I’m (still) reading How Fiction Works, by James Wood. The entire book is built around a concept he calls “free indirect style,” which essentially refers to a prose style for which Gustave Flaubert is largely responsible. One of the hallmarks of this style is that the language is most often experienced by the reader to be that of the book’s narrator or protagonist. Cases, therefore, where a description or word choice does not suit the narrator, and therefor invokes the author, are seen by James Wood as essentially a flaw. Well, at least an inferior style.
Obviously, this is a gross generalization. Woods admits that many great authors before (Balzac) and after (Nabokov) Flaubert do not always attempt to hide their “fingerprints” and use, by extension, language and ideas which can not readily be attributed to the narrator’s voice. And this is setting aside entirely authors popular with many of my own peers (e.g. Gary Lutz), whose narrators are all but overwhelmed by the author’s voice. So much so, that such a distinction becomes quite beside the point.
But in reading about Wood’s near-prescriptive account of this novelistic approach, I can’t help but be reminded how often I’ve received this exact direction and feedback over the years. Among the people who have given me this feedback on various works are my peers in workshop (Brown), my thesis advisor (Brian Evenson) and my publisher (Flatmancrooked). What stands out to me about this short list, is the fact that all these people (it is perhaps unfair to refer to my workshop peers as an undifferentiated group in this way, but trust me) self-identify as innovative or experimental or in some way non-mainstream writers/readers/enthusiasts.
Now, to beat Rachel to the punch, I’ll admit that, indeed, just because something can be done, does not always mean it’s done well. That is, it could very well be that these readers were responding to the particular texts put before them, and not to the fact of the technique itself. But it does seem to be a widely remarked/frowned-upon stylistic decision.
Have you ever been advised to change words, phrases, insights, observations, thoughts, etc., in your work, on the basis that said material was not reasonably attributable to your narrator or protagonist? If so, what did you do? Is this something you actively try to guard against as a writer? Or to which you react negatively as a reader? Obviously, this is all pretty contextual. But what about as a trend or inclination?