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.


Romancing Language in Action: How the Sausage Gets Made

In response to this fascinating post (on what has quickly become one of my favorite web sites), which presents the daily routines of several famous writers, I’ve decided to present my own, typical day-in-the-life writing routine. A warning: This will not include, a la Annie Dillard, a writing shack set in the Virginia countryside.

10 p.m. – Go to bed with a plan to rise at 5 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before everyone else in the house is awake.

4 a.m. – Awaken to the sound of a screaming 2-year-old. Upon investigation find and change a diaper filled with a massive bowel movement.

4:10 a.m. – Send the 6-year-old also awakened by the screaming back to bed, despite his desire to turn on PBS Kids.

4:45 a.m. – Unable to sleep, get up, turn on the computer, and do 5 min. of freewriting, then begin drafting current writing project, a novel.

5:10 a.m. – Interrupted by new screams from the 2-year-old, who wants to get up and turn on PBS Kids. Coax her into her own bed and lie down with her to get her back to sleep.

5:50 a.m. – Awaken in the 2-year-old’s bed, having successfully put her—and myself—back to sleep.

5:55 a.m. – Freewrite for 5 min., followed by drafting on my current writing project, a novel.

6:55 a.m. – Informed by the 6-year-old that he is now awake and is going to watch PBS Kids.

7-8:15 a.m. – Awaken sleeping spouse so that she can get ready for work. Feed and dress the children. Prepare lunch and backpack for 6-year-old, and take him to school.

8:30-11 a.m. – Take 2-year-old to YMCA, place her in child care, and exercise for about 1 hour. Return home.

11 a.m.-2:45 p.m. – Wrangle, feed, and entertain 2-year-old. Worry about money, since I don’t make any.

2:45-5 or 6 p.m. – Take 2-year-old and pick up 6-year-old from school. Go home and wrangle, feed, and entertain both of them. Worry about money some more, since I don’t make any. Wonder about the status of my productivity vis-à-vis society’s current value structure.

6-8:30 p.m. – Along with spouse, wrangle, feed, entertain, and put to bed both children.

8:30-9:30 or 10 p.m. – Either write, spend time with spouse, or watch television (generally performing one or two of the acts while lamenting not doing the other one or two).

10 p.m. – Go to bed with a plan to rise at 5 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before everyone else in the house is awake.

The romance of language, like all forms of romance, must often survive in less than ideal environments. It bears remembering that such is often the case with life in general. This reminds me that however much love involves emotion, it turns on discipline and commitment. It grows less from inspiration and more from habit and conscious choice. A writer must be someone who learns to see the choices that language presents, and who remains willing to make those choices and face their consequences.

Why I Need to Keep “Winning” Away from My Writing

Maybe just another peek again. I know it’s only been a few minutes since I last checked the stats on my blog; they probably haven’t changed. Still, they might have. I may have gained a few more views. Some “likes.” A comment or two.

During the past few months, partly by design and partly because I have more time, I’ve waded more deeply into the turbulent, sometimes murky, and highly compelling world of blogging and Twitter. I started blogging six or seven years ago. Most of the time, I’ve written in a feast or famine fashion: a month posting every few days followed by several months or even half a year with virtually no new posts at all. Of course, my traffic ebbed and flowed correspondingly.

Only lately have I produced a steady two to four posts a week, generating a more consistent readership: more views, more likes, more comments, and even some followers. My deeper foray into Twitter is even more recent, reaching back perhaps a month. In both cases, the interaction with readers has been exciting. But I’ve found something about it unsatisfying.

That isn’t the fault of the readers. Responses have been at least kind and encouraging, and sometimes very complimentary. But I’ve also felt a sense of spiraling expectation. The more readers I get, the more I want to have. If I average 20 views one week, I feel disappointed if I don’t have more the next. Increasingly, phrases such as “critical mass,” “next level,” and “breakthrough” run around in my head. I spend more of my day with my computer open on my lap, browsing news sites, reading and clicking on the links to tweets, and checking my stats again and again. I’ve begun hunting for catchy tricks or topics or titles to hook my readers, ways to generate buzz and boost my numbers.

I named this blog Romance Language because I believe in love—a love of language with all its strengths and limitations, and a love of using words to deepen my interaction with the world—as the essence of my writing. But even love can be eclipsed by desire. I don’t mean a desire for the beloved, or even a desire for connection and pleasure. I mean a desire to be filled with, well, something. A desire to win in some way, to get It, whatever that may be.

And I should note here that I’m talking about only myself. If success or fame or more readers drives some writers on to better or more fulfilling writing, so much the better for them. If they can achieve what they want to achieve through that incentive, I see absolutely nothing wrong with that, nor does that diminish art in and of itself. But too much seeking and tabulating destroys what fragile equilibrium. It distracts me from a focus on the experience and connection with language that makes this worth doing.

In the end, I think it comes down to knowing and accepting who you are. When I start to feel myself on the treadmill, counting the numbers incessantly, I lose touch with why I write, which is another way of saying I replace seeking after what I need with what I might temporarily desire. Because here’s something I also believe: If you no longer understand—and I mean really understand—who you are and what you need, then even the people and things you love can destroy you, because at that point they can all become things to be used rather experiences to be lived. Every moment—of writing, of living—becomes about grasping rather than being.

A younger version of me might have responded by fleeing: reducing or abandoning blogging. But that’s no answer because the tension does exist in the blogosphere; it exists in me. And I still believe in writing as the way to work it through. I’m still determined to romance language.

On Breaking the Rule About Breaking the Rules

I recently saw trotted out again that old maxim: “You have to learn the rules to break them.” Here’s why I think that’s wrong: First, we don’t learn language that way. Children learn language rules by breaking them, repeatedly, and *not* being corrected, at least not overtly. They try things out, mimicking and attempting to match what they hear around them; they get encouragement when they succeed, not criticism for failing; they play with sounds and language (small children are the most unconscious poets and metaphor-makers you will ever encounter). In short, they learn oral language through immersion, listening, experiment, failure, support, and self-correction. They do this because they are highly *internally motivated* to express and interact.

Then, of course, they go to school, which emphasizes the rule-first method. They are increasingly discouraged from experimenting and failing so that, by the time they got to my college writing courses, they only cared about the rules and avoiding negative evaluation. Their interest in expression and interacting was mostly gone, and *external* motivation in the form of grades dominated. They knew lots of rules, but rules unmoored from purpose or function. To this day, I would rather read boatloads of shit writing by someone genuinely engaged, disciplined, and trying to improve, than endure a page of highly polished, formulaic prose. And I say that as someone who spent years having to read both. Sometimes I wonder how much more we all would make our own art and appreciate the art of others if we hadn’t been taught to focus at the outset on “doing it right” or “following the rules.”

Of course I don’t mean that order doesn’t matter. Language can’t function without it, and art, to have meaning, requires structure and context. Nor do I suggest that those who want to begin with rules and handbooks and proscriptions are wrong. But I do object to laying down maxims that writers can only legitimately develop by learning rules first. I believe that just as drawing and carving preceded art theory, and spirituality and wonder preceded religion, so stories and poetry came before writing theory. We have built our rules on the successes and failures of what’s come before. Each artist is entitled to go through that same process and deal with its consequences.

Art develops through transgression, by someone stepping outside the current rules of usage or structure or language. But how do you teach people to risk and break rules when we begin with the premise that rules come first? Those with the discipline and desire to do serious creative work can find the guidelines they need in the process of honing their work. So I wish upon anyone who wants to create the chance to experience some kind of fall-flat-on-your-ass failure, as often as she can possibly stand it.The question becomes how a writer should learn what rules will work for her. My approach to that is simple:

  • Read voraciously and closely everything you can—immersion.
  • Write what you want in the way you want, experimenting and trying anything and everything that comes to mind: switch genres and point of view and tenses midstream, leave plot holes (hell forget about plot if you want)—experimentation.
  • Find someone whose judgment you respect who will read your writing and tell you what they see that works; hone in on those things and do more of them—feedback.
  • Repeat the above endlessly: read; write; experiment; get feedback; digest it; apply it.

Learning to Love Shitwork

Lately I’ve seen several blog and discussion board posts mentioning the difficulties—even burdens—of editing. Some have praised the value of it; others have bemoaned or even questioned the necessity of it. Two experiences have skewed my own perspective. First, I had an excellent copyediting professor as a college undergraduate, and excellent editing supervisors during my professional work as an editor. Second, from a couple of decades of teaching college-level writing, I read, surely, thousands of pages of unedited writing, and became good at recognizing it pretty quickly. Based on that background, I learned a long time ago to take the value of editing as a given.

But editing represents a larger issue I’ve encountered in a variety of work I’ve done, and it seems especially crucial in trying to write well. That issue is how practitioners in a given field approach the shitwork related to that field.

Because every occupation has its shitwork. If you work on a farm, as some of my high school friends did in Kansas where I grew up, shitwork takes the literal form of the manure you have to shovel, step in, spread, sweep, and even purchase. If you don’t like dealing with shit, a farm is not the place for you. Nor, for that matter, is medicine. You may decide you want to become a pediatrician because you love children or like helping people, but if so you’d better quickly get used to bodily fluids in a wide variety of odors, colors, and viscosities. Doubly true if you want to become a nurse.

And make no mistake, I don’t mean shitwork as a term of denigration. I mean the grease on your hands that lubricates the machine; the networking that helps you meet people who challenge you; the slow review of rows and columns of data that confirm your new theory. I mean the sometimes tedious, line by line, point by point, beautiful grind.

Performers have to rehearse; athletes have to practice (as even basketball star Allen Iverson learned to his dismay); both have to travel. Politicians have to smile and shake hands and listen to everyone’s complaints. Construction workers have to ply their skill in unfriendly elements; entrepreneurs have to raise money. Even the pope—the man who supposedly holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven—has to hold audiences, smile beatifically, and keep his cardinals somewhat placated.

That kind of inevitable, ongoing, potentially grinding interaction allows for only one productive response: love.

Let me propose a correlation between competence and the acceptance of shitwork. It goes something like this: The mediocre complain about shitwork; they resent having to attend to the picayune details that are part of any craft, and they deal with them grudgingly if at all. The competent tolerate shitwork; they accept it as a necessary part of performing well at something that matters to them. The adept come to love shitwork. This is not to say they always like it, any more than a loving parent always likes being in the same room with his children. But they welcome it as the stuff you can feel between your fingers; they to relish its odor not because the scent is sweet but because it grounds them in the work itself and in what it takes to do that work well. And more than anything else, doing the work well keeps them going.

Someone said that if you want to be a writer, you’d better love working with words and sentences. That’s why, although I’ve by no means mastered the shitwork that good writing demands, I love exploring it in detail, as some wonderful bloggers I know have done here, here, here, and here, as well. And on a good day, you will find me on my knees, nose down, up to my elbows in it, as it should be.