- The Return of Omniscience in Contemporary Fiction
I want to begin this essay by pointing out what I think has become a salient feature, or at least significant trend, in contemporary British and American literary fiction: namely, a prominent reappearance of the ostensibly outmoded omniscient narrator. In the last two decades, and particularly since the turn of the millennium, a number of important and popular novelists have produced books which exhibit all the formal elements we typically associate with literary omniscience: an all-knowing, heterodiegetic narrator who addresses the reader directly, offers intrusive commentary on the events being narrated, provides access to the consciousness of a range of characters, and generally asserts a palpable presence within the fictional world.
The novelists I'm thinking of include Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, David Lodge, Adam Thirlwell, Michel Faber, and Nicola Barker in the UK; and Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Tom Wolfe, Rick Moody, and John Updike in the US. In this paper I want to consider why so many contemporary writers have turned to omniscient narration, given the aesthetic prejudice against this narrative voice which has prevailed for at least a century. For instance, in 2004 Eugene Goodheart pointed out that: "In the age of perspectivism, in which all claims to authority are suspect, the omniscient narrator is an archaism to be patronized when he is found in the works of the past and to be scorned when he appears in contemporary work" (1).
How are we to evaluate novels which employ an ostensibly redundant nineteenth century form in the twenty-first century? Are they conservative and nostalgic [End Page 143] by virtue of their form, or are they experimental and contemporary in their use of this form? This paradox is captured with ironic pithiness in the last paragraph of David Lodge's 2002 novel, Thinks: "In the first year of the new millennium Helen published a novel which one reviewer described as 'so old-fashioned in form as to be almost experimental'. It was written in the third person, past tense, with an omniscient and sometimes intrusive narrator" (340).
We are accustomed to an historical trajectory of the novel which holds that modernist and postmodernist fiction throughout the twentieth century can be characterised, in part, as a rejection of the moral and epistemological certainties of omniscient narration. I want to suggest that the contemporary revival of omniscience in fact represents a further development and refinement of some of the technical experiments of postmodern fiction. I want to further argue that the reworking of omniscience in contemporary fiction can be understood as one way in which authors have responded to a perceived decline in the cultural authority of the novel over the last two decades.
Attending to the features of contemporary omniscience will also help us to productively reconsider the formal category of omniscient narration itself. According to Gérard Genette, in Narrative Discourse, the paradox of poetics is that "there are no objects except particular ones and no science except of the general" (23). Existing theoretical accounts of omniscient narration derive largely from the study of classic nineteenth century novels. While narrative theory acknowledges historical shifts in fashion, it operates with a synchronic understanding of omniscient narration as a static element of narrative, produced by the structural relationship between focalization and voice. A study of contemporary fiction will enable us to approach the category of omniscient narration as a mutable and historically contingent practice of novelistic craft sensitive to historical and cultural contexts.
The Debate About Omniscience
It is a fascinating historical coincidence, I think, that a theoretical debate about omniscience has emerged in the first decade of the new millennium, at roughly the same time that a revival of omniscient narration has reached a critical mass in contemporary fiction. A dramatization of this debate would see Nicholas Royle and Jonathan Culler lined up for a concerted new millennium attack on literary omniscience, and Barbara K. Olson and Meir Sternberg carrying out a staunch rearguard defence.1 And yet, so far, besides terminological wranglings and abstract theorizing, the debate has not led beyond re-examinations of nineteenth century fiction, such as William Nelles...