I’ve long been fond of Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman’s compendium of writing advice, How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them—A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide (Harper Perennial, 2009). It’s a rather self-explanatory concept: these are the problems that plague countless unpublishable manuscripts, so do your best to avoid them. It’s also hilarious, both in terms of the bad writing samples and the authors’ commentary.
Now, categorical rules for good writing are rare indeed, and while their advice holds true in the vast majority of circumstances, Mittelmark and Newman don’t claim that their list is authoritative. To quote from their introduction: “We do not propose any rules; we offer observations. ‘No right on red’ is a rule. ‘Driving at high speed toward a brick wall usually ends badly’ is an observation.”
Even the least promising creative devices can be put to good use, however high the degree of difficulty. Case in point: making the narrator an inanimate object.
In their chapter on POV, Mittelmark and Newman write a short paragraph on the subject, with the wonderful title of “King Lear from the Point of View of the Throne”:
Writing from the point of view of a spoon, the world’s smallest mosquito, or Nero’s fiddle is generally inadvisable. The author is immediately faced with the task of accounting for the spoon’s ability to type, interest in human affairs, etc. (Unless it is a literary novel, where such things pass without comment.) Writing such a book is very difficult, and such strained gimmicks generally backfire. So unless you have an inner passion that drives you, willy-nilly, to sing the secret life of the toaster, it’s better to look to the toaster’s owner for you protagonist.
The whole “how can a spoon type?” question strikes me as overly literal-minded, but the point stands. “Strained gimmick” is a good phrase here. When I’ve gotten such stories from students (and I have), the inanimate POV is usually treated as some big twist. They’ll write a fairly mundane scene, and then at the end suggest that a spoon or whatever is narrating. It’s a twist on par with “The narrator was dead the whole time,” or “It was all a dream,” in that it doesn’t really add anything to the piece. We don’t learn what it means to be a spoon or a literal fly on the wall. It’s just a swerve for the sake of swerving.
So here’s a question: how do we break this rule successfully? Is there an example of a story written from an inanimate object’s point of view that benefits from that perspective? Well, I think I’ve found one: Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple.”
Collected in Clara: Thirteen Short Stories and a Novel (trans. Hortense Carpentier and J. Jorge Castello, pub. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), “The Sin of the Apple” is a very short story, just 256 words long. It’s more of a monologue than anything else, which the apple directs at those whose look upon it, up until it falls, ripe and ready to be eaten.
So what does this story piece do right? For one thing, Valenzuela gives the apple clearly-defined traits. That is, she treats the POV-object as a character, not merely as a narrator. Consider the first few sentences: “They scrutinize me with eyes of hunger, those abominable gluttons. I’m beyond your reach, gentlemen, and I don’t intend to budge” (all quotes from p. 77). We can see that the apple is resolute, is perhaps a bit haughty, and has a negative opinion of those who’d seek to eat it. And the direct address, “gentlemen,” grounds the text in a specific situation. No generalities here; someone wants to eat the apple now.
Compare the above to a hypothetical rewriting: “The men below look hungry, but they have a hard time reaching me.” This conveys the same literal scene as Valenzuela’s text, but the apple’s character has vanished. It now relates events without comment, which is not quite as interesting for a protagonist. It also makes the text sound more like a riddle than story, playing it too coy with the identity of the narrator (if the title hadn’t given it away, that is).
Once she has established the apple’s attitude and personality, Valenzuela starts expanding on the apple’s status as an apple. Not for nothing does that narrator refer to itself as “the historical fruit”:
Remember: I’m a descendant, as you know, of Paris’s apple, of William Tell’s, of those of the Hesperides. I’m even related, in a direct line, to the scientific apple of Newton, the apple that has done so much for the human race. I’m a descendant . . .
These references serve two purposes. Firstly, they reinforce and even explain the apple’s self-regard. If the apple’s ancestors are so illustrious, able to start wars and inspire scientists, why shouldn’t the apple be proud? Secondly, they force the reader to consider the role of the apple in human society. It’s an object we normally take for granted, yet it figures into so much of our collective culture. Remember how I said that many stories from the POV of an object don’t really benefit from that perspective? This one does, because it takes the time to explain why it matters.
Of course, there’s one hugely important cultural association the apple has neglected to mention so far: Adam and Eve. (Yes, yes, the fruit they would have eaten was likely not an apple, but the association remains.) It’s a telling detail to forget: humanity is brought low in that story, and the apple is riding high on its ego. So it’s only fitting that, at this precise moment, the serpent appears to remind the narrator “of the frailty of [its] species, the great shame of the apple.”
This shame, we quickly see, has a profound effect on the apple: “I feel the shame mounting through the stem, it makes me hot, I feel myself blush. Oh, how red I am!” In literal terms, the apple is ripening, but in terms of the apple’s character, it’s the completion of an arc. The apple’s pride has proven fragile, and a fall, both literal and metaphorical, is sure to follow. Valenzuela has not simply compared ripening to blushing; she has made that comparison emotionally credible.
Then—and I must admit, this is the one decision in the piece that I’m not sure is successful—the POV shifts from the now-fallen apple to a third-person narrator focused on the men who had been eyeing it. We see one of the men bite into the apple, and then justify himself: “‘It’s only natural, it was ripe and it fell.'”
I see the emphasis on the word “natural,” which also appears earlier in the paragraph, as a crucial element here. It casts the apple’s monologue as something like an etiological fable, that is, a fable explaining why something is the way it is. In this case, apples turn red when they’re ripe because they’re ashamed of their role in the fall of man. An interesting fable, yes, but not as interesting as the character study. If nothing else, shifting the POV in a piece this short is bound to be disorienting, no matter how well-executed.
Still, we can learn a lot from following Valenzuela’s example. A POV-object should not be a cipher, a mere lens. It will have similar needs to a POV-person: a defined character, an emotional arc, etc. Crafting those traits and arcs and such requires some serious forethought and reflection, but such is the case for any piece of writing.
Also, and perhaps this is a personal preference, but this sort of piece should probably be kept short. There’s an inherent absurdity in an inanimate object telling a story, Valenzuela’s piece not excepted. At a certain point, the narrative will be ludicrous as more and more human-like qualities are given to the POV-object. This is obviously bad news for a serious-minded piece. And as for a humorous piece, well, comedy is like poetry: an art of concision.
I think I’ll leave you with a little writing exercise to go along with the discussion:
As mentioned above, Mittelmark and Newman call this particular device “King Lear from the Point of View of the Throne”. Try writing a short piece, say 250 words, which is precisely that: a story narrated by King Lear’s throne. (If you haven’t read King Lear, then 1) what are you waiting for? Read it! and 2) in the meantime, pick another royal story and try that.)
Think about how Valenzuela approaches the apple, giving it character and drawing on the associations it has for us, and apply that thought process to the throne. You also have a key piece of information to play with: this throne has a particular occupant. What’s that relationship like? How does it affect the narrator, if at all?