Unusual points of view

Some notes on point-of-view handling in works by three authors:

One idiosyncrasy of H. Beam Piper's writing, at least in the Fuzzy books, is his pronoun handling for viewpoint characters. He establishes whose point of view a given scene is in at the start of the scene (usually by using the character's name--this part is quite standard, of course), and then he uses a third-person pronoun to refer to that person throughout the rest of the scene, often not mentioning the person's name again in that scene.

In other words, the word he in any given sentence might refer to a male character whose name appeared prominently and recently (as one would expect); or it might refer to the PoV character for that scene, who may not have been mentioned at all in the previous couple of paragraphs.

For example, there's a scene late in the book (but I'll avoid spoilers) that starts with the phrase "Max Fane met them at the [...] door[....]" That's the only hint that this scene is from Fane's PoV. In the next five paragraphs (half a page), the PoV could just as easily be omniscient or fly-on-the-wall. Fane isn't mentioned at all, even indirectly, in the fifth paragraph or most of the (long) sixth paragraph, until near the end of the sixth paragraph comes the phrase "The last time he had seen Kellogg"--and the "he" there is Fane. And then the seventh paragraph starts out "Coombes glanced toward the table where he and Brannhard were sitting"--and again "he" refers to Fane, who by this point hasn't been mentioned by name for almost a full page. (All this on p. 145 of the 1962 Ace paperback edition.)

It's an odd technique. It must be intentional, because Piper does it over and over again throughout the two books, but I keep stumbling over it.

I enjoyed Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, and some day I may even write an entry about it. But for now I just wanted to comment on one particular interesting aspect:

The point of view in the book is something I might call first-person indeterminate collective.

Almost the entire book uses we as the viewpoint pronoun, referring to the five women in the six-person club. That collective "we" knows things about each of them that the others don't know; and "we" doesn't usually include whichever of them is being discussed at any given moment. That is, each individual woman is referred to as "she," but the others at that moment are always "we" or "us." (In some contexts, the "we" probably also includes the man in the group, but not always.)

Some examples, from chapter one:

"Just listen to the frogs," Jocelyn said. We listened.


Most of what we knew about Jocelyn came from Sylvia.


[Prudie has just referred to Austen by first name.] None of the rest of us called her Jane, even though we were older and had been reading her years longer than Prudie.


Bernadette gave us all a stern look.


We had just begun to suspect that Allegra might not like Austen as much as the rest of us.

I wondered all the way through the book whether it was really a group PoV or whether it was really one of the five women narrating from a faux-external PoV. That question isn't answered, though there are hints in both directions.

(According to a Penguin UK interview with Karen, the most common question interviewers ask her is whose PoV the book is written from. In answer to that question, Karen suggests "think[ing] of the book club as a kind of seventh character.")

The main reason I thought the narrator of Book Club might actually be one of the five is that the indeterminate PoV put me in mind of a Zenna Henderson story, "One of Them," which can be found in her 1971 collection Holding Wonder. From near the beginning of the story:

I don't know who I am. Oh, it's no amnesia--no sudden losing of my total self. I just don't know who I am. But I'm not lost entirely. There are five of us--and I am one of them.

Five women, co-workers in a government office, live in the same dorm, and the protagonist is one of them, but she's not sure which one. She discusses them all as if she's an outside observer. Later in the story, one of them dies, and the protagonist isn't sure whether she (protag) killed the other woman or not. The plot isn't anything special, but the PoV is something I've never seen anyone else do until now. Kinda neat.

I've seen collective PoVs in sf before, of course; but that's almost always a group mind, or a being with multiple personas, or a unitary person composed of multiple bodies, or a set of clone siblings, or something along those lines. Fowler and Henderson are the only authors I've seen do a collective PoV that's a set of distinct normal humans in a modern-day setting.

7 Responses to “Unusual points of view”

  1. Fred

    The PoV stuff sounds like what Virginia Woolf did at the beginning of The Waves. Neat, maybe I’ll track the Fowler book down.

  2. David Moles

    At age 9 (or however old I was when I first read Piper), I never noticed that, any more than I noticed the rampant intra-paragraph POV switching in Dune (the banquet scene there is a particularly good example). I think we’ve overtrained ourselves.

  3. Aliette de Bodard

    The POV switches in Dune didn’t bother me one bit (and they still don’t). Neither did the POV switches in “The Waves” or in any of Woolf’s books, come to think of it.
    I think David has a point about overtraining ourselves…Interesting, I’d never thought of it that way.

  4. Ted

    The POV switching may not be an error, but when we’re young, we aren’t bothered by many things that we do consider bad writing when we’re older.

  5. Jed

    Fred: I never read The Waves–not sure I’ve even heard of it before–but I’ll take a look.

    David: I agree that writers (including me) are sometimes overtrained in Insistence That PoV Must Follow The Rules. But I don’t think that’s quite what’s going on in the Fuzzy books; it’s not a case of PoV switching (I know you didn’t say it was), but rather of Piper using pronouns to point to referents other than the ones they would normally have in English.

    I don’t know for sure that I would’ve found these sentences ambiguous as a kid, but I suspect I would’ve:

    “Hoenveld was looking at him as though a pistol had blown up in his hand. He was, in fact, mildly surprised at himself.” (p. 170 of Fuzzy Sapiens.)

    Note that the only male character who’s been mentioned by name in the past page and a half is Hoenveld. Given the way English speakers usually use pronouns, it would be reasonable for any reader to guess that “He” refers to Hoenveld–but in fact it refers to another character, who’s the PoV character for the scene even though there’s only been one very subtle cue about that, a page and a half earlier.

    It’s as if you’re talking with someone, and they mention Aloysius in passing, and then ten minutes later, after talking about a bunch of other stuff unrelated to Aloysius, they say “Bertrand went to the store. He’s married now.” And you say “Bertrand is married?” and they say, “No, Aloysius is married. That should’ve been obvious–that’s who this part of the conversation is about, after all.” If the conversation between the mention of Aloysius and the “he” really had been about Aloysius, then the “he” might not be confusing at all; but when Piper goes off on other topics for several paragraphs, then mentions someone else by name, then expects us to still recognize that the word “he” sometimes (but not always) refers to the person who we may or may not have guessed was this scene’s PoV character a page or two ago, I find that confusing.

    I’m not saying it’s impossible to follow; just that it’s very easy, in many cases in these two books, to misread a pronoun (usually “he”) as referring to someone other than who the author intends it to refer to. But maybe at the time when you read it you got deep enough into the appropriate PoV in each scene that it felt natural to you; certainly I agree with you that I pay more active attention to this stuff than I used to.

    Here’s another example, with names changed to avoid spoilers (all the named characters here except Carl are Fuzzies):

    […] Carl picked up Dagwood; Ellen and Frank were wanting him to go and sit down and furnish them a lap to sit on.

    “I’ve been worrying about just that,” he said, when he was back in his chair, with the Fuzzies climbing up onto him. […]

    (p. 181)

    It took me several reads of that sequence and the following couple of paragraphs to figure out that “he” and “him” in the above sentences are not Carl, but a different human character.

    That said, I don’t remember any PoV switches in Dune, which I read as a kid (though it’s possible I noticed and have just forgotten), and I imagine I would notice them now. So I don’t necessarily disagree with your main point.

    But when I read Illuminatus!, the summer before 9th grade, I definitely noticed the PoV switching, which sometimes (iIrc, which I may not) happened in the middle of a first-person paragraph–the “I” at the start of the paragraph and the “I” at the end of the paragraph weren’t always the same person. I didn’t think it was especially hard to follow (in fact, I was kinda impressed by it); but I did notice it.

    …But then, I was raised by editors. 🙂

  6. David Moles

    Given the way English speakers usually use pronouns, it would be reasonable for any reader to guess that “He” refers to Hoenveld…

    Mmm… I disagree. I think “him” is pretty clearly the antecedent of “he”. The farthest I’ll go is that figuring that out does require semantic knowledge and not just syntactic — it’s the fact that the sentence with Hoenveld as the subject clearly sets up a point of view that isn’t Hoenveld’s. (Just don’t ask me about the antecedent of his.)

    Elizabeth Bear claims that Dune is just bad omniscient POV, not POV-switching, but I think that’s because she has omniscient POV on the brain.

  7. David Moles

    The POV switching may not be an error, but when we’re young, we aren’t bothered by many things that we do consider bad writing when we’re older.

    True, Ted, but I understood Jed to be making a more or less value-neutral claim about oddities of POV handling rather than about badness or goodness of writing.


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