Flushing out the truth about telling stories with WG Sebald


Once upon a time many years ago I feared I had a stalker.

I was working as a reporter then and would usually get home late and full of white wine.

On arrival I would jab at my answer-machine to cue up the messages and then go for a much-needed wee while the tape was rewinding.

More often than not I would find that someone had left the following message: clomp clomp clomp whoooosh.

What could this mean, I asked myself? Should I call the police?

But apparently I’m not alone in my confusion. [Apologies for the crash of gears as I change up to the lit. crit. bit.] In fact I’m in great company.

In his useful book ‘How Fiction Works’ (Vintage 2009) the critic and novelist James Wood quotes the writer and scholar, the late WG Sebald. He said:’I think fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself, is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.’

He argued that novelists writing in the 19th Century, such as Jane Austen, were writing in a world where the rules were clear, accepted by everybody and electrical tape recorders hadn’t been invented. (That last point is mine, I admit.)

Sebald added: ‘Given that you have a world where the rules are clear and where one knows where trespassing begins, then I think it is legitimate, within that context, to be a narrator who knows what the rules are and who konws the answers to certain questions. But I think these certainties have been taken from us by the course of history, and that we do have to acknowledge our own sense of ignorance and of insufficiency in these matters and therefore to try and write accordingly.’

As Wood comments in the same book, ‘For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat.’

Does this mean that when I’m writing stories I may not use the third person? I think it’s an interesting question. Of course people will argue that free indirect speech, (writing in the third person but clearly from a particular character’s point of view) is a happy medium and I think they may well be right.

I’d be very interested to hear what other people think, though. Is the world too complex for any one person to have a credible view of it? If so, what are the implications of that? Is there any way that standard, non-free indirect, third person narrative can be rescued?

Meantime I’m off for a wee. Quietly.

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Posted in creativity, literature, narration, Uncategorized, Writing, writing novels
21 comments on “Flushing out the truth about telling stories with WG Sebald
  1. Very good question – if the writing is good I don’t think it matters (not picky) but I have to be engaged and entertained 🙂

  2. Emily says:

    Very interesting. I love whodunits and I guess poirot novels are arch-examples of this. Or maybe not? Anyway I think that an omniscient narrator works, for me as a reader, because generally one fills in the gaps (or thinks one has!) when interpreting what is going on. Like with your mysterious answer phone messages. So I feel omniscient even though I am not (maybe that’s just me though!) So a book whose construction reflectS that strikes a chord – more than one that clunkily changes perspective (a la Jodie picoult).

    Right – off to re-read the murder of Roger Ackroyd…

  3. Personally I don’t care what the point of view is, as long as it’s not pretentious or irritating, and doesn’t involve too many big words that I have to look up in the dictionary.

    Oh, and I prefer it if social niceties and drinking tea aren’t the main theme.

  4. ben hatch says:

    I think it all depends on how artfully it is done and I’m not sure how the course of history has changed matters. If there had been twitter and facebook in Jane Austen’s time does that mean she’d have written in the first person? @janeausten IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife #darcyiswellfit

    • I think it’s more that the world is so much more complicated and disparate than it was in every way. No one in Austen’s time was shouting about a ‘personal relationship with God’ for example. They all went to church. Ok there were religious divides but few. Now everyone is their own religion, or many people are. But I agree, skill is the key. Thanks Ben. Cathy x

  5. I would cheerfully point out that it’s just one persons opinion (well technically two) and therefore doesn’t necesarily mean anything beyond that. The key point is that Wood is a critic and the job description is to ‘criticise’ – for better or for worse.
    For me the important thing is telling the story you want – and telling it well.
    First person, third, whatever works best. It’s all too easy to get hung up on rules and conventions or start to worry over what some learned person says.

  6. I prefer using the first person. But I have to agree with Troy as long as the story is good I don’t mind if it’s first or third person.

    • Thanks Magda. I suppose I am wondering more about ways authors get round the tiredness of the form, or what can seem to be its tiredness, of which narration is one aspect, in my view. Someone like Arturo Perez-Reverte, whose compelling and satisfying novel The Queen of the South I have just read is written in both first and third person. Also, the first person narrator is a journalist, as is the author S.Perez-Reverte himself. As our tutor, novelist and critic Frank Egerton pointed out, it’s not clear if we as readers are supposed to assume that the two are the same, and, if so, if that means the story is true, or a fictionalisation of true events, or if Perez-Reverte is trying to make points about storytelling, about narration itself. I don’t know. Perhaps it’s something like breaking the fourth wall in plays and films. Lots to think about. Cathy x

  7. zencherry says:

    Honestly? I think that in the thicker tomes a person should stick to the regulated forms if they are to be considered literary masters. Fun novels don’t have the same restrictions and are entertaining in their random use of perspective. It comes down to what audience you desire.
    I prefer the fun novels but I do sometimes sit down with the thicker ones just to dust off the brain once in a while. 😉

  8. Viv says:

    I’d like to counter with a quote from Granny Weatherwax. “When you break a rule, break it good ‘n’ hard.”
    For me, writing the story that comes without questioning how it demands to be written, works. This means that of 9 completed novels, only one is written in the first person, because that was how it arrived.
    But I probably know nothing. It’s sometimes a good place to be.
    x

    • Thank you so much Viv. With 9 completed novels to your name, I can hardly accept that you know nothing. I think I do get too analytical about a process that fundamentally doesn’t want to submit to it, but that’s because I like to play with rules, as you say, breaking them good and hard (which I hadn’t heard before and will think about lots). If critical orthodoxy says we ‘can’t’ have third person narration or whatever (which I don’t think it really does) then I want to know how I can use that to write something reallly exciting. Still a distant dream, I fear. But onward. Thanks again, Viv. Cathy x

  9. […] Quote of the Week Shared on the Write a Novel in 10 Minutes Flat blog: In his useful book ‘How Fiction Works’ (Vintage 2009) the critic and novelist James Wood […]

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