richard russo’s in defense of omniscience

A few posts back I mentioned how I wanted to read through my tattered copy of Bringing the Devil to His Knees edited by Charles Baxter and Peter Turchi and while on holiday break from school I finally have the time and energy to reread and give some sort of classification and summary to this fine collection of essays on creative writing. I also hope to switch from the Burroway text to this one soon so hopefully these notes/blog entry/random thought will be a beginning to that idea. And also I am also back to the brain of Colorado and I am experimenting with the WordPress Blackberry app. And so the first essay by Richard Russo on the subject of omniscient narration has my thoughts racing on how to apply his thoughts to my work. First, Russo mentions that omniscient narration “is a mature writer’s technique.” I am 36 and find myself worrying at the completion of this essay if I have the skill and “authority” and “knowledge” as well as the “imagination”–this is how Russo sees it. I also like the metaphor of omniscience as driving with a stick shift as opposed to an automatic he uses throughout. I like the way he describes omniscience as a way to see a character internally and externally which is something I wrote about recently on Donoso’s Hell Has No Limits. And I like the way he mentions and somewhat criticizes Catcher in the Rye as well as the Great Gatsby as work that both perhaps could have benefitted from more omniscient aspects. Specifically he writes that Catcher was richer in style than substance and he writes Gatsby strains from the first person anchor. These are books I think of in terms of form with my own work. Highland stories was my mfa thesis and though I styled it mostly after Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son I thought of Catcher and my beloved Salinger and the idea of narrator as character and in my draft of Huerfanos and Little Lolo Stories I thought of Gatsby and a first person family member or friend writing about the past family events and crash sites as the narrator in Gatsby writes about Gatsby. And I can say that my work perhaps has begun more and more to lean towards omniscience narration. I also like the idea in his worry of making hard work even harder–the idea that complex stories don’t always need complex form but we must realize as writers we must give ourselves permission to take risks. So perhaps I can now go back to my drafts and consider worrying less of showing versus telling and allow myself to tell with knowledge and authority rather considering limits. Perhaps I will also check out his novel Nobody’s Fool which is the work he mentions in his last paragraph as being his bringing of first and third person narratives together. I also want to revisit Steinbeck’s Cannery Row which is another novel he uses examples/excerpts from.
And as I type I know these notes of Russo’s essay are pretty weak and I hope to come back to Russo’s essay but for now I do want to read through the book at least reading one essay a night and posting some thoughts every night again as I have a bit of time on holiday break. So tomorrow I have Jim Shepard’s essay “I Know Myself Real Well. That is the Problem.”

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john paul jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo’s debut story collection The House of Order was named a 2013 Int’l Latino Book Award Finalist, and his most recent work Little Mocos is now available from Twelve Winters Press. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. He is currently a professor of composition and literature at Lincoln Land College-Springfield, Illinois.

4 thoughts on “richard russo’s in defense of omniscience”

  1. I want to read this too, but just from these initial notes, if I’m understanding correctly, it does bother me when people (meaning not you, but the guy you are reading) make judgments as to what is “mature” in writing and what’s not. Reminds me of the debates in academia regarding personal essays “vs.” analytical essays. Again, I may be misinterpreting what is being said, and maybe I’m just too naive, but I don’t like that we have to pit one type of writing style against another type. I think writers have to find the voice that they believe is working the most strongly for what they are writing at the time, the voice that allows them the most authority and potential for taking risks.

    1. I should’ve probably done a better job at summary and classification but hard to be thorough typing on phone. Russo did title it defense of omniscience and also gives many anecdotes of young writers in undergrad workshop who don’t consider omniscience because too dificult or too old fashioned.

  2. It’s been forever since I read Russo’s essay, and really most of what I remember of it is Katy defending it mightily in a workshop.

    Anyway, Michael Cunningham does something really interesting in By Nightfall, and I wish I would have asked him about it instead of drooling and acting like a bumbling idiot when I saw him in Oct. His novel stays mostly in close third, but then the camera pans out to omniscient and then he moves to first person in very brief but important parts. He pulls it off quite well, but I still can’t figure out how–or why–he did it.

    p.s. It’s snowing on your blog.

    1. Looks like another novel I should read. Thanks, Kim. Reminds me of this interview I watched of Joan Didion on Play It as It Lays where she discusses the first person introductions of her characters. I like to return to third person to give me some kind of a conscious anchor and I think Russo says something like that.

      Oh and the snow is the sign of a Festivus miracle.

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