Friday, October 10, 2014

And to Think that I Saw It on Mulberry Street

by Jean Roberta

I often explain narrative point-of-view to bewildered first-year university students. Too many of them seem to think that a story is written in “first-person” if one major character has all the best lines.

I use the Dr. Seuss story, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” as an example of first-person storytelling. Did “Dr. Seuss” (himself a persona based on a pen name) actually see all the things he describes? Very unlikely, but this fantasy never loses its breathless air of immediacy because the narrator seems to be speaking directly to us, the reader.

Looking over my own stories to find a general pattern of viewpoints, I’ve realized that I am often confused myself, especially while a story is gelling in my mind. Whose story is it? Would it be told better by a major character who is directly involved in the action, or by a more objective (or more biased) observer?

The stories I’ve especially enjoyed writing have been told by an “I” who is clearly not me, or not the me who is visible from the outside (short, white, female, past menopause, Canadian). I like to inhabit other personalities partly because I secretly think of myself as a failed actor (have performed in a few plays, but never had anything resembling a career on the stage) and writing in first-person is another way to perform. (“Is this a dagger that I see before me? Out, out, damned spot!”)

Part of the pleasure of inhabiting a different personality has to do with preventing malicious gossip, or thwarting the gossip-mongers. Those who would like to find some dirt on the outwardly-visible me are likely to be frustrated when they learn that the “I” in a particular story is male, supernatural, or living in a past century.

Here is the beginning of a fairly lightweight erotic story (“Focal Point”) that I wrote from the viewpoint of a young man. I live in a country where “Jean” can be seen as a masculine name, so I kept it for my narrator.

“'We have a prop for you today, Johnny,' purred the avant-garde lesbian-feminist art instructor I thought of as Ms. Muff. I hated the way she used the royal 'we,' and I hated her version of my French-Canadian name, Jean.

There’s something about being naked in a roomful of fully-dressed people that makes it hard for me to assert myself. In fact, trying not to get hard usually took up most of my energy. I stood quietly, forcing my arms to stay at my sides, while Ms. Muff strutted around me in her black jeans, tossing her sun-bleached hair and looking amused. She probably fantasized about cutting me up and serving choice bits as hors d’oeuvres at the next lesbian brunch or gallery opening."

This story (with m/m sex) was based on my own experience as a model in university art classes, but the narrator’s perception of women as having cruel power over vulnerable men was a stretch for me. Being naked in public is definitely a vulnerable position for anyone to be in, but as a male friend pointed out to me at the time, I was never likely to have a visible erection. And as I pointed out to myself, writing this story might possibly expose me to ridicule, but not for being a gay man.

I wrote another m/m story (a fairly rare experiment for me) from a limited third-person viewpoint. The central character is a journalist, and I thought he would probably tell his own story in third-person, as though it were a news article. He is also a widower, and I thought his habitual use of third-person narration would be his way of keeping a grip, not giving in to his grief.

"The Pacific is playful and moody near Isla Negra, the final resting-place of the unofficial national poet of Chile and his faithful companera. Stan Boisvert waded ankle-deep into the surging wavelets, his pants rolled up high enough to show the plentiful, dark leg-hair that could be ruffled by a strong breeze.

It was January, full summer in the Southern Hemisphere. Nonetheless, the water was cold enough to raise goose-bumps on exposed skin. The breezes--¬some warmer and some cooler--helped. Stan welcomed the feeling of air and water on his body. He came to the beach to be reminded he was alive.

As a boy in Canada, he had waded into the grey water of Lake Ontario, never quite believing that it was a lake surrounded by solid land and not an ocean that could carry a curious traveler to other continents. The vastness, the restlessness and the dazzling effects of sunlight on water had all been the same then as now. Presumably, though, Stan knew more about the world now than he had as a child, not only in a geographical sense.

He was attracted to this beach because it had looked deserted. In some unacknowledged sense, he had hoped that if his own lost companera were to contact him, it would be here where the ocean surges onto the land like a horde of spirits persistently trying to touch the living. Grief had given him an irrational conviction that she must still exist in some form, and that she had left him to return to her home."

Those who know me generally know that when I tell a story from the viewpoint of a woman who adores a particular man (a hunk! a god!), this is another big stretch for me. The story I wrote for the forthcoming Mammoth Book of Uniform Erotica (edited by Barbara Cardy, who accepted my story) is basically a romance. I wanted to show a particular uniform from the viewpoint of the woman who loves to see her man wearing it.

“'Door-to-door delivery will continue until the end of the calendar year, but plans are in place to phase it out. The Corporation can no longer justify the expense of this service, especially in rural areas.' The television newscaster looked like a mannequin in a display window, and she read her lines without a trace of feeling. I wanted to shoot the messenger.

I could hardly imagine not seeing Bernard, my favourite mail carrier, striding up my front walk every weekday morning at eleven o’clock precisely. In winter, he wore his regulation black parka and the black balaclava that covered his whole face except for his sky- blue eyes. In summer, he wore his summer uniform: a short-sleeved khaki shirt and shorts that revealed his muscular, sun-tanned legs. In all seasons, he proudly wore the symbol of the Canada Post Corporation, a red chevron like an arrow speeding toward its target. Just seeing it made my heart beat faster."

Actually, I was only being somewhat facetious here. For years, I have honestly admired the men and women who brave the Canadian climate (which varies from region to region, but is generally unfriendly everywhere except the West Coast) to ensure that letters and parcels get delivered right to our mailboxes. And the federal government has threatened to phase out this service, so that at some point in the future, door-to-door mail delivery here will probably seem as quaint as the Pony Express.

I vaguely remember most of my lesbian stories as clear, simple, first-person, horse’s-mouth narratives, but a brief survey of them shows me that the dreaded head-hopping occurs in some of them. In this story, “A Bushy Tale,” I wanted to show an encounter from the viewpoints of both women. While writing, I think I was completely oblivious of the pitfalls of this approach.

"Louanne and Thomasina (who could stand being called Tommy but not Tommy-girl)were getting acquainted over leisurely cups of coffee on the patio of Café Mocha. They had been introduced by their mutual friend Mick, a dyke d.j. who enjoyed watching women on a crowded dance floor, and occasionally tried to match them up. The spring weather was bright and breezy, coaxing all the trees and plants in the neighborhood to show their first trusting leaves.

'Do you like your job?' Louanne asked Tommy, whose arm muscles impressed her. Louanne imagined being wrestled to the floor, and it made her blush. She had been told about Tommy’s sexual tastes, but decided to stick to safe topics.

'Oh, yes,' Tommy smiled. She was noticing the way sunlight brought out the reddish-gold highlights in the wood-brown hair that brushed Louanne’s shoulders. Tommy wanted to stroke it, gather it up in one hand, and pull it to bring Louanne’s mouth closer to hers. She decided to focus on the conversation.

'I work for the Humane Society, you know. When we get complaints about animal abuse, I go check them out. If I find that, uh, the animals shows signs of abuse, I bring them back to the shelter and we take care of them. I like watching them recover.'

Louanne beamed, and Tommy gave her an answering smile. 'I know what you mean,' Louanne assured her, even though she seriously doubted whether anyone really knew what anyone else meant. 'I’ve been a volunteer counsellor on the sexual assault and abuse line for a few years. Dealing with women who’ve been abused is hard, but it’s good to see them getting their lives back, little by little.'"

Too true that few people know what anyone else means. Sometimes I’m not even sure what I mean. I wanted to tap into the real-life comedy of two new acquaintances exchanging polite chatter while their parallel streams of consciousness run below their words like a bass line below the melody. It was fun to write. I just hope it isn’t too confusing to read. (It was published in Best Lesbian Erotica 2004.)

Several years ago, while randomly googling my pen name, I discovered “A Bushy Tale” on the website of a man who called himself Marcel Lee, and described himself as a 31-year-old heterosexual African-American man in Detroit, Michigan. WTF? I thought. This story was part of his on-line erotic library, pirated from various sources, and available for anyone to read. Marcel seemed to think he was providing a public service by making this material available to others. It was his way of attracting a following. It certainly attracted me.

I described this situation in the “Writers” list of the Erotic Readers & Writers Association, and got predictable advice. Several list-members advised me to threaten Marcel with drastic legal action if he didn’t remove my story at once. How dare he toy with my intellectual property?

I couldn’t work up a full head of steam over the theft of my story. I had already been paid for its publication in Best Lesbian Erotica. I wasn’t going to earn more money for it unless I submitted it elsewhere, which I could still do. Meanwhile, a whole new audience (probably not the usual readers of BLE) were seeing my work and my pen name. I decided to leave Marcel in peace.

Someday I might write a story from the viewpoint of a young straight man from Detroit who pirates lesbian erotica. Ha.


  1. For what it's worth, I don't think the POV shifts in your Louanne-Tommy are clumsy or confusing. There's nothing wrong with toggling back and forth, imho, as long as the demarcations are clear and the author appears to be in control of it and person A's POV doesn't spill over into the middle of person B's paragraph. (I also think it would look odd to have character B's POV featured in only one paragraph of a full-length piece that was otherwise entirely told from A's point of view; that might look accidental to me rather than deliberate.)

    Are POV shifts, however skillful, getting sweepingly labeled as forbidden "head-hopping" these days by certain publishers? Is this one of those things that some publishers have patronizingly decided their readers can't handle, like semicolons?

  2. Jean:
    I like and even admire your thinking about piracy. It's one thing to be chosen by notable editors for an anthology, it's quite another to serve up a morsel so juicy that someone is compelled to steal it. I for one would delight in reading the story about a heterosexual African-American man living in Detroit who pirates lesbian erotica. Wouldn't it be fun if you could bury a virus into a story that you could activate if the story is pirated. Kaboom!

  3. Thank you for reading, Jeremy and Spencer. Jeremy, no one criticized me for "head-hopping" in "A Bushy Tale." I was simply surprised to notice a technique I didn't remember using. But I suspect that some publishers have blanket rules against this sort of thing, along with semicolons (too subtle & therefore confusing).
    Spencer, you have a devious mind. It's inspiring. :)

  4. As Jeremy said, your Louanne and Tammy scene is just the way it should be. And your quote from Lady Macbeth startled me into recognizing the obvious; all dialogue in plays is first-person, with the rare exception of prologues read by a narrator, and we don't see much of those these days.

  5. I try not to let it bother me either, whenever google-alerts lets me know where my books are being requested or offered for free. Even though my royalties checks usually can barely buy me a cup of coffee (which I had to give up earlier this year due to acid reflux issues...getting older strikes me as a continuous experience of lowering of your expectations and standards.)

    I just hope the people downloading the entire novel I offer for free on Smashwords consider buying even one of my other books. Alas, some just read free books, I guess. At least I have very good friends who loyally assure me my books would make great movies, and they've even thought of which actors should play which characters. Friends make even growing older bearable.

  6. So they're threatening to cut mail service up there too? Ever since they made it about money, they're reluctant to do anything just for basic SERVICE one should expect in a civilized society.

    And, what you say about conversations and how they are received-- Time after time, in real life, I'll watch someone misconstrue what's being said to them. Sometimes it's the speaker at fault, being vague or ambiguous and sometimes the receiver takes off on a minute tangent, having nothing to do with the conversation.

  7. What varied comments! Thank you, Sacchi, Fiona, and Daddy X. One of the more bizarre things I've discovered by googling my own pen name (about 7 years ago) was a deliberately misleading review. I had written a mixed review of a certain writer's first erotic novel. She excerpted the most flattering passage to post on her website in praise of her SECOND novel, which I had never read. This looked to me like a very distinct type of plagiarism, if that's the right word for it. I refused to "friend" her on various social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Livejournal, et al), where I was urged to do this. I haven't visited her site since then.

    1. In a similar vein, I've definitely seen authors and publishers in our field playing fast and loose with the praise blurbs they've solicited—revising them (in ways that go beyond the permissible compression/ellipses/brackets system) so as to alter the meaning slightly (whether intentionally or unintentionally).

  8. Yes, Daddy X, the Canadian federal gov't is threatening to phase out home delivery of mail by 2016. For many years, I've heard complaints that mail carriers here get paid too much (partly because they had a notoriously aggressive union leader for years), and that Canadian stamps cost too much so that postal workers can live in luxury. Now the spread of email is a perfect excuse to gut the post office. Honestly, though, I can't imagine a salary that would tempt me to spend hours per day in weather that ranges from 40 degrees below zero (Celsius or Fahrenheit) to 40 above zero (Celsius - about 110 Fahrenheit). I'm not sure that's a service that anyone has right to expect from anyone else.

    1. And I thought you guys up there were more civilized than we are. Cutting working people's jobs and services always seems to be the answer, so we can send vast quantities of arms and young people with few choices to war-torn areas, keeping our economy afloat. It's a prime example of the law of diminishing returns. Think of what we'd have if they put those resources into infrastructure and services. Maybe we'd have an actual civilization. We could build a bridge with the money spent on one fighter plane or tank.

    2. Daddy X, Canada has a tradition of providing for the people, but our current administration prefers a U.S. model. Feh. I wouldn't want postal workers to be thrown out of their jobs, but I recognize that mail carriers here have to be as tough as Arctic explorers. I think they deserve decent pay, but then the post office keeps raising the price of stamps, and that in turn encourages the use of other means of communication. It's a dilemma.

  9. I'm a bit late in reading this, but I agree about your "Bushy Tail". There's no issue of confusion. Indeed, this is close to omniscient third, with the narration dipping first into Louanne's perceptions and then into Tommy's. It does have a distancing effect, for me, though. I feel as though I'm a voyeur, above and beyond them both.

    I don't think I've read "Focal Point", but it sounds like fun. When I think of your work, I almost overwhelmingly remember female narrators.

  10. Thanks for commenting, Lisabet. Most of my narrators are female, but occasionally I venture into less familiar territory. :)

  11. I'm even later, having been away in the land of scarce wifi (but beautiful fall scenery.)

    Sometimes I think that that any "rules" can be broken to good effect by a skillful writer, as you are, Jean. You can make the reader experience things through the points of view of both characters, which can be confusing or distancing, but can also, done well, enhance the pleasure. Who hasn't wished once or twice during sex that they could experience their partner's sensations as well as their own?

  12. Good point, Sacchi! That might have been my motive for showing the consciousness of both central characters in a story. M. Christian and several other writers of fantasy erotica who publish with Circlet Press have dived much deeper than I ever have (yet) into telepathic sex, sometimes involving more than 2 individuals with complicated genders and sexual orientations, all having a kind of quadraphonic sexual experience. ! I know it can be done (at least on paper).

  13. Thanks for showing the varied viewpoints! As usual, I'm getting the "latest to the party" award, but here I am.

    I agree with people who distinguish between clumsy head-hopping and skillful shifts of POV (3rd person omniscient—it even has a name!).

    I also love what you said about enjoying the first-person voice of someone who's not outwardly like you. There are certain stories I want to tell that way, including my m/m "Icarus Bleeds"—the narrator is an older, weary black hacker, but his voice was so clear in my head. It's nice to stretch that way.


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