Bad academic writing:

I’m reading for an essay on Tom Perrotta’s Election and Anita Shreve’s Testimony and came across this, from Timothy Aubry’s “Middlebrow Aesthetics and the Therapeutic: The Politics of Interiority in Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife:” “Although occasionally called upon to perform certain emeritus functions, the omniscient narrator has retired decisively from the scene of contemporary United States fiction.” Translated from academic-ese to English, this roughly means, “Contemporary writers seldom use omniscient narrators.” If absolutely necessary, you could say, “Contemporary American writers seldom use omniscient narrators.”

EDIT: And, for an entertaining counterpoint, Paul Dawson says in “The Return of Omniscience in Contemporary Fiction:”

I want to begin this essay by pointing out what I think has become a salient feature, or at least significant trend, in contemporary British and American literary fiction: namely, a prominent reappearance of the ostensibly outmoded omniscient narrator. In the last two decades, and particularly since the turn of the millennium, a number of important and popular novelists have produced books which exhibit all the formal elements we typically associate with literary omniscience: an all-knowing, heterodiegetic narrator who addresses the reader directly, offers intrusive commentary on the events being narrated, provides access to the consciousness of a range of characters, and generally asserts a palpable presence within the fictional world.

So what’s happening to omniscient narrators? Are they “seldom use[d]” or making “a prominent reappearance?” Or both?

Thoughts on Anita Shreve's Testimony and Tom Perrotta's Election

I recently read Tom Perrotta’s Election and Anita Shreve’s Testimony very closely because they’re similar to a novel I’m working on and relevant to an academic paper, which is a two-for-one deal. I like both novels, but reading Testimony a third time gave me some insight into how it functions; don’t keep reading if you fear spoilers:

1) Testimony is much looser than Election; I think Election is a better book for that reason. We get a better sense of character from it, and the motivations of each characters. I love the scene where Tammy is crying in front of the school counselor and says, “I’m in love,” but she loves her best friend, or former best friend, Lisa. The counselor says, “When you’re ready, you can tell me all about him.” Tammy thinks, “That’s when I realized how impossible it was, my whole life.” She’s right. That also gives motivation for everything else in the story, which looks inexplicable to everyone else. In Testimony, Silas and Rob in particular remain ciphers throughout the novel. That might be intentional.

2) There are more characters in Testimony; their voices are more different than the voices in Election, but too many of them are weak. Silas is or sounds like an idiot, although there’s an explanation in the sense that “he” wrote his sections in the cold, while he’s nuts with grief at his own behavior, and when he might be committing suicide because he can’t stand facing his family and Noelle. Noelle is little better as a character because she’s a little smarter. Sienna is like my dumber freshmen. Ellen, Rob’s mom, may be the most irritating: she speaks in the second person, and aside from her caring for Rob, she doesn’t have much of a function. I get the impression that she’s there to give conventional middle-class women someone to root for than because she moves the story along. Tammy and Paul’s mother does something similar in Election, but she has many fewer scenes.

3) Testimony has a much weaker sense of scene in general; the scenes it does have are much looser and less focused, as noted above. The abstract observations in Election are grounded in the immediate actions of the characters. The ones in Testimony sometimes aren’t. The Ellen character in particular has this problem. Still, some the lyrical sections in Testimony are quite nice.

4) Both novels have choppier timelines than I realized when I first read through them. Readers can probably follow more dodges and weaves than I fully realized previously, and they can handle moving backward and forward in time without explicit direction.

5) The teenage characters mentioned in point two show the danger of letting teenagers speak as teenagers; I’m fond of quoting Salon‘s review of “90210” and “Gossip Girl” on the subject: “Where Blair and Serena’s lines snap, crackle and pop with wit and cleverness, the soggy stars of “90210” stumble over one cliché after another. “Awkward!” Annie blurts at Ethan after they encounter Ethan’s ex Naomi, then Annie does her best impression of the cynical teenage eye roll, as Ethan mutters, “Good times!” Oof. [. . .] But every scene is filled with such teen-bot tripe.” That’s not true of Testimony, but the novel flirts with this problem. Mike anchors the story sufficiently that we don’t get lost among the inarticulate. Noelle is also more knowledgable than the others, and we’ve all met Siennas. The reason for Silas’s meanderings get explained at the end.

6) I’m impressed that Shreve kept the knowledge that only Mike, Anna, Owen, and Silas have from leaking into the other characters. Silas’s actions remain mysterious to us until we learn his mother is having an affair with Mike. The idea that this would cause him to get drunk and bang a hot 14-year-old girl stretches plausibility but doesn’t tear it.

7) The “professional” characters are very flat, and factual, like the reporter, Colm, and the lawyer; these are supposed to provide a counterpoint to the highly emotionally charged scenes from the teenagers, who aren’t articulate and don’t know what’s happening to them. Except for Noelle, who is looking back, and J. Dot, who is aloof, an asshole, and perhaps right.

8) There are only really two major events in the novel: the making of the tape and the Mike / Anna romance. Virtually everything else is lead up, reaction to, or speculation regarding those two things. Contrast that with Election’s romances: there’s Tracy-Jack. Paul-Lisa. Tammy-Lisa, and Tammy’s crush on Dana. There are other events: Mr. M encourages Paul to run. The Warren family constellation, with its tensions. Tracy’s desire to be president, or be something, with President being a reasonable proxy. The election itself ensures that the novel is about more than just who’s with who. There’s a lot more narrative and less “This is how I feel.” It’s also shorter novel. The longer book doesn’t have quite enough narrative to sustain it. There are a number of places where I say things like, “This chapter is fairly useless.” That’s for a reason.

9) The entries / chapters for Testimony are much longer than the ones for Election because each chapter is much, much longer. I don’t think a greater or smaller number of chapters is inherently better, but in this case I think the game goes to Perrotta; Election has 100 “chapters” or unique voices who speak, while Testimony has 53.

10) Looking over this, I’m too harsh on Testimony. It’s still a very finely written book. I read very few books twice, let alone more than twice, let alone think about them consciously as models for a novel or worth writing an academic article about.

Thoughts on Anita Shreve’s Testimony and Tom Perrotta’s Election

I recently read Tom Perrotta’s Election and Anita Shreve’s Testimony very closely because they’re similar to a novel I’m working on and relevant to an academic paper, which is a two-for-one deal. I like both novels, but reading Testimony a third time gave me some insight into how it functions; don’t keep reading if you fear spoilers:

1) Testimony is much looser than Election; I think Election is a better book for that reason. We get a better sense of character from it, and the motivations of each characters. I love the scene where Tammy is crying in front of the school counselor and says, “I’m in love,” but she loves her best friend, or former best friend, Lisa. The counselor says, “When you’re ready, you can tell me all about him.” Tammy thinks, “That’s when I realized how impossible it was, my whole life.” She’s right. That also gives motivation for everything else in the story, which looks inexplicable to everyone else. In Testimony, Silas and Rob in particular remain ciphers throughout the novel. That might be intentional.

2) There are more characters in Testimony; their voices are more different than the voices in Election, but too many of them are weak. Silas is or sounds like an idiot, although there’s an explanation in the sense that “he” wrote his sections in the cold, while he’s nuts with grief at his own behavior, and when he might be committing suicide because he can’t stand facing his family and Noelle. Noelle is little better as a character because she’s a little smarter. Sienna is like my dumber freshmen. Ellen, Rob’s mom, may be the most irritating: she speaks in the second person, and aside from her caring for Rob, she doesn’t have much of a function. I get the impression that she’s there to give conventional middle-class women someone to root for than because she moves the story along. Tammy and Paul’s mother does something similar in Election, but she has many fewer scenes.

3) Testimony has a much weaker sense of scene in general; the scenes it does have are much looser and less focused, as noted above. The abstract observations in Election are grounded in the immediate actions of the characters. The ones in Testimony sometimes aren’t. The Ellen character in particular has this problem. Still, some the lyrical sections in Testimony are quite nice.

4) Both novels have choppier timelines than I realized when I first read through them. Readers can probably follow more dodges and weaves than I fully realized previously, and they can handle moving backward and forward in time without explicit direction.

5) The teenage characters mentioned in point two show the danger of letting teenagers speak as teenagers; I’m fond of quoting Salon‘s review of “90210” and “Gossip Girl” on the subject: “Where Blair and Serena’s lines snap, crackle and pop with wit and cleverness, the soggy stars of “90210” stumble over one cliché after another. “Awkward!” Annie blurts at Ethan after they encounter Ethan’s ex Naomi, then Annie does her best impression of the cynical teenage eye roll, as Ethan mutters, “Good times!” Oof. [. . .] But every scene is filled with such teen-bot tripe.” That’s not true of Testimony, but the novel flirts with this problem. Mike anchors the story sufficiently that we don’t get lost among the inarticulate. Noelle is also more knowledgable than the others, and we’ve all met Siennas. The reason for Silas’s meanderings get explained at the end.

6) I’m impressed that Shreve kept the knowledge that only Mike, Anna, Owen, and Silas have from leaking into the other characters. Silas’s actions remain mysterious to us until we learn his mother is having an affair with Mike. The idea that this would cause him to get drunk and bang a hot 14-year-old girl stretches plausibility but doesn’t tear it.

7) The “professional” characters are very flat, and factual, like the reporter, Colm, and the lawyer; these are supposed to provide a counterpoint to the highly emotionally charged scenes from the teenagers, who aren’t articulate and don’t know what’s happening to them. Except for Noelle, who is looking back, and J. Dot, who is aloof, an asshole, and perhaps right.

8) There are only really two major events in the novel: the making of the tape and the Mike / Anna romance. Virtually everything else is lead up, reaction to, or speculation regarding those two things. Contrast that with Election’s romances: there’s Tracy-Jack. Paul-Lisa. Tammy-Lisa, and Tammy’s crush on Dana. There are other events: Mr. M encourages Paul to run. The Warren family constellation, with its tensions. Tracy’s desire to be president, or be something, with President being a reasonable proxy. The election itself ensures that the novel is about more than just who’s with who. There’s a lot more narrative and less “This is how I feel.” It’s also shorter novel. The longer book doesn’t have quite enough narrative to sustain it. There are a number of places where I say things like, “This chapter is fairly useless.” That’s for a reason.

9) The entries / chapters for Testimony are much longer than the ones for Election because each chapter is much, much longer. I don’t think a greater or smaller number of chapters is inherently better, but in this case I think the game goes to Perrotta; Election has 100 “chapters” or unique voices who speak, while Testimony has 53.

10) Looking over this, I’m too harsh on Testimony. It’s still a very finely written book. I read very few books twice, let alone more than twice, let alone think about them consciously as models for a novel or worth writing an academic article about.

Why don't novels with love stories describe how characters come to like each other?

I was talking to a friend about Anita Shreve’s Testimony, which has a bunch of characters who fall in love or lust with one another, including the four whose taped orgy unleashes emergent destructive forces on everyone around them. Or, rather, the reaction to the video unleashes those forces; the video itself is harmless save for how others treat it. The important thing for this post, however, is how those moments of love or lust are depicted. The short version is that they aren’t. In one sentence, characters are going about their business; in another, they are noticing one another in a potentially erotic way; many sentences later, they’re in bed with each other. But the moments when real interest develops are never really portrayed, save maybe through action or sudden thought. It’s like trying to describe the moment when an idea hits: we can resort to metaphor, but we can’t truly describe what it’s like to be in a state of flow.

My best guess to the question posed by the title is that in real life very few people decide they like or love each other. It just. . . happens, like an idea. You might see manifestations of it; in Testimony, the relationship between Mike and Anna really starts with the touch of a hand. The one between Silas and Noelle begins with them spending more time together. The attractive is partly physical and partly something else. The “something else” interests me.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, in evolutionary terms, we’re not even supposed to understand or analyze our feelings; they’re just supposed to guide us to survival and reproduction. Based on the large number of studies cited in The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality and elsewhere that show how much we understand subconsciously, this probably shouldn’t surprise us. But it does, especially in the context of stories, since so many of them have or should have reasons behind the characters’ action in them. When we push those reasons, however, we begin to see that they’re not so firm as we might once have imagined. I’d like to know about the limits of stories and how they reflect the way people act because sussing the limits helps us figure out how, if at all, we can or should transcend them.

Why don’t novels with love stories describe how characters come to like each other?

I was talking to a friend about Anita Shreve’s Testimony, which has a bunch of characters who fall in love or lust with one another, including the four whose taped orgy unleashes emergent destructive forces on everyone around them. Or, rather, the reaction to the video unleashes those forces; the video itself is harmless save for how others treat it. The important thing for this post, however, is how those moments of love or lust are depicted. The short version is that they aren’t. In one sentence, characters are going about their business; in another, they are noticing one another in a potentially erotic way; many sentences later, they’re in bed with each other. But the moments when real interest develops are never really portrayed, save maybe through action or sudden thought. It’s like trying to describe the moment when an idea hits: we can resort to metaphor, but we can’t truly describe what it’s like to be in a state of flow.

My best guess to the question posed by the title is that in real life very few people decide they like or love each other. It just. . . happens, like an idea. You might see manifestations of it; in Testimony, the relationship between Mike and Anna really starts with the touch of a hand. The one between Silas and Noelle begins with them spending more time together. The attractive is partly physical and partly something else. The “something else” interests me.

I wouldn’t be surprised if, in evolutionary terms, we’re not even supposed to understand or analyze our feelings; they’re just supposed to guide us to survival and reproduction. Based on the large number of studies cited in The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality and elsewhere that show how much we understand subconsciously, this probably shouldn’t surprise us. But it does, especially in the context of stories, since so many of them have or should have reasons behind the characters’ action in them. When we push those reasons, however, we begin to see that they’re not so firm as we might once have imagined. I’d like to know about the limits of stories and how they reflect the way people act because sussing the limits helps us figure out how, if at all, we can or should transcend them.

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