'The Art of Perspective' Is a Little Gem of a Book Filled With Wit and Wisdom
Castellani does an excellent job guiding readers through numerous literary texts, but some of the most compelling parts are when he tells his own story.
The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the StoryPublisher: Graywolf
Length: 160 pages
Author: Christopher Castellani
Publication date: 2016-01
In the introduction of The Art of Perspective author Christopher Castellani states “There is no more important decision the author makes than who tells the story… Every narrator becomes the story and the story becomes him.”
This book, which is part of The Art of series, a collection of books designed to reinvigorate “the practice of craft and criticism”, is dedicated to narration and narrators. Think the “gossipy fellow” that narrates Howards End, Barbara Covett, the “bitter, acid-tongued, and judgmental” narrator of What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal, or Tim from The Things They Carried. Castellani provides witty and thoughtful analysis of each and often offers comparisons as well. While Castellani primarily focuses on books, he also touches on other genres, such as the mockumentary narrative style of The Office.
Castellani isn’t a narrator in the most traditional sense of the word, but if he was to be considered the narrator of The Art of Perspective, he could only be described as most charming of narrators. Perhaps this is why, even though he does an excellent job guiding readers through numerous literary texts and clearly has the “criticism” portion of the book down, some of the most compelling parts of the book are when Castellani tells his own story.
The book opens with the thought: "I want to tell you what happened on the way to dinner." And Castellani does. He takes us on a walk to a restaurant in Philadelphia. We are there with Castellani (who is carrying a bottle of wine) and his husband (who is wearing overpriced shoes). We are there, too, when a random stranger joins them and confesses “I blew my brains out on cocaine in the ‘70s”.
Another favorite anecdote, when Castellani remembers his first time reading a passage from William Faulkner’s Light in August: “I was a college freshman, a bit excitable and just beginning to understand the limitless possibilities of language. (I’m still just beginning.) I wrote a paper on it and got a D.”
Castellani is also a humble narrator.
Castellani doesn’t ignore the idea of craft either. Amidst the analysis and anecdotes, he sprinkles in bits of writing advice: “of all the crimes a writer can commit, playing it safe is among the most unforgivable”, or, “I prefer to think that a story teaches its author how best to tell it, and that when a story simply won’t get written, it’s because the author’s not listening”.
The book is short and easy to read. The analysis is spot on and engaging. It’s often fun. Perhaps most engaging is the second to last chapter, "The Position of Power", which most authors and publishers (and perhaps just most book lovers) should to read.
It opens with a nod to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted talk “The Danger of the Single Story”. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the time.
Castellani doesn’t reference my favorite passage from the talk. No matter how many times I hear it, I always admire Adichie’s cleverness when she relates, "I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called American Psycho and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers."
Castellani does include the main point of the Ted talk, however, and notes "This is what Adichie’s speech says to me as a writer: you have more of an obligation than you thought you did. If your gay character reinforces a stereotype, or your fictional Italian American family acts like every other Italian American family, you are guilty of perpetuating a single story. You are part of the problem." He makes a strong statement, but it’s a statement that is completely in keeping with the theme of the book. Most likely it would be outside the scope of this volume, but it’s probably safe to say that publishers who only publish these types of stories are also part of the problem.
Adichie’s talk is from 2009 and has been viewed over ten million times. It’s somewhat sad that we needed to be reminded of the danger of the single story in 2009. It’s even sadder that seven years later, we still need to be reminded about the power stories have and the danger that can come with this power. Kudos to Castellani for dedicating a chapter to this idea, though; arguably, it doesn’t get talked about enough. It’s an important thing to talk about because, as Castellani states, “If it’s a given that stories exert power, that they effect change in the world in immeasurable ways, then who tells the story occupies the most powerful position of all”.