October 20, 2010

Shifting toward free indirect discourse in modern fiction

Paul Dawson, a creative writer and narrative theorist, shared his insights during last Friday’s Caxton Club, speaking about free indirect discourse (FID).

According to a quotation Dawson used by James Wood, the author of “How Fiction Works,” FID allows the reader to “see things through the character’s eyes and language but also through the author’s eyes and language, too.” Dawson explained that the idea of FID is to provide a mode of direct thought from the character to the reader. Rather than utilizing a more syntactically formal style as a narrator, it instead relies on the language closer to the language of a character.

Dawson went on to explain the reason behind the use of this device in contemporary fiction. He described “contemporary fiction” simply as what is being published right now. Modernism is becoming more and more interested, according to Dawson, in “hiding the narrator.” The omniscient narrator, which has enjoyed years of popularity, is losing its appeal to readers.

This is rooted in a desire to “reassert cultural authority,” Dawson said. Cultural authority is based on a level of morality on behalf of an author’s character. The reader, ethically, no longer wishes to be told how to think and feel about a particular character. FID offers a much more direct mode of thought into the character. The reader is able to see the narrator as sharing a certain level of thought with the character.

“I’m fascinated with the intricacies of the craft of fiction,” Dawson said. He said that this particular intricacy has more to do with the theory of reading than the theory of writing. Dawson explained that when critiquing FID, the critic often relies on a series of assumptions about the writing. For example, there is the assumption that a character must think in the same syntax and vocabulary in which he would speak. It is an argument based on assumptions that Dawson seeks to disprove.

Dawson received a positive response from students and teachers alike. Sophomore Renni Johnson said that she enjoyed the lecture despite being unfamiliar with his work.

“I came in expecting to sit and absorb but I found myself having a lot of my own reactions and thoughts,” Johnson said.

Sophomore Josh Gunter was also unfamiliar with Dawson’s work, but said that he found the subject and its presentation interesting. He said that he found Dawson’s argument about “conflation between character and narrator particularly interesting.” Gunter is currently in charge of selling Dawson’s books to interested students and faculty.

Professor of English Chad Simpson also expressed a liking for the lecture. He said, “I personally tend not to like omniscience.” He said that he dislikes that level of comfort in writing and does not enjoy being held and guided through a story by the author. What intrigued Simpson was there was an interest in FID unable to be seen in omniscience.

Dawson earned his Ph.D. in Australia at the University of Melbourne and holds the honor of Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of two books “Imagining Winter” (Brisbane: Interactive Press, 2006) and “Creative Writing and the New Humanities” (London/New York: Routledge, 2005), and is working on “Twenty-first Century Omniscience: Fiction After Postmodernism.” Dawson is also an avid researcher, focusing on fiction, poetry, and pedagogical theory. His creative writing has appeared in a variety of publications in his native Australia as well as the U.S., including Meanjin, Island, Southerly, Slope (US), “Blue Dog: Australian Poetry,” “Imago: New Writing,” and “The Sydney Morning Herald.”

Samantha Paul
Samantha Paul is a senior double majoring in creative writing and Spanish. She previously served as both a news reporter and a copy editor for TKS. During the summer of 2012, Sam served as press chair of a literacy brigade in El Salvador. She has also interned with both Bloom Magazine and The Galesburg Register-Mail. At Knox, Sam is an organizational editor for Catch magazine.

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