Recent Reading: Privacy, Identity, and Narrative

I’m still on a good reading streak (please, let it last!). A wide variety has helped. But though my recent books include a novel set in North Korea, a young adult fantasy, and a non-fiction book about a Victorian divorce case, it struck me that they all have themes in common: the connections and contradictions between privacy, identity, and narrative.

I am not sorry I read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, which was on a lot of literary Best of 2012 lists. But I found it torture to finish–and perhaps that’s entirely appropriate for a North-Korea-set novel in which plenty of torture takes place. Something about the voice just wasn’t my thing. (Here’s my Goodreads review.) I found similarly absurdist portrayals of life in a totalitarian society in mysteries by James Church (North Korea) and Colin Cotterill (Laos) more human and engaging, if not as complex.

I did really like the reflections on how narrative can paradoxically both preserve or create identity and threaten people with complete loss of the privacy necessary for a sense of self. It’s telling that no one in the novel has a real name, a bedrock marker of identity. In the first section, Jun Do, the titular orphan master’s son, spends time on a ship listening to radio transmissions (a useless form of spying) and the stories of the sailors. As he listens to one of the Captain’s stories, he thinks:

Real stories like this, human ones, could get you sent to prison, and it didn’t matter what they were about. It didn’t matter if the story was about an old woman or a squid attack–if it diverted emotion from the Dear Leader, it was dangerous. Jun Do needed his typewriter, he needed to get this down, this was the whole reason he listened in the dark.

I don’t think Jun Do wants to record the stories so he can file a report on the sailors (as everyone in North Korea is required to inform on their neighbors), but so he can hang on to some kind of truth in a world of propaganda–made-up stories that everyone must accept as real.

Later in the novel, Jun Do is interrogated by a nameless man who describes his work as collecting people’s biographies. The interrogator is conflicted about his work, I think. On the one hand, he says, “When you have the subject’s biography, there is nothing between the citizen and the state.” People should have no will, desire, or identity outside of the state, and they wouldn’t be there for interrogation if they hadn’t failed in that ideal. Once their stories are “collected,” he erases their memories with electric shock and sends them off, he imagines, to a new life as happy peasant workers. At the same time, he wants to understand his subjects and know the truth about them. And he keeps trying to write his own biography, to understand and define himself.

Narrating stories both asserts an individual identity apart from the state and risks the loss of that identity, because once the story is “out there,” its hearers or readers can use it for their own purposes. This is ultimately what happens to Jun Do: in the second part of the novel, we get the story from his point of view, his interrogator’s, and the propaganda version that is broadcast over loudspeakers to the whole nation. It reminded me a little of Philip Hensher’s King of the Badgers, which I read in December, and which also considers the need to protect private corners of the self from surveillance by the state.

The same tension between privacy and revelation is central to Kate Summerscale’s Mrs. Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady, which I am just finishing. Isabella Robinson recorded her affair with Edward Lane in her diary, a diary which her husband eventually found and used as the basis of his case against her in the brand new divorce court. In their defense, her lawyers and Lane’s argued that the diary recorded fantasies, not reality [and if you’ve read this, don’t tell me if it works!]. As Summerscale explains,

Both Henry and Isabella had violated the boundary between the private and the public: Isabella by writing about Edward in her journal; Henry by reading and disseminating her secret words.

Is the diary a place for Isabella to record the truth about herself, to define herself as something other than an unhappy wife, or to create escapist fantasies? Summerscale puts this case in the context of Victorian anxieties and changing ideas about diary-writing, psychology, medicine, female sexuality, and marriage and women’s rights within it–and to end it. Henry Robinson had two illegitimate children, and sounds like a jerk, at least in Isabella’s diary. But his infidelities weren’t cause for divorce or disgrace. Hers were.

It’s an interesting book, but I don’t love it as much as I did Summerscale’s Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. That’s partly because Victorian detectives are one of my Things (I was delighted when Inspector Field, subject of an admiring Dickens essay and the model for Bucket in Bleak House, made a minor appearance here). But it’s also because that book has the narrative impetus of a mystery novel, and this one has, well, whiny miserable Isabella and her teenagery crushes on younger men. I pitied her, but she isn’t much fun.

Finally, I just finished Kristin Cashore’s YA fantasy Graceling on audio. I read and loved this when it first came out, and I found it just as good the second time. Yes, the twists didn’t surprise me, but I could see how well prepared-for they were. This story is very much about Katsa learning how to define her own identity and choose her own path in life rather than letting herself be defined by others. It’s about finding a balance between privacy and intimacy, too, but to say more about that would be a spoiler.

All of these books made me ponder the deep third person point of view that’s pretty standard in romance novels. Romances often delve into the most intimate of their characters’ feelings and actions, and I wonder if the intimate narrative point of view paradoxically keeps us from feeling like voyeurs, interrogators stripping the lovers of their privacy. I haven’t quite figured this out yet.

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33 Responses to Recent Reading: Privacy, Identity, and Narrative

  1. sonomalass says:

    I want to read the Mrs. Robinson book (ah, shades of Anne Bancroft and Simon & Garfunkel), although I’m sorry that the titular character isn’t more sympathetic.

    I was thinking about the third person POV in romance, as well. I just finished two books with romance plot lines (they may be more NWSRE than genre romance) that were written in first person, and I really noticed the difference. In both I had intimate knowledge of the female narrator, but not the more balanced view of both lovers that I’m used to in romance. It was very different to be trying to figure the man out along with the woman, rather than knowing what both were thinking and feeling and reading to see when/how they would figure it out. While I enjoyed both books, I came away with a greater appreciation for what I get in that deep third-person POV.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Was one of those the Mean Fat Old Bat recommendation? I need to try that.

      I think the Summerscale book is well worth reading. I’m enjoying the second part, about the trial, more. Isabella’s desperation and depression, and indeed her crushes, are very understandable but painful to read about.

      • sonomalass says:

        I was actually thinking of the upcoming Deanna Raybourne release and another new book by Pam Jenoff. The Sarah Wynde book (is that the MFOB you mean?) is in third person. But it’s really good.

    • Shelley says:

      Oh, this is such an interesting point about POV. There is so much to be said for first person, especially the beauty of how/if a first-person narrator is unreliable– but one of the major drawbacks is, when you have a first-person narrator who is in a miserable situation, the reader has a hard time determining whether the narrator is self-pitying or if the situation really is as dire as the narrator makes it seem. This debate was the core of my novel-writing workshop during my MA, in fact; when does first-person serve the narrative, and when does it hinder it?

      It’s especially interesting to note that problem in light of this idea of voice and identity. Which characters get to speak in their own voice, and why? And when it doesn’t work, does that say something about the narrator, or the author, or about the reader?

  2. Alex says:

    I’m not a romance reader so I wasn’t aware that the genre had a tendency to use omniscient third person narrator to that extent. I suppose it is a question of what you’re used to but I think I would find that constant awareness of what everyone is thinking too busy. I shall have to go away and ponder this question further. Thanks for the stimulation.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      The kind of third person we see in Romance is different from omniscient narration, though. For one thing, it’s almost always limited to the protagonists (secondary characters rarely get a point of view and readers often don’t like that). And an omniscient narrator has his/her/its own voice, often, that comments on the characters and events but not from their perspective. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that in genre romances written recently, though there are books beloved by romance-readers (Austen, Heyer to some extent) that have omniscient narrators. I think authors avoid it now in part because it would break intimacy with the characters in ways that might feel voyeuristic–in a sex scene, for instance. I wonder if it’s linked to the genre’s increased frankness about and willingness to depict sex.

      • Mara says:

        I always wonder if writers avoid it because it’s more difficult to write well. Or maybe I’m the only one who thinks it’s difficult. Writing in third, however close or distant, feels more natural and easier.

      • The kind of third person we see in Romance is different from omniscient narration, though.

        I’ve heard that POV called close third POV by some writers, and deep third person POV by others. It’s definitely differs from omniscient in that the focus is more limited and not as wide ranging, and the narration is more reflective of the characters’ inner voice.

        There typically isn’t that stylized, distinctive omniscient narrator’s voice that dips into any POV it wants to and knows what’s going on with any character in the story, like we get in Austen or Dickens, or for that matter, some contemporary writers like A.S.Byatt and William Kennedy.

        Some current romance authors do use omniscient voice, but more sparingly. I’m thinking of authors like Loretta Chase and Sherry Thomas. Their introductions start out in omniscient, and bring the reader up to speed on the characters very quickly, before switching to a closer, more limited third person POV.

        Judith Ivory is the most recent author I can think of who used omniscient voice throughout her books.

      • In reply to Mara — I agree that pulling off omniscient voice takes greater skill. The same is true of first person, too. Close third person is the most forgiving POV to write in, the one a less skilled writer is most likely to successfully narrate in.

        No doubt there are writers who choose that POV for this reason, and yet I think it would be a mistake to assume that this is the sole reason for its popularity. Among other reasons, it became quite popular in the 20th century, and I think most readers these days prefer it. It can make for a more relaxing and less demanding read.

        But beyond that, I think that in romance it is particularly effective. Unless one is writing a gothic or a chick lit novel, genres in which the male love interest remains inscrutable for much of the book, including both protagonists’ POV is often preferable. And the more psychological a novel is, the more important it is to be able to delve deeply into the characters’ minds. Close/deep third person lends itself to that.

        I have used both omniscient and first person POVs when I’ve written in other genres, so it’s not that I can’t master them. Yet when it comes to romance, I find close third irresistible. Part of it is the influence of my favorite romance authors, and part of it.is that the story I’ve chosen to tell demands it.

  3. Ros says:

    I just started Pushing The Limits yesterday, my first foray into YA. One of the things I’m really struggling with is the POV. It alternates chapters between the female/male characters, but each is in very deep 3rd. Almost stream of consciousness. It’s very wearing. Especially since they are teenagers and every emotion is taken to the extreme. I’m honestly not sure that I want to go through all that again, even just for the length of a book.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I like my YA to have a bit of a sense of humor/distance in the narrative voice. Otherwise the emo is too hard to take. And frankly, I think that’s more realistic. Teens can sometimes laugh at themselves in the midst of the angst.

  4. I always felt like 1st person POV’s were more intimate, but less voyeuristic. I guess that’s part of the intention — to focus on the individual instead of the couple, and why we see it more in sub-genres that are more about personal journeys than the actual romance, like Chick-Lit, Women’s Fiction and even erotica/erotic romance (when done right).

    Also, when reading 1st person POVs I often get the impression that I’m watching the characters build or understand their own identities (Graceling is a great example of this), whereas in 3rd person POV’s it feels more like the reader is the one building the identities, or at least interpreting them.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree about first person’s intimacy and use in “journey” stories. I am not a huge fan of present-tense first person, but I’ve read erotica where it works really well and the immediacy is important to the experience of the story.

      I don’t understand people’s aversion to first person. Yes, you have to like the voice to like the story, but is that less true than for third person narration? I do think it can be tricky to make the first-person narrative voice authentic to the character, especially in YA, and maybe that’s what people dislike.

      Graceling is third, though–but it is so firmly in Katsa’s point of view that I’m not surprised you remember it as first.

      • Shelley says:

        I personally love first-person, especially in YA, in part because it feels so authentic to the developmental stage of most teens. Even the most generous kids at that age are very “I-centered.” I remember living so much of my life inside my own head, and frankly, looking back, I can see that my own judgment was completely untrustworthy at the time: one of the things that can make first-person so compelling.

        Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now looms large in my mind as one of the BEST uses of first-person POV in a YA novel, or any novel I’ve ever read, really, for this reason.

      • Oh, duh! You’re right about Graceling. And I read those book last month, but in my head they all are 1st person POV. But the connection I had with the characters, especially with Katsa and then with Bitterblue, was so personal that the confusion doesn’t surprise me.

        I really like 1st person narrations and wish Romance had more of them. I even like when we only get one point of view, because it forces me to pay closer attention to the other characters. But I think most readers really like getting in the head of the hero, and that’s part of why 1st person POVs aren’t more popular in the genre.

      • Re. readers’ aversion to first person — I love first person, just not so much in a full-length romantic novel. I’m not saying it can’t work there too (Eva Ibbotson’s Madensky Square is an example), but there are a few potential pitfalls.

        One is the absence of the ability to get into the head of one of the characters. For those of us who read romance partly in order to see the protagonists’ falling in love, missing out on half of that experience can be frustrating.

        Another is that over the course of a full-length novel, first person can feel more monotonous. I find that for these reasons, I don’t mind alternating first person POVs in a romantic novel as much as I mind the limit to one POV, whether it is in first person or in third.

        Finally, another pitfall of first person is that pulling it off requires an unreliable narrator (a narrator who is blind to something the reader can see). Human beings are not omniscient, so a first person narrator should always a flawed view. In a romance, especially one with only one POV, that is particularly tricky to pull off. It does work well for gothic romances and chick lit novels, erotica, a YA love triangle, though.

      • I don’t mind first person at all–a truly skilled writer can easily bring characters outside of the narrator to life. I also don’t mind omniscient POV because I read a lot of old-school British authors who use it effectively.

  5. I know the vast majority of romance readers prefer deep 3rd POV to limited, but I love reading the older categories in which there is either an omniscient narrator or only the heroine’s limited 3rd POV. I really like the way the narrative unfolds, often with partial information and plot/character reveals. I don’t necessarily want to know what everyone is thinking all the time, unless it’s an unreliable narrator, which is interesting for different reasons.

    • Ros says:

      ME TOO!!! Especially omniscient.

      But my editor won’t let me write it. Although, I admit, when I tried I did find it incredibly difficult to write.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I agree, I like single POV sometimes in romantic stories/romance, whether first person or third. It captures the confusion, uncertainty, and the need to “read” the other person that is a realistic part of falling in love. I like figuring out the subtle clues to how the hero (usually) is really feeling.

      • Liz, when you read the Gaffneys I sent you, give some thought to how she uses POV. I think it’s one of the most interesting things about her as a writer. To Love and to Cherish is written in close third person, but with first person excerpts from the heroine’s journal which add so much to the novel that I couldn’t imagine it without them.

        Likewise, I couldn’t imagine To Have and to Hold without the deep tunneling into the characters’ psyches and the close focus on just these two that creates an almost claustrophobic feel to the novel’s first half. (Plus it’s no coincidence that they spend more time outdoors in the second half — but that’s for a discussion of setting).

        In Wild at Heart, she opens in Michael’s POV and shows the way he thinks in images and how he’s only just rediscovering words. There is something so wonderful about the way she captures his reentry into the human world via POV.

        There are so many creative ways to use POV even within the confines of close/deep third person, if only more authors used them.

  6. susanmpls says:

    I haven’t read “The Orphan Master’s Son” but have read Cotterill’s Laos books and very much enjoy his corrupt totalitarian regime as seen through the humorous point of view of a wise, old skeptic; he’s also exploring the spiritual and magical (which are in opposition to the not-spiritual regime) which manifest in physical ways that the regime wishes to surpress but cannot completely do as there are witnesses of the events. I sometimes think this is one of the foundations of being human–bearing witness to and carrying memory of the things around us. Perhaps this is part of what drives our pursuit of stories?

    I’m presently listening to the audiobook “The Traveler” by John Twelve Hawks which is also about identity and privacy.The two sides are those who wish total order at the expense of the private individual, and those who wish to preserve the individual at the expense of order. The main character is a woman but I am finding the book very … male, for lack of a better descriptor. It’s a paranoid book (‘they are constantly monitoring us’) that explores identity, motivation, and fear–it’s for readers interested in an extreme story about the complete loss of privacy where the average person is a drone going about our middle class lives unaware that we’re controlled and monitored.

    In romance I sometimes find mis-communications or lack of communication as the central drama between the characters very frustrating with the deep 3rd POV that alternates between him and her. When we the reader know what both characters think and know often the only mystery in the story is *how* they will resolve their issues, instead of the richness of learning the how and why layer by layer. Maybe what I’m describing is the old “show vs. tell” dynamic often discussed with romances.

    Thanks for this blog post, it mirrors my own reading of late and I very much enjoyed your thoughts.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Susan! I think it’s not surprising that privacy would be a fictional concern these days.

      One question such novels raise, which I’m not sure I really made clear in my post, is to what extent writing and reading fiction is a violation of privacy. It’s a nonsense question in some ways, as the characters are fictional, but I’ve read a few books lately that really probe the ways certain kinds of narration function as surveillance, and how reading is a kind of substitute for spying on our neighbors/reading their minds. This skepticism about narration is a challenge to the ethical concepts at the heart of high realist 19th-century novels where the point of peering inside the characters’ heads is to develop sympathy–it’s a positive ethical project. I have always been fascinated by these issues.

      • susanmpls says:

        In exploring question that we are forced to ackowledge and examine our own voyeurism and our motivations for doing so. That seems like a very tough exercise, if done honestly.

        What would we call it when the reader imposes themselves onto a character within the book–in the act of reading becoming a part of the story? Simulation? It could be viewed as an act of escape from the reader’s own privacy invaders (although in the digital world of ebooks even this escape is one that’s monitored).

  7. sonomalass says:

    I like limited viewpoint sometimes, but I think I read too many romances when I was younger where the woman was the only character the reader got to know, and the man was this mysterious figure she had to guess about. When I came back to romance, I was thrilled to find books where the hero’s point of view was also present, and I could get inside his head, not just hers. Done well, I like both approaches; what I don’t like is the idea that any particular type of narration is required in romance — Da Rulez again.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      It’s interesting that those limited POV romances are almost always from the woman’s point of view.

      • I find that interesting too. Judith Ivory once mentioned wanting to write a whole novel from just the hero’s POV, and said her editor dissuaded her from doing it. I was disappointed since I would have loved to see what she might have come up with.

        Jackie Barbosa did write her Gospels of Love series from the heroes’ POVs. I only read the first one, but it was quite enjoyable.

  8. VacuousMinx says:

    Interesting discussion! I suspect I’m in the minority, but I am so tired of alternating close 3rd POV. In less-than-skilled hands you know everything the characters are thinking from the beginning, and the main way you get an interesting emotional reveal is when the character figures something out.

    In good hands, the heroine-only POV gives you a really interesting take on the hero. Some of Mary Burchell’s heroes are quite tortured, and the way that their feelings emerge can be really powerful: through the heroine picking up subtle clues, or through his sudden outbursts, or through the heroine’s gradual realization of what the guy is really like (compared to what she thought he was like).

    I believe Janine when she says that close 3rd is easier to write (although not being a fiction writer I don’t have a clue about it!). But it also has limitations that I think we don’t pay enough attention to.

    • VacuousMinx says:

      Oh weird. I signed in before with my Twitter account so it has my Twitter ID and avatar. Today I was already signed into WP and so my post came in with my VM name and avatar. I’m still the same person. Or would that be the same two people?

    • I don’t disagree with anything you said, Sunita (except that I still need to read Burchell). I also think that as Mara pointed out, some less-skilled writers gravitate toward close 3rd, so maybe we are bound to see a lot of badly executed novels in that POV. But I don’t think that the type of weak execution you’re describing is really a flaw in the POV itself, as much as a flaw in the writer.

      The same could be said of flawed first person novels that don’t get the hero’s POV across enough, too, though.

      • Jorrie Spencer says:

        I’ve tried to stick with only one character’s point of view when writing, but it never ends up working (for me). Maybe one day. But I agree sometimes the alternating close 3rd POV can end up feeling, I dunno, too on the nose. She thinks she saw a look of hurt, but it was so fleeting she probably didn’t. Next scene in his point of view: his feelings are clearly hurt. But I also agree a lot of this has to do with skill.

        Since I’m all Rifter all the time, I can’t help but add that I liked what Ginn Hale did with the points of view in her serial. At first, you think it’s the usual, and certainly well-done, alternating 3rd. But each character goes off on their own adventure, if you will, and you’re kept to their point of view only. It’s quite effective imo. (I don’t say more so as not to spoil anything.)

  9. kaetrin says:

    Late to the party! Sorry 🙂 Interesting discussion (they so often are here!).

    I used to think that I didn’t like first person POV but that’s not quite correct. What I like is the hero – I like a LOT of him. (In m/m romance I like both heroes). First person works for me best when there is a lot of dialogue and where the heroine’s focus is often on the hero – that gives me the fix I’m after. I do think that 1st person often works even better for me on audio. It is something about the voice in my ear being the narrator’s voice. Like a friend telling you a story from their lives or something.

    I’ve read a few NA’s which have had alternating 1st person POV’s from hero/heroine and I love them because I get the intimate feel of the perspective but I get plenty of each character and I’m not left wondering so much.

    Deep third person POV will always be a favourite but I’ve broadened my horizons over the last few years and different POV’s or tenses don’t bother me like they used to do.

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