Review: The Art of Perspective by Christopher Castellani

I began reading Christopher Castellani’s book The Art of Perspective when I had just started working on a novel. I made character and plot decisions but realized by Chapter 3 that I had not really decided who was telling the story – not in a considered, mindful manner anyway. My basic decision to write in the third person was not quite as simple as that. The choice of perspective, it turns out, was the very first decision I should have made.

Castellani’s book is part of a series published by Graywolf Press and edited by Charles Baxter. The series focuses on one element of craft – point of view, in this case, and the subtitle to The Art of Perspective is “Who Tells the Story.”  This was the very question that I had resolved too quickly. Castellani tells us early in the book that “[t]here is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story, because, whoever that narrator is, he will compel us to tell it in his way, with his frames of reference, his agenda and lexicon and baggage, within his particular wedge of time.” Plot, characters, setting, themes – none of it matters if a reader does not want to follow the storyteller from one page to the next.

And this point is one that Castellani really drives home – that we as authors must decide what relationship we want with our narrators. There is comfort in this idea that we are not writing alone. We have to task a narrator with the responsibility of moving the story just as we task ourselves with writing the story. “Narration is perspective in action,” Castellani writes. “It is the ‘delivering’ of perspective to the reader or listener…. This makes every story, at its core, an assertion of perspective, with the narrator as the story’s prime mover.” Castellani highlights that the skill in good storytelling is in how the author employs “artful and intentional” manipulations in constructing the narrator. Just as we can say that setting can very much be a character, so too is the narrator. Do we want to sit close to that narrator or maintain some distance in a third person construct?  Can we actually be the narrator – occupying the same physical and emotional spaces as the person telling our stories?  We need to resolve at the outset where on the spectrum between intimacy and distance we as authors want to be with our narrators.

The book offers practical advice about how to think about this question, and Castellani offers many terrific illustrations of his advice at work. He references Lori Moore, E. M. Forster, Tim O’ Brian, and Grace Paley, among others, to show us how different points of view drive their stories. For example, in Howards End by E. M. Forster, Castellani tells us that what is crucial to the success of any novel written in the third person is the distance or the intimacy created in the moments between phrases and sentences. In Chapter 5 of the book, the character Helen’s mind begins to wander: “And next to her was Aunt Juley, so British, and wanting to tap.” So British, Castellani tells us, is a wonderful example of how this third person narrator created intimacy between the reader and Helen. “We become Helen,” he writes, “thinking, in her own somewhat droll and petulant voice, ‘so British.’” We make decisions about how close we want that third person to be to a character and to the audience, and that decision must be consistent and must resonate internally.

First person narrators, Castellani writes, must be in control. “If they’re going to spend all this time barking into our ear, they better do it with some grace and ambition, and they better have something to say to us.” The example Castellani invokes here to powerful effect is Zoë Heller’s novel, What Was She Thinking?. Here, the first person narrator is Barbara Covett, a “bitter, acid-tongued, and judgmental unmarried woman in her sixties” who has taught history at a British secondary school for decades. She befriends the new art teacher, Sheba Hart, and discovers that Hart has been having an affair with a 15-year-old student. Barbara becomes Sheba’s confidante and then proceeds to destroy her life.  What is remarkable about Barbara’s first person voice, Castellani says, is not how she obtains her information or how accurate it is but the voice in which she delivers it: “So deep and consistent is Barbara’s commitment to her vision of the world in which she is both victim and hero that we can’t help but respect it, even and especially if we recognize much of it as delusion.”

Castellani encourages writers to push to tell the honest story with insight and invention. His book is a meditation on how to use the tools of craft to “tell the story with as much urgency and insight and style and depth as she can. In the telling, of course, is where the art of perspective lies.” For my part, I learned from the book that in being so preoccupied with character development, scene choices, and subplots, I neglected to consider my relationship with my narrator. I don’t know yet whether we will remain at a distance or close or whether the narrator and I will share the same voice. I do know, though, that I won’t be ready to tell my story until I’ve decided who is telling it.

Purchase The Art of Perspective from Graywolf Press.