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Omniscience

I was in the car during a freak, unpredicted ice storm, my son-in-law driving, when he asked me what I was working on. We were in the midst of a scary situation, the road a slick rink, my daughter in the car behind with my husband, inching forward in convoy. At first—anxiety riding high—I thought he was trying to distract me, but then he continued to discuss a new Kingsolver novel he was reading and his next question was so astute—for a reader who is not a writer—that I was in awe: “Is it difficult to write from multiple points of view?”

Of course the answer is “yes.” But why? Well, I had to explain that when we first begin to write, it’s much easier to see everything from the prism of our own experience, to write in the intimate first person. (And this is true of both fiction and nonfiction.) Or, alternatively, we’ll establish an omniscient third person narrator who sees and knows everything. (And this is also true of both fiction and nonfiction.)

These days, neither choice satisfies, and I have an hypothesis about why this is so, as follows: We’ve changed. We’re more tolerant. We’ve evolved. We listen more to multiple points of view.

Of course, this is just an hypothesis and it’s from my POV. But I was around when a major shift took place in the newsroom—more women, more minorities—and the “girls in the balcony,” as they were known in the Washington press corps, were finally let onto the floor of Congress to report. The story of pay and opportunity equity for women in the balcony, and the New York Times in particular, is told by Nan Robertson in her page turning book:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Girls-Balcony-Women-Times/dp/0595154646

It was originally published in the 1990’s and reissued in 2000, not that long ago. And it’s not so long ago that women were relegated to the society pages or the home pages. As for minorities in the newsrooms and on broadcast TV, they were non-existent until the late 1960’s, if memory serves. Progress came only after a civil rights struggle and changes in the law.

Do women have a more expansive consciousness? Do they have a larger appetite for uncertainty? For multiple points of view? Because as soon as women and minorities entered the newsroom and the boards of publishing houses and academic towers, narration changed.

When white men did most of the news reporting and essay writing, their voices were often omniscient. Then came the women’s movement and the New Journalism—Wolfe, Didion, Mailer, Thompson—which established a new narrative persona—more peripheral, the reporter in the action and reporting the action. It demanded humility, not omniscience. And we can still feel this tectonic shift today in poetry, memoirs and blogs, such as this one. Needless to say, I’m grateful for it.
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