POV & Unreliable Narrators—in fiction & in life

In fiction, stories are often told in the voice of a reliable narrator. It’s a voice that guides us through a story without skewing the nature of the events taking place, the characters experiencing them, or the underlying truths and meanings depicted.

Point of view, or POV, is basically where that narrator’sand the reader’ssight is aimed.

And POV is what jumped out at me about the “echo chamber” memo (full text) written by a junior engineer at Google that went viral early in August. It covered what he saw as Google management’s misconceptions about women’s capabilities, and what he called the Google echo chamber. To back his argument, he presented supporting evidence that appeared carefully cherry-picked.

His memo illustrates what the default setting is for a lot of us:

when we look out at the world, we think of our own first person point of view as a reliable narrator.

But here’s the catch. We forget to examine our assumptions. We forget we’ve even made assumptions. And we forget the ways in which we tend to gloss over or ignore whatever doesn’t fit our constructs.

In the realm of fiction, this is something a good beta reader will cure you of pretty quickly by pointing out gaps and inconsistencies. Most writers are familiar with these wake-up calls from the world outside our own heads.

In the day-to-day of non-writing life, we each tend to create our own POV-reinforcing echo chambers, and there aren’t necessarily any beta readers to snap us out of it.

The second thing that struck me about the echo chamber memo, and has deepened through events surrounding and since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, is how tired I am of a particular strain of white narrative voice, especially as it’s become increasingly histrionic and exhausting.

It’s a voice that’s been with us always, but its vituperative levels have been rising here in the states since the 2016 US presidential campaign. And it was during coverage of Charlottesville that the weariness finally hit me full force. It’s a tiredness with deep roots, from decades of being raised, schooled, cajoled, ridiculed, and judgedusually unfavorablyby this particular POV.

I think of it as the voice of the Old White Guard, although it obviously has new constituents. And, full disclosure, I’m half white or anglo myself.

So let’s call this POV first person self-reflexive. It’s from a specific subset of white culture. It’s often male. It’s entirely self-referential. It doesn’t question its own accuracy and is certain those who disagree are wrong. It isn’t convinced that all white males are qualified and capable, never mind women and people of other skin colors.

It also has a need to diminish everyone else in the room that’s reached the white-knuckle stage lately. And that’s what has stood out most: in an era of global challenges that demand stepping up with creative, collaborative, and inventive responses, this is a voice that sounds unsurpassably needy and self-focused.

If there’s an upside to this continuum of events, from the echo chamber memo to the violence and invective surrounding and since the Unite the Right rally, it’s that we’ve had the chance to see how limited and how skewed this POV is—a classic example of an unreliable narrator.

They can have their say just like the rest of us, but they can’t eclipse the multiplicity of voices across the breadth of the United States, or any other country.

We need to keep moving forward to a multi-racial, ethnic, culture, religion, gender democracy.

Let’s call that point of view collective-omniscient. It may be noisy and demanding work, but if we keep our eyes, conversations, and POVs open, we’ll get there.