Hemingway started this, as far as I know, merging his journalistic perspective on writing into fiction. 

image via csustan.edu

If you haven't come across this, let me explain, ever so briefly: the story is told from a very narrow perspective, as in Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," which he told in a third person point of view (POV). The primary characterists of this are:

  • You only know what the narrator observes or hears the characters doing or saying.
  • Because of the above limitation, dialogue is paramount.
  • The reader must infer a lot from what is done and said. 

I had thought this particular technique hadn't developed much since Hemingway's time, but then I haven't been to the Iowa Writers Workshop. Yesterday the missus handed me a book of short stories entitled, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, written by Yiyun Li, who has an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop. And coincidentally, the book was a winner of the Hemingway Foundation/Pen Award for a distinguished first book of fiction.

But as I was saying….

The missus wanted my comments on the story's structure, which was apparently a modern variant of Hemingway's third person objective POV. In this one, the point of view has shifted to first person as "we," i.e., the narrator is among the characters. Still, the story is in objective mode, with little other than dialogue to inform the reader. But having the narrator as part of the characterization does have its advantages:

  • In the introductory pargraphs, the narrator set the scene for us, and it's more intimate with the narrator being a part of the story.
  • Toward the story's end, the narrator blatantly states what has been implied throughout the story. The advantage here is that at the end of the day, little is left to the reader's imagination. The characters dole out aspects of backstory that reach a point of clarity only after most of the story is told.
  • The way the story is constructed (as in the second point above) has the effect of building a type of readerly suspense, even when there is none for the characters themselves.

What do I think of this variant of Papa's invention? I'm all for taking technique places it hasn't yet been. But I like the challenge of interpreting for myself what the writer is trying to tell readers. I have to wonder if this variation on the objective POV isn't because modern readers (gee, I hate to put it this way) want their story spoon-fed. I realize we're all distracted and harried these days, and I realize the writer has a pragmatic obligation to communicate with his/her readers, harried or not, but I wonder if we as writers shouldn't expect more of our readers. 

What do you think?

See Bob's Web Site here.


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