Archive for September, 2009

A dozen-plus years ago I read Joseph Chartkoff’s The Archaeology of California. I bought the book for the subject, but I remember the book for the opening of  Chapter 2:

Imagine a setting 12,000 years ago in what are now the deserts of Southern California . . .  The valley is nearly 30 miles across, and in the entire valley only one spot is occupied by people: a hunters’ camp on a gravel terrace near the lakeshore.

Years earlier, there had been another story which I read for other reasons: Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs. He started with:

Ursus and Homo were fast friends. Ursus was a man, Homo a wolf. Their dispositions tallied. It was the man who had christened the wolf: probably he had also chosen his own name.

Charkoff wrote in in the present tense (The valley is) and Hugo wrote in the past (Ursus was.) Both used the omniscient narrator to tell their stories: Chartkoff, to convey what he knew about the physical and cultural history of California; Hugo, to convey what he knew about human nature. (Hugo also littered this opening with passive ‘were’ and ‘was,’ the sure sign of an amateur.) These passages are examples of how to do it right, in my opinion, but not everyone shares my view.

I don’t presume to have mastered the art of omni story telling, but I’m clearly on the wrong side of literary fashion; omni is in disfavor, even reviled by some. It leaves the author open to accusations of head hopping and the sin of not getting up close and personal.

In 1968 Francis Fugate gave his opinion on omni in Viewpoint: Key to Fiction Writing

I think it can be safely said, so far as fiction writing is concerned, that this viewpoint is one which is used by writers before they know any better. ( p. 53)

And every critique group I’ve been a part of has had a strong contingent of Mr. Fugate’s brethren.

In fairness to these anti head hoppers, I don’t use this point of view indiscriminately. In fact, once I have set the scene,  my characters often move closer to the camera and I change the point of view to third person, where the perspective is from a single character.

A while back I read Harrison’s Legends of the Fall. I immediately suffered a short-lived reaction that must have been similar to the above mentioned critiquers. I’d been infected by their anti-omni imperative. It seemed to me that Harrison was head hopping and unfocused. He was also an aggravatingly good story teller. Fortunately, this self-induced fog didn’t last too long. I think I’ll remember the story-teller part and use the other two attributes to fashion my own personal cautionary tale of how too many experts can spoil a good story.

More on omni later . . .


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