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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

The Personalities of Intrusive Narrators

Spent the evening watching a 1930s film involving Polynesians, Dorothy Lamour, and a gigantic sweeping hurricane.  After experiencing something like that, you don’t go in for long posts.

Still, I’ve been pondering a little notion lately that I’d like to ricochet off your skulls for a moment.  It started when I read A Tale Dark & Grimm by Adam Gidwitz the other day.  The official reviews of the book haven’t started to come in yet (give it a month) so I wonder how folks will deal with the intrusive narrator.

When I say “intrusive narrator” you know that type.  It’s the narrator that pushes his or her way into the discussion without so much as a by-your-leave.

It’s tempting to write off such narrators as having similar voices.  They seem to call readers “Reader” with impunity, after all.  But the individual personalities of such narrators, particularly when they are not actual characters that crop in the narrative, are fascinating to me.

Now when I speak of such narrators I don’t mean ones that appear in books like A Series of Unfortunate Events or The Kneebone Boy.  In both cases the narrator is also a character (though this fact only comes out about Snicket slowly over the course of the series, whereas Kneebone announces it right from the get go).  I mean real honest-to-god narrators.

Three of the best recent examples are probably The Tale of Despereaux, A Tale Dark & Grimm, and The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling.  What I find most interesting is how similar these three narrators are, and yet my individual response to them could not be more different.  Truth be told, I am not a particularly fond of Despereaux.  This has more to do with the plot elements than the narrator, though.  The Despereaux narrator isn’t as snarky as many of the ones that crop up in books these days.  It’s a little more traditional with funny things it wants to say, and throughout the tale it seems very clear that it is Telling You a Story.  If you are fine with that, all power to you.  If it grates on your nerves, buckle up cause it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Compare that narrator with the one in Gidwitz’s tale.  Not only does the narrator intrude, it goes so far as to warn little children away.  Snicket does much the same thing in his books, but in Gidwitz’s case those warnings are there for a reason.  While death occurs in A Series of Unfortunate Events, it’s not half so delightfully gruesome as you’ll find in A Tale Dark & Grimm.  Thus the reader is appalled early on, and comes to almost clutch to the narrator.  To rely on him to keep us safe and to warn us when there are rough times ahead.  The narrator also goes so far as to tell as well as show.  When I brought this up with a writer I know, he pointed out that Cervantes, Sterne, and Borges do very much the same thing.  Point taken.

Which leaves The Mysterious Howling.  Unlike the previous two books, the narrator in this one isn’t leading you like a wise old hen or attempting in a snarky way to protect you from the darkness to come.  The snark is there, but this narrator is drawing more on the world of Austen than anything else, and she is your friend.  You like her almost instantly.  You want her to tell you more about this strange case.

Interestingly, I feel that the Grimm narrator is male and the Howling narrator is female.  The Despereaux narrator, interestingly enough, feels genderless to me.  Why is this?

I’m sure that there are other intrusive narrators out there, but I’m interested in the ones that came out in 2010.  Are there any more?  We’ve straight “narrators” galore, but I want one that plays with narrative threads.  That breaks down fourth walls with impunity. Anyone in particular come to mind?

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Elizabeth Bird About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently New York Public Library's Youth Materials Collections Specialist. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of NYPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.

Comments

  1. tanita says:

    I actually don’t have anything to add specifically at the mo, but it’s funny to me that you’re thinking of this because I have been, too. As I am now tentatively writing a MG novel (thanks for the push!) I’ve been playing with the narrative voice and realizing that novels for younger readers use that guide/friend/snarky mother hen thing far more often than YA novels do. And I don’t find that I always like it. (Maybe it’s just the objection to me being called “Reader,” too often.)

    I shall be reading comments with interest.

  2. Danielle Jones says:

    Lynne Rae Perkins’ “As Easy as Falling Off the Face of the Earth” comes to my mind of a recent book where the narrator steps in at times.

  3. I can’t think of a 2010 intrusive narrator, but if you enjoy (or perhaps know a young boy who does) slapstick, sci-fi humor, last year’s A Whole Nother Story is narrated by Dr. Cuthbert of the National Center for Unsolicited Advice, who offers, naturally – unsolicited, humorous advice. I reviewed it on my blog in February. Regarding the Mysterious Howling, the narrator’s “asides” help to imbue the book with the sensibilities of 1850s England. Despereaux’s narrator, on the other hand, is a gentle hand guiding the “dear reader” along, softening the darker places to which Despereaux descends, ultimately making the book more accessible to younger readers. I like them both. I’ll be following the comments to see what other narrators turn up.

  4. Kate Coombs says:

    Considering that so many other writing techniques are meant to immerse the reader in the world of the story, I’m generally not in favor of one that does the opposite. It’s jarring to be pulled out of your reading experience by a deliberate “tell, don’t show” voice, a semi-patronizing editorial commentary (though snarky is better than grave, yes). I know it’s a stylistic thing, but this approach really does distance the reader from the narrative, and that doesn’t get my vote.

    Another book that threw me off in this way–though sometimes amusingly–was Falling In by Frances O’Roark Dowell. I would say that a good writer can make it work, but only with the reader’s forebearance.

    Even in the case of books like A Series of Unfortunate Events, The Kneebone Boy, or A Whole Nother Story, I suspect that for many readers, the fourth wall feels like it’s been through an earthquake and is badly cracked, if not lying around in chunks of rubble.

    All of which reminds me of Mary Oliver’s comments in Blue Pastures about the recent onslaught of confessional poetry, for some reason. That and the glory that is Facebook, plus reality TV, where narrators shout out to their friends and then circle back to the realm of fiction, reinventing themselves as characters.

  5. Genevieve says:

    Well, I just went and placed a hold on A Whole Nother Story and Falling In. I’m quite fond of intrusive narrators when they’re amusing, which is part of why I loved The Mysterious Howling and am looking forward to the sequel. When they’re not amusing, I’m not crazy about them, as then the distancing from the story doesn’t feel worth it to me. I’ll forgive distancing for a good laugh.

    My son didn’t much like Despereaux or Lemony Snicket (neither did I), but he highly enjoyed the Pseudonymous Bosch books, which have a snarky narrator.

  6. Laura says:

    I don’t much like the term “intrusive narrator”, which contains a value judgment–it suggests that the narrator shouldn’t be present at all, and if s/he is, there’s a problem somewhere. Perhaps because we live in the age of film, we’ve come to accept that–we think in terms of the fourth wall–and the fourth wall is the camera lens. We’re supposed to see through it, and we value an artistry that makes us forget that we’re watching a movie.

    Direct address does indeed shatter the camera lens. But it is older, not newer, than the conventions we cherish today. Gidwitz is wise to employ direct address, because in A TALE DARK AND GRIMM, he’s hearkening back to oral tradition–the tellers of folklore are always clear about the fact that they are telling a story. The narrator is always present. Gidwitz also uses direct address to create a contrast between his storytelling voice–which has the poetic immediacy of folklore–and his conversation with the readers, which is swift-paced, intimate, and smartass.

    I think people should think about what direct address can DO before they dismiss it. While it generally draws on the intimacy between the narrator and the reader, it is a versatile technique as well as a powerful one. When Richard III looks out at the audience and explains how he’s going to kill his relatives, he does it so wittily and sympathetically that the audience laughs–thereby becoming complicit in his plots. In that case, the technique creates tension and ambivalence. When Kate DiCamillo speaks to the reader in DESPEREAUX, she’s drawing a circle; inside it is the reader and the narrator; outside is the great darkness. DiCamillo functions as a Virgil–she is powerful enough to conduct the reader through hell. When Trollope writes, “Eames did do as he liked, and went home, or to his club,” he is being especially playful–not only drawing attention to the fact that he is narrating the story, but playing with the idea that the character is free to do as he likes. The character is real, and by extension, so is the story.

    I may have run on a bit here. But direct address is dear to my heart. The fact that it can be maddening, even embarrassing, in inexpert hands, is beside the point: so can any literary technique (including that trivial sacred cow “show, don’t tell!”)

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Hmmm. I wonder if there’s another name we could give this other than “intrusive narrator”. Nothing else falls quite as trippingly from the tongue. “First person narrator” perhaps? “Naggy narrator”? “Denizen of the fourth wall”? I kinda like that last one.

  7. I’ve just completed my second reading of A TALE DARK AND GRIMM and find it closer to TALE OF DESPEREAUX in sensibility and theme than any of the others mentioned. Certainly the narrators are different — I agree with Laura that Gidwitz’s is that of a folkloric storyteller, interacting with the audience he has right in front of him. You don’t feel he is intimate with Hansel and Gretel and their families; no, he is telling their story as Homer told the story of Troy. DiCamillo’s narrator, on the other hand, is telling a story he or she was in; there is a different sort of intimacy going on — I’ve thought that it might even be Despereaux, lover-of-stories that he is, telling his own story in the third person. And while both tellers have their wry moments I’m not sure I’d say they were snarky exactly. To me snark is more overt and even a bit mean and neither of these narrators feels mean at all.

  8. Laurel says:

    This is so very interesting to me. My first two books had intrusive narrators, and my 2010 book doesn’t. This was a very intentional thing (and in fact my 2011 book, if I finish it, will be first person, totally different).

    I adore the intrusive narrator as a reader, but wondered (just a bit) if maybe I wasn’t challenging my characters to think for themselves enough. Or if maybe I wasn’t trusting my readers to understand what “the book” was wanting to say. My 2010 book was written with something of an intrusive voice, and then I took it out, to see what happened.

    What happened was that I needed to strengthen my characters.

    I think, sometimes, the weakness of the intrusive voice is that it allows authors to flex their expository/analytical muscles in places where it comes at a cost. Or to show off their storytelling skills at the cost of the story itself.

    Of course, that’s often NOT the case. My very favorite books include an intrusive narrator. But sometimes, if you take it away, the reader does more work…

    Thanks for this post. It isn’t something people talk much about.

  9. nate wilson says:

    I have no problem with the tag ‘intrusive narrator’ as the intrusiveness may or may not be fabulous. Though, to be honest, when the explicit ‘dear readering’ begins I tend to object.

    In MG fiction (and imho), intrusiveness is most effectively used to swap out humor for fear, providing a little lightness to cut the darkness. It is a way of loosening the story’s grip on a young mind, reminding them that you–that jovial or snarky personality–are still there. But when it’s used as an engine to drive the story from chapter to chapter, or as an explicit interpreter of action, then it can move from ‘intrusive narrartor’ to ‘bossy narrator’. Or worse, ‘lazy bossy narrator.’

  10. rams says:

    *Recent* onslaught of confessional poetry?

  11. Jim says:

    The termonology “intrusive narrator” hits the nail on the head. I like my stories to be seamless. Yes, that means as much as possible, the narrator should not be there at all. I want the words I read off the page to hit my brain–and I want to create my own movie and sountrack. So anything the author does to (essentially) show off–and pull me out of the moment–is an unwelcome intrusion.

    It seems that authors, more an more, feel the need to ‘experiment’. I just finished reading “The Red Pyramid”. In that book, the first person narration is passed back and forth, chapter by chapter, between two siblings. To help prevent reader confusion the publisher even went so far as printing the narrator’s name at the top of the odd numbered pages. Having to go to such lengths says something about the desirability of such ‘literary devices’.

    To take it to the next level, in The Bartimaeus Trilogy the author intruded even more by sprinkling footnotes liberally throughout the entire text. Talk about getting pulled out of the story and interrupting a reader’s train of thought!

    That’s where I draw the line–footnoted novels.

  12. I agree with Laura.

    I would have just left my comment at that, but actually I DON’T think the term “intrusive narrator” is necessarily a bad thing. I knew exactly the sort of narrator you meant as soon as you said it, and I don’t think other terms could be so specific. A first person narrator who IS a character is a lot different from a first person narrator whose only role IS to narrate. And “naggy” is definitely MORE of a judgment than “intrusive”!

  13. Kate Coombs says:

    Now I’m thinking of Greek choruses…

    How about explicit narrator? But that sounds narsty!

    Like I said, it’s a stylistic choice, and I know some people really like it. Done well, it can feel like a good first-person narrator. In fact, I wonder if this type of running commentary might be more effective when used with greater frequency. Otherwise, I know as a reader I tend to forget about that narrator, and then it’s a bit of a shock when he/she pops up again.

    I suppose I should temper my inadvertently dire criticism by saying I’ve liked some individual titles that used this technique, including Mysterious Howling and Laurel’s books. I do think it works best when mixed with humor. There’s a tongue-in-cheek feel to narrative–um, adhesion? Even DiCamillo’s use of it is gently humorous.

    Rams–Recent meaning “in the past 30-40 years,” of course. :)

    Also: I was watching the series Veronica Mars on DVD yesterday, and it has Veronica doing a narrative commentary in voice-over. Similar effect.

  14. Adam Gidwitz says:

    I, too, agree with Laura. I think “direct address” is a perfectly good name for it. But I’ve always been intrusive as a person, and if I’m intrusive as a writer, well, so be it. Some kids will turn their faces from me and try to push me away bodily. Others will invite the direct connection that direct address can create. My “intrusiveness,” after all, is just what I do when I read aloud to my students; which they seem to enjoy. In A Tale Dark and Grimm, I just wrote down what I typically say to them.

    I do think we should be careful about overusing the technique of direct address. As with any technique. As Laura said above: “The fact that it can be maddening, even embarrassing, in inexpert hands, is beside the point: so can any literary technique (including that trivial sacred cow “show, don’t tell!”).” That is the truth of the matter.

    The invisible omniscient narrator, or invisible close-third person narrator, is a literary choice. It is a convention. So, for that matter, is “show, don’t tell.” I happily and consciously flout “show don’t tell” because it is a convention—one that was developed in the 19th century, I would guess, with the rise of the realistic novel. I flout this convention because all conventions deserve to be flouted from time to time so people remember that they are arbitrary cultural rules invented for specific historical locales. As Betsy points out in her post, Cervantes, Sterne, and Borges all tell as well as show. So, for that matter, do Homer and Shakespeare and Chaucer and Calvino. What’s interesting from this group of authors, what you’ll notice, is how they are confined to outside the “modern” period—the late enlightenment through the 1950s. They are either pre-modern or post-modern (with the possible exception of Sterne). So, not to get all literary-theoretical, but “show don’t tell” is a historically local convention. It is a good one in many, many cases—thank the Lord for it, as it has produced some of the world’s most wonderful literature. But it is just a convention.

    A novel, in the end, is just black scribbles on a page. What kinds of rules should we have for that? The only rule is to affect the audience powerfully and, ultimately, positively. However you can do that, do it. Says me. Who has published going-on-one book. The expert, over here.

  15. Wonderful discussion here. Myself, I think there are no hard and fast rules about writing (much as some seem to think so and try to teach them). A full-bodied narrator (how’s that for a term?) can be fantastic, annoying, hilarious, irritating, all, or none of those, depending on the writing quality. There are intrusive-or-whatever-they-are narrators that drive me nuts and cause me to toss the book aside a few pages in and there are those that seem absolutely perfect.

    Reading the post and comments has made me think about Philip Pullman’s comments on the omniscient narrator — that it is a character too, a sprite moving in and out everywhere. There’s a wonderful moment in The Golden Compass when Lyra is going on and on with a story and the narrator finally clearly has had it with her and says, “And so on.” (I’ve the exact section and more about this in this post: http://medinger.wordpress.com/2006/10/07/listening-to-philip-pullman/)

    As for footnotes, I’ve got to say, done right I love ‘em. One of the most brilliant uses of them ever (IMHO) was David Foster Wallace’s in a piece he did for Harper’s. You can get a taste of it at this here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Supposedly_Fun_Thing_I%27ll_Never_Do_Again

  16. I meant to ditto Danielle on the Perkins. Feels like an omniscient narrator a la Philip Pullman in His Dark Materials where the narrator sort of stays back quietly, but in a couple of spots just comes out and is very, very opinionated. (By the way, I’ve just done a blog post inspired by this: http://medinger.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/whatchamacallit-narrators/)

  17. Santiago says:

    A commernt on Bartimaeus and the difference between reading (from a narrator) and listening (from a storyteller). I first encountered the trilogy in the recorded version, and the sections of the story that appear as footnotes on print seemed perfectly natural, just as some storytellers (favorite uncle or grandpa, perhaps) are prone to ramble (although this one seemed to be a compulsive exaggerator/know-it-all). I liked the comparison of Desperaux’s narrator to Virgil. I think that having that component helps the story to be more accessible to younger readers, despite the grimness.

  18. Boni Ashburn says:

    Love the intrusive narrator and love this discussion! I agree with Gidwitz about “show don’t tell” being very much a 19th century convention- excellent point. With so many books out there conscientiously adhering to it as a principle of our times, books in which the the intrusive narrator appears feel refreshing to me and I’ve enjoyed many of the titles mentioned here just for that reason.

    But, Betsy? “Compare that narrator with the one in Gidwitz’s tale.”

    As I pointed out to you on twitter, easier said than done for (ahem) some of us. I’ll get back to you in, uh, looks like November… :)

  19. kristen says:

    I am reading an ARC of Jackson Jones by Jenn Kelly (releasing this month) and it has the most obnoxious intrusive narrator I’ve ever read. Simply unbearable. Slogging through to give a proper review.

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