There’s a school of critical thought that insists that the writer is the teller of the story, that the author speaks directly to the reader through the story. Richard Kearney, the Irish philosopher and critic, defines narrative as somebody saying something to somebody about something. I believe this to be true, that the author is speaking to the reader through the story. However, I would add to this that the author is not the teller of the tale; that the teller mediates between the reader and the author.
Let me elaborate. I view the writer and the teller of the tale as two different persons. I remember coming to this realization back in my mid twenties when I was reading Henry Miller. I’d always assumed that the narrator in the books was Miller, but then one day I heard him talking about his first person narrator as a created character. From that point on I began shaping my personal view on the relationship between writer and story.
Rather than speaking generally about writing, let me personalize my view by saying that all my stories have a teller who is someone other than me. Each of my stories is seen through the eyes of a teller who is unique to that story. By “eyes” I am talking about the physical perspective, but I also refer to a consciousness through which the story is filtered. The teller of the tale knows the story as a result of some form of personal experience: he has lived a part of it, or heard of it or has been affected by it. But how could he have lived it if it is fictive? And who would he have heard it from if not from fictive characters who populate the story? That means that the narrator — the teller — that I am referring to is, himself, fictive.
This sounds like beer talk. Let me explain how it works with specific reference to my writing. When I start thinking about a new story it’s a result of having gotten a hunch about something; that is, I feel a story brewing. What I do then is try to get a feel for what this nascent story is about and who it is happening to. This all happens in my head. But I find that I still can start the writing of it unless I know who the teller is, how well he knows the story, and what sort of take he has on it. I’d have to say the teller is probably the first character I get to know because it is through his eyes that I get to see the story.
What I am saying is that I don’t sit down to write some story I’ve already got in my head. I see a vague image of something and need to get a clearer view of it. But I cant get to know it first hand because it is all fictive, doesn’t exist. Therefore I need someone who lives in this fictive existence to help me see the story. I need this other set of eyes. These are the eyes of the teller. As I get to know who this teller is, I come to see his relationship to the story. As I come to understand this, I come to see what the story is about, who it affects and how it might unfold.
You could say I construct the teller as if he were another character; but the spooky thing about the fictive character is that he has a foot in the fictive world of the story and a foot in my world. As such he is able to mediate between me and the story. And also mediate between the reader and the story.
Sometimes, I chose to make this teller of the tale obvious — a character as obviously fictive as Augie March or Huck Finn. Other times I don’t give him a name, and leave his personality undefined by any self-consciousness on his part. In these instances the teller is almost invisible. Nevertheless, he’s always there. Like Waldo, you’ve got to look for him.
Now, when I read a story I always try to get to know the fictive teller. And I feel by doing that I enter more deeply into the fictive world that exists between the front and back covers.