The Critics’ Corner
The Dead Narrators’ Unsociety
by Don Webb
The title is taken — with apologies — from the film starring Robin Williams, The Dead Poets Society. Our point is that dead narrators — not dead poets — are inherently unsocial.
A review reader’s critique of a recent submission said, in part: “Doesn't BwS have a ‘no dead narrators’ policy?”
Yes, we do. The Review Board established long ago and by consensus two main rules about plots. We can’t consider:
stories that end with “But it was all a dream” or the equivalent. Our Submissions guidelines emphasize that we have no objection to dream sequences in literature, but we hold that dreams are a mode of interpreting reality, not reality itself.
A “row your boat” story that ends with “life is but a dream” proclaims itself meaningless and logically cancels itself out. Solution: discard the dream element, which is irrelevant, and revert to a mode of realism or fantasy.
stories in which the narrator dies. Of course narrators may die, but remember: “Dead men tell no tales.” The narrator must complete the story first, then die; not the other way around. A narrator’s death cannot be made a part of a story without creating a logical contradiction.
A classic example of an acceptably dead narrator: Albert Camus’ L’Étranger, which concludes on the night before the narrator’s execution. And Chateaubriand’s autobiography, Mémoires d’outre-tombe (literally “Memoirs from Beyond the Grave”) has an ironic title; the author was quite alive when he wrote it, and he doesn’t claim to be dead.
What about stories that are set in an imaginary afterlife? Don’t they qualify as “dream” stories or even “dead narrator” stories? Not exactly, and the premise can’t be ruled out arbitrarily.
Ancient myths featuring gods and goddesses are typically set in a kind of “dreamscape” outside of time and space, but they always connect in some way to their audiences’ reality. Likewise, many — perhaps even most — science fiction stories are set in a possible future, or in an alternate past, present or future, or on some other planet; but they, too, represent a reality readers can recognize. If readers can’t recognize it, the language itself is unintelligible.
Neither myths nor fantasy nor science fiction pretend to literal realism, but they are logically coherent. The same can’t be said of stories that claim to be pure dream or that leave no one alive to tell the story.
Copyright © 2012 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories