White Liberalism and the Myth of the Reliable Narrator

A novel doesn’t belong to the writer; a novel belongs to the narrator, whatever point of view the narration employs (single first person, multiple first person, second person, third person limited, third person omniscient). Those who don’t know the difference between the writer and the narrator are often the same people who hunt through a novel in search of the writer’s “meaning.”

When my writing works best, it isn’t because I’ve landed on a meaning. It works because I’ve found a narrator worth listening to, and I gather together what s/he says. I revise to make the narrator’s utterances into as compelling an experience as I can.

As far as plot, the protagonist is the hero of the novel. But as far as the reader’s experience, the narrator is the hero. We only find Gatsby compelling (if we do) because of what and how Nick tells us about him; we can only want to be the Sherlock Holmes that Watson has presented to us. Every part of the world of a novel that works does so because of what the narrator gives us.

There is no such thing as a reliable narrator. There is only that narrator which a particular reader finds trustworthy.

At best, the narrator is only as reliable to me as her world view (which is one reason that, artistically and experientially, I cannot abide Ayn Rand’s narrators). At worst, the narrator is only as reliable to me as his motivations—conscious or unconscious. Again, this applies no matter the point of view.

Reliability, then, is never intrinsic to the work. It is a trick the narrator attempts to play on the reader. Some narrators play this trick badly. The narrator in Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” is one example; so is the narrator of the novel Flowers for Algernon. Most are much more polished in their attempts. But mainly the reliability of the narrator comes down to a judgment on my part as a reader: To what extent do I choose to trust this narrator? And why?

Fortunately, I don’t have to trust the narrator to be engaged by the novel or story. In Poe’s story, I begin to suspect early on that this narrator is unhinged; in Flowers for Algernon, I know that Charley’s limited intellect keeps him from fully understanding the world around him.

I was put in mind of this while considering our country’s current racial strife. The tensions often pivot on the differences between reliability and trust in the judgments we make. It appears to me that many whites—including many white liberals—conflate the terms: They “put their trust” in those they consider “reliable.” These are often those in authority, those who establish and maintain order.

But for many blacks, it can be the very “reliability” of authority figures that renders them untrustworthy. Because that reliability, that consistency, has produced unjust outcomes. Reliable standardized test scores consistently tell us that black intellectual achievement trails that of whites. But those results only hold if I trust certain definitions of learning and certain ways of measuring it, if I trust that the whole range of intellectual ability is being considered, if I trust that the factors that might limit black students’ expression of their ability are being addressed, if I trust that schools are appropriately structured, if I trust that the system is not founded on inequality.

Similarly, my trust in market capitalism, the criminal justice system, the chance for economic mobility, presentations of American history, the government, and various political candidates determines my sense of how reliable they are. Not the other way around. Thus I may find my local police more or less generally reliable, but trust the word of an individual citizen or even a criminal over that of a police officer.

Many whites still believe that we should assume trust in people and structures they consider inherently reliable. But like many blacks, I have come to realize that reliability can be manufactured through the same narrative manipulation that we find in novels and other works of art. We can be induced to find consistency and equity where none exists.

But for us, no more. From now on, my trust will have to be earned.