10 December 2010

Literary Pet Peeves: The rise of the multiple narrator...

Literary Blog Hop  
This week I'm switching hosted memes and opting to join the one hosted by The Blue Bookcase:  What is one of your literary pet peeves? Is there something that writers do that really sets your teeth on edge?  Be specific, and give examples if you can.

Jordan does multiple narrators the right way!
Ask me tomorrow and you might get another answer, but aside from bad copy editing and ill usage, which are far more rampant now than even just ten years ago, my literary pet peeve of the moment is the use of multiple narrators.  It's a phenomenon from the last 25 years or so, and I think it's ultimately a sign of laziness.  In some writers' hands it can be an effective tool for exploring voice.  For one recent example, Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound and winner of the Bellwether Prize for fiction, used multiple narrators to good effect in her book because each narrator's voice was discrete and true.  

 In most cases, though, I feel that writers who use multiple narrators are just too lazy to connect the necessary dots that an omniscient third person narrator demands.  Jodi Picoult is a current author whose writing MO is multiple narrators (and multiple typefaces to depict them--ugh!).

I'm not certain, but my guess is that nobody writing before the 20th century used discrete, multiple narrators like that. I couldn't guess when it sprang up, and no doubt the first few writers to experiment with it were bold and innovative, but now it just seems a litle too prevalent for my reading comfort.  It doesn't mean I won't read novels with multiple narrators, but if they are clearly meant to be more literary works and less commercial ones, they'll leave me sighing with frustration. 


  1. Ah, yes. Like so many peeves, this is one that can work (The Poisonwood Bible, imo) or turn out very, very badly (Ms. Picoult, like you said). I never thought about multiple narrators being a modern device, but I think you're right.
    Thanks for participating in the hop!

  2. This is one of those that rely on the writers ability & more importantly, their understanding of it. As is said above, it can be well done, but more often than not , it's a writer over extending their talent & what should be a subtle exercise, becomes piano playing with a sledgehammer.

  3. So interesting...as a writer I struggle with this question daily. I often use multiple narrators when I think the story can be told in a more interesting way from shifting POVs. What is the true story? Is there ever a true story? Who controls the story and why? And the way of telling itself can illuminate the characters. Of course, this may also be an annoying way of telling a story, I agree. It's a fine thing for writers to be reminded that good old third person omniscient is often the best way to go.

    As to the origins of multiple POVs, I don't think of it as a particularly modern device -- I think of epistolary novels, Wuthering Heights, The Lady In White, Dracula, as progenitors. But it's always a problem for a writer. How to tell is as important as what one is telling, ultimately. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  4. Would The Canterbury Tales be an example of multiple narrators? A non-modern example?

  5. I don't know about this one. Multiple narrators can be quite demanding, but I can see where you are coming from. I'm a firm fan of Daniewelski and he frequently uses multiple type to represent different voices/ characters in his work. For me it adds amother dimension, some colour and flavour to a story that would otherwise be just like the others: a flat, straight read.

    Here's my pet peeve: http://mywordlyobsessions.wordpress.com

  6. Thanks for the comments, y'all.

    Christina, I agree that Poisonwood Bible was a very good book, but I'm not sure the story was better served by breaking up the narrators into the different chapters. Still, among multiple POVs, it is better than most.

    Chrysler, interesting point about epistolary novels. I tend to be a fan of that device, but I wouldn't have considered epistolar novels as having multiple narrators/POVs. I don't mind it when an author breaks out with a letter in the middle of a narrative, either, as way of forwarding the story, so I'm not sure why the casual use of multiple narrators bothers me so. Guess that's why it's a pet peeve...

    Robyn, I think the argument could be made either way, but since Chaucer's pilgrims aren't telling different portions of the same stories in their various tales, I wouldn't call it a multiple narrator story. To me it's more an anthology of short stories--utterly unconnected except that an editor selected them all to appear together.

    mwo, I've never read Danielewski, but it sounds like his use of multiple narrators is among the rare successful ones.

  7. I think Jon Clinch does multiple narrators very well in his recent book KINGS OF THE EARTH. Also, I absolutely agree with you about MUDBOUND!

  8. A nice list you have here! I totally agree with most of your points, it really annoys me! Although I believe multiple narrators is not so bad if it is written well and flows in the story. What annoys me is when some writers change points of views in their stories, it annoys me so much! By the way, I wrote a post about my own fiction pet peeves on my blog so I hope you will read and comment with your own opinion telling me what you think! http://nynyonlinex.wordpress.com/2013/03/06/fiction-pet-peeves/

    1. NyNy, I'm curious how you differentiate between multiple narrators and changing points of view--on the surface they would seem like the same thing to me.

    2. I guess when I mean POVs, I prefer to 1st person, 3rd person but with different narrations I refer to writing about different characters thoughts or switching between their situations in the story.

      Hope that makes sense ><


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