It’s day 17 of the A to Z Challenge, and today’s topic is Omniscience – or more specifically, the omniscient narrator.

There’s a kind of literary snobbery I’ve noticed within indie circles lately. I think this is a reaction against accusations of sub-standard work amongst self-publishing authors; those who pride themselves on high standards of editing and a good understanding of the nuts and bolts of publishing don’t want to be tarred with the same brush as someone who uploads their first draft to Kindle and sits back to wait for the money to roll in.

My personal view: I defend anyone’s right to publish whatever they like, in any way they like. While as a reader I can’t stand badly proofed or badly formatted books, as a writer I can’t stand the idea of the ‘publishing police’ trying to step in and tell everyone else how it should be done. We’re at the brink of a publishing revolution – rules are there to be broken.

Which brings me back to the omniscient narrator. (You thought I’d forgotten and gone off on a rant, right?) Before I started to study novels in more detail, I’d read all about viewpoint and so-called ‘head hopping’, and I was variously confused and constrained by the advice in magazines and how-to books and on writing websites. I believed that the best way to write was to stay inside one character’s head – whether in the first person or third person – and that to move around, slip in and out, be all-seeing and all-knowing was just plain wrong.

What a load of baloney. Some of the most highly regarded novels of all time play with viewpoint, swooping in and then out again elegantly, using a narrator that lets the reader see exactly what he or she wants them to see. Nabokov was a master of this, and many popular novelists use a combination of omniscience and third person close-up viewpoint seamlessly. Take a great cinematic opening to a novel – a view of a landscape, perhaps, or a busy street scene. How can this be done without an omniscient narrator? Omniscience in fiction is more unpopular these days, but it’s not wrong. It’s actually very hard to write, especially if you have – like I have – been indoctrinated to believe that single viewpoint, or multiple viewpoints taking clear turns, is the only way to go.

Head-hopping is, I think, what people call it when moving between viewpoint characters or omniscience isn’t done very elegantly. I suppose it’s when it’s so visible it jars with the reader, or when it makes it confusing or difficult to tell who is thinking or feeling what. But it’s not flat-out wrong, as some indie-promoting websites I’ve come across scream from the rooftops.

Vibrissae near the nose and above the eyes of ...
It’s a seal – but it’s not the seal of approval! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The publishing police are badly informed, and by making statements like ‘books which include head-hopping will not be considered for inclusion on this site’ they make themselves look amateur and a little stupid. In my opinion, at least. Literature is wide and varied; there are new and surprising techniques emerging all the time, and no one – least of all those involved in the indie revolution – should be trying to stamp on creativity. I will resist all attempts to add some kind of quality seal to self-published books for the very simple reason that someone, somewhere will have decided what that quality should be, and who should have that right or responsibility? Let the readers decide, is what I say.

OK, it did turn into a rant. I’ll go for something a little more useful tomorrow, I promise 🙂