P.G. Wodehouse: Master of the POV
In the world of publishing, writers are scolded for mixing up the point of view in their literature. “No head-hopping!” the gatekeepers cry. “No omniscient voice! You’ll reveal yourself a relic.”
But isn’t this a time of short attention spans? Jumping from head to head keeps the reader on her toes, wouldn’t you say? Keeps the brain humming. Of course, it can be botched. But to prove it can also be perfected, I direct you to Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse.
Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse
This prolific English writer of the early 20th century wrote hordes of fun short stories and novels (Jeeves and Wooster, anyone?). And I recently discovered that he was also very accomplished as a writer and composer of musicals. The man was a master of the classic comedy.
Now, part of the great fun of Wodehouse’s stories is the abundance of miscommunication, misunderstanding, crossed wires and bungling deceptions. One character’s anxious expression is being interpreted by another as the suspicious eye, and that person is cracking under the strain. Meanwhile the anxious person feels that the guilty person is behaving strangely, and so on. Good time for an excerpt, wot?
[The butler’s name is Beach, and Pilbeam is a greasy private detective visiting Blandings Castle. Ronald is also staying at Blandings Castle, and is far less greasy.]
For an instant [Pilbeam] stood eyeing the butler with that natural alarm which comes to all of us when in the presence of a man who a few short hours earlier has given us one look and made us feel like a condemned food product. Then his tension relaxed.
‘A cocktail, sir?’
And it might have been an illusion caused by gin and vermouth, but this butler seemed to have changed considerably for the better since their last meeting. His eye, though still glassy, had lost the old basilisk quality … He now saw that he had been entirely mistaken in this butler … he had supposed him supercilious and hostile. He now perceived that he was a butler and a brother.
[Ronald is mentioned in conversation]
‘Ronald!’ Pilbeam drew in his breath sharply. ‘There’s a tough baby, Beach. That Ronnie, do you know what he wanted to do just now? Murder me!’
In Beach’s opinion, for he did not look on Percy Pilbeam as a very necessary member of society, this would have been a commendable act, and he regretted that its consummation had be prevented.
-SUMMER LIGHTNING, P.G. Wodehouse
The Advantage of Mixing POV in Comedy
The fun in Wodehouse is listening in on his characters’ musings, otherwise where is the hilarity in witnessing the inevitable misunderstandings? This device is undeniably effective in comedy. It’s an inside-joke with your audience.
“We know what’s really going on,” winks the writer.
It’s the kind of raucous diversion a play like Noises Off! or A Midsummer Night’s Dream rouses. Yes, these stories are old, but old-fashioned? Not a bit! You know what’s old fashioned? Rogers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. That’s old fashioned.
Don't Listen to the Man, Man
Of course, writing a novel is structurally different than writing a script. But a story is a story. And for book publishers to decree a global ban of multiple POV’s in a single chapter sounds like an industrial dictatorship to me.
I recently heard Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl of the Story Grid Podcast speak on the subject of J.K.Rowling. Coyne mused that perhaps the reason Rowling was able to redefine children’s fantasy is because she had no idea what the industry was like when she wrote the first book. She just hunkered down at her desk and got to work with what was in her imagination.
Everyone will tell you Rowling's story is the exception to the rule. But sometimes I wonder … Wodehouse defies so many industry “rules” today, and yet as a reader I would love nothing more than to read some grown up fiction that sings with the fruity jocularity of a classic musical comedy.
Query for all you readers and writers out there: do editors know what readers want, or are editors dictating what readers want?
FYI I’ve chosen the July book club book! Head on over to the Book Club Page and start reading!