In Praise of the Unpopular Omniscient POV: “All the Light We Cannot See”

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There is much to be praised about Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “All the Light We Cannot See.” From its memorable protagonists to its epic World War II setting, the novel has all the elements of a great read. But what struck me the most is Doerr’s effective use of the unpopular omniscient point of view. Most writing teachers, editors, and literary agents advise writers to avoid the omni POV.

Paula Munier, a writer, writing teacher, and senior literary agent at Talcott Notch Literary Services, explained it in her latest book, “Writing with Quiet Hands.”

She noted that while there are many books with an omni POV—19th century novels, British mysteries, and European fiction—she also said, “If you want to publish in the United States, then you need to sell to American editors, and American editors tend to see omniscient point of view as old-fashioned.”

As a writer I’m not inclined to use the omni POV, but I’m not against it as a reader. I recently read three books with omni POV—two historical novels and a popular science fiction book that became a blockbuster Hollywood film.

Out of the three books, only Doerr succeeded in pulling off the omniscient POV in “All the Light We Cannot See.” The other historical novel, written by an American author, used omni POV to the point of distraction. I never understood the term “head hopping” until I read this book, in which almost every character has a POV, thanks to an all-seeing and all-knowing narrator. Although I was interested in the subject matter, I couldn’t finish the book.

The best-selling science fiction book was about 60 percent first-person POV and 30 percent third-person POV, but it switched to omni in a few chapters. The film was definitely better than the book.

“All the Light We Cannot See”

If there’s a story that justifies an omni POV, it is “All the Light We Cannot See.” Its female protagonist is blind. A first-person or third-person narration from this character’s POV would have been terribly limited. The two protagonists don’t interact for the most part of the book, so a conventional third-person POV would probably not work.

Doerr broke other writing “rules” in his historical novel. In addition to using omni POV, he also wrote the book in the present tense, another no-no in many writing books and workshops. He wrote very short chapters that could have potentially backfired for its distracting pacing, but again, he pulled it off.

Resist Breaking the Rules

Going back to Munier’s advice, she offered a caveat about breaking POV rules. “The writers you love may break these POV rules all the time, but I’ll say it once more: It takes great craftsmanship to break them—and you do so at your peril,” she wrote.

Given my recent experience reading three books with omni POV, I can’t help but agree with Munier. Unless your name is Anthony Doerr, resist the temptation to play God when writing your novel.

Read my review of Paula Munier’s book:

Paula Munier’s “Writing with Quiet Hands” Delves Deep Into Effective Writing Practice

Read other stories about breaking writing rules:

In Praise of the Hated Adverb, Seriously

In Praise of the Vilified Prologue: Top 10 Novels with Prologues

In Praise of the Here and Now: Top 10 Present-Tense Novels

Write What You Know? Why It Pays to Defy That Writing Advice