#LetsDiscuss2020 #20 – Non-Human Narrators – #DiscussionSunday.

#LetsDiscuss2020

Sometimes authors like to get very creative, and do things that are innovative, even if they might not agree with the sensibilities of all of their readers. One of the things that I have a problem with is non-human characters narrating novels. Hence my question for this post …

Non-Human Narrators: Interesting or Annoying?

Discussion Sunday #letsdiscuss2020

Disclaimer:

These are my personal opinions. I do not expect anyone to agree with anything here, and in fact, I’m certain that many will disagree and/or even hate many of the things I’ve written below. Sorry about that, but you are always welcome to express your own opinions – be they contrary or comparable – in the comments section. So, with that out of the way… let the controversy begin!

What made me think about this topic?

I recently read the novel “Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey” by Kathleen Rooney, where one of the two protagonists is a dead, stuffed, homing pigeon. While this kept me from giving this book a higher rating, I have to admit that Rooney’s writing saved the day with this novel. Rooney’s novel was even more unusual than “Jacob’s Folly” by Rebecca Miller, where the narrator is a reincarnated soul from 18th Century France in the body of a common housefly in the USA in the 21st Century. Now, I don’t believe in reincarnation, and I had a bit of a problem with a fly trying to change peoples’ lives. However, after I got into reading the book, and was able to overcome at least some of my initial incredulity, I found it wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be.

My Experiences in the past…

Of course, these weren’t the first times that I’ve had this type of reaction to a non-human point of view in a novel. Like many “boomers,” I read “Watership Down” by Richard Adams in my youth, where all the characters were rabbits. In High School, I also read “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, where pigs are the main characters. However, in both these instances, these novels weren’t literary fiction books; they were genre fiction novels. These two stories are told as allegories, so taking the liberty of using non-human characters can be somewhat forgiven. The point to these books is not the narrators, but rather the lessons that they are trying to teach the readers – much like fables of the past, which are always a bit fantastical.

Okay so… excusable or inexcusable?

For me, this isn’t as excusable with literary fiction novels. One of the first times I recall balking at such a device was when I read a book called “Ardor” by Lily Prior. In that book, the narrator was a donkey. I also cringed slightly at the onset of Joanne Harris’s novel “Blackberry Wine” I realized I was being talked to by a bottle of wine! Harris really pushed my abilities to suspend disbelief with an inanimate object as the narrator – not even a living creature. With that book it was a good thing that Harris referred to this only at the start of the book and then left it hanging without mention, except at the very end.

As I noted in my reviews of these books (I never reviewed “Watership Down” or “Animal Farm”), these authors had to work very hard to keep up this non-human POV pretense throughout their novels. Essentially, the POVs here became first person (or first animal/object), omnipresent, with the entire physicality of the narrator fading as much into the background as possible. It is very possible that had this not been the case, none of these novels would have gotten as high ratings as I gave them. Despite the very admirable jobs that all of these authors did to try to convince me that it didn’t matter what type of being or object the narrator was, the fact that they weren’t living human beings still niggled at me.

Why? Well, for that answer I recall what John Irving said in one of his memoir essays in his book “Trying to Save Piggy Sneed.” The anecdote he recalls is a creative writing class Irving taught, where one of the students comes in with a story about a bowl of soup, but written from the POV of a spoon. While almost all of the students thought this was absolutely brilliant and highly creative, only Irving and one other student disagreed. When Irving asked that student why he didn’t care for the story, the student’s reply was simply “because, we are not spoons.” This is my point, and I believe I noted in my critiques of all these of novels, that I find it hard to identify with such narrators because I am not a reincarnated fly, taxidermized pigeon, donkey, or bottle of wine. This is especially true for me when it comes to literary fiction. I suppose if I read fantasy novels, I might not feel this way, but I don’t – the genre just doesn’t speak to me, I’m afraid.

So, for me, I have to say that non-human narrators are more of an annoyance than an interesting literary mechanic.

So… what about you?

Do you have a problem with non-human narrators? Did you find these type of narrators detract from a story, or do you think they are welcome innovations?

This post is my 20th entry in the 2020 Discussion Challenge, hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

2020-Discussion-Challenge

30 thoughts on “#LetsDiscuss2020 #20 – Non-Human Narrators – #DiscussionSunday.

  1. A very interesting question, Davida. I think it depends on the book. I have read many stories told from an animal’s point of view and it worked. I don’t think I would get a bottle of wine though. I will say i do enjoy cute, so perhaps enjoy it more than others who are more serious readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Davida! I feel like hiding a bit here and I have to wonder if we annoy you…?? I loved your post and agree – I don’t want to read a story from a bottle of wine, for I am not a bottle of wine…. Great argument. I actually remember that short story from John Irving. I remember it made a huge impact on me.

    Getting back to the annoyance – when I started blogging again, I’ve decided to do something different and write in Elza’s (my fluffy damn naughty kitten) “voice”. I love it…. It brings a lot of joy and I do find the blog a lovely escape from reality. Especially through Elza’s voice.

    I understand that it might not be to everyone’s liking and I respect people who can speak their minds, but remain open minded.

    I love your blog and and posts and to hop over here. If Elza annoys you however, please let me know! I can’t promise that we won’t still try to get on your lap, you know how cats can be…

    Have a wonderful weekend!

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    1. No, you don’t annoy me. I have no problem with your blog (even though I’m deathly allergic to cats, so please don’t jump on my lap)! You do you, my dear. I’m not going to stop reading your blog because you use your cat’s voice – that would be silly. I enjoy your blog a whole lot! Again, you do you!

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  3. I understand your point and have read the essay you mention by John Irving and totally agreed with it. I also remember David Mamet writing that he was excited when he was asked to write a script based on Moby Dick and then appalled when they told him he should write it from the point of view of the whale.
    I agree with the comments about children’s books and fantasy (and I’ve read books where some of the action was told from the point of view of an animal, a cat). There has to be a good reason for it, and it has to be very well done.
    Thanks for a very interesting discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For the most part, I think it depends on the skill of the narrator. I hate “cutesy” so would not enjoy that mindset but I am thinking of a great book called Dogsbody by Diana Wynne Jones, in which (IIRC) a rebellious character is turned into a dog, and it was very well done.

    On the other hand, dead pigeon, gross!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Interesting topic! I wouldn’t say that non-human narrators are a favorite, but if done well and if there’s a good enough reason for it, it can be effective. The most recent book I read with a non-human narrator was Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton, which is narrated by a crow — and it was an amazing book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aw… thanks! It might take a bit of time for me to do this one, and I hope its okay if I don’t tag anyone (I can never choose, I love my fellow bloggers so much I don’t want any of them to feel snubbed). Good luck with your isolation, and take good care of yourself!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I don’t have a problem with non-human narrators, though I don’t seek them out. I’m a boomer who had no interest in reading Watership down, and didn’t! I did read Animal Farm though, for school, and I liked it. But, as you say, it’s an allegory.

    Like some here, I liked Death in The book thief. I also liked the skeleton in Carmel Bird’s Family skeleton, and the unborn fetus in McEwan’s Nutshell.

    I take your point that “I find it hard to identify with such narrators because I am not a reincarnated fly, taxidermized pigeon, donkey, or bottle of wine”. However, I’d like to tease out the idea that you have to identify with narrators to enjoy a book. I’m anxious about this idea, because it then means you can’t like a book with an unappealing narrator (like, say, Suskind’s Perfume). Also, what about narrators who aren’t like us, such as I’m not an old Japanese male artist or a young Indigenous Australian boy, but I’ve enjoyed stories focusing on them. Where is the line? Can we only identify with someone just like us? And, as I said anyhow, do we have to identify to enjoy or appreciate? I don’t believe I do. I like to feel but I don’t think I need to identify?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I see your point, but I don’t have a problem identifying (to a certain extent) with any human narrator, because… I’m a human myself. I just have a hard time with non-human narrators. Language is something that is exclusive to humans, and giving language to something that isn’t human just doesn’t work for me. Mind you, back when I read Sci-Fi I didn’t have a problem with alien beings talking, because in a way, they too are a type of intelligent being that has a type of language skill. So… my line is therefore language (and possibly also opposable thumbs). And no, I don’t need to like a narrator to see them as a human being – they can be despicable and I still get that they are living, human beings.

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      1. Fair enough. Interestingly I’m not interested in sci-fi because, I think, I’m more interested in the real world. (So I quite like dystopian fiction.) These non-human narrators tend to be in the real world, so I think it’s the world or context that is important for me, not so much the narrator. A different narrator gets my mind going!

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Of course, it depends on the book. THE BOOK THIEF had Death as a narrator. I thought it was very well done. THE CLOCKMAKER’S DAUGHTER – well, some might question that it was a nonhuman narrator. While at first, it seems the narrator is the house, it is actually the ghost of someone who died in the house. And recently in SNOWBALL’S CHRISTMAS, one of the narrators is a cat. It was a cute addition.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “The Winter Pony” by Iain Lawrence came to me via a suggestion from a friend on Goodreads. But a book about the trek to the South Pole written from the point of view of the horse? I mean, come on, let’s get real.

    Still the first chapter was captivating, and before I knew it, I was immersed in the world of Captain Scott and his fatal journey to the South Pole. Interspersed with the Pony’s narration, Lawrence adds factual data of the preparation, planning, and execution of the voyage. These bits are as beautifully written as the rest.

    Apart from this YA novel, I haven’t been tempted to read anything else from a non-human point of view–does not appeal at all.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Well….I have a couple of favorite nonhuman narrators! Death in The Book Thief and Music in The Magic Strings of Frankie Presto! Loved both of them! I believe in Wishes (middle grade) that the narrator is a Tree! Those are the first three that come to mind! Interesting topic Davida! 🙌

    Liked by 1 person

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