Who Narrates?

Although he is strictly writing about the structure of the written narrative, James Wood in his book ‘How Fiction Works’ provides a strong set of parameters on how to utilise narration within a story (2019). This is useful for me to reflect on as my body of work will be heavily reliant on sequencing a strong narrative that uses a ‘narrator’ effectively.

There are a couple of key takeaways for me in Wood’s discussion on the unreliable narrator. Referring to W.G. Sebald he notes the way that worlds are created in which the rules are already widely known by everyone reading the book, which then leads to an opportunity to undermine this world, these rules, in a way that the reader knows that the narration is unreliable (2019:14). This is also in reference to the way that Barthes highlighted nineteenth century writers who would use common cultural or scientific knowledge as a way of a short cut (p. 16). Photography in a sense creates these shortcuts by the visual language present in the image however it is important not to overlook this fact. My project and photography exist in the world but some elements may not be acceptable to all that view it. I will want to construct a world through the sequence, which at first is familiar but has a number of features that starts to undermine and unravel the accepted rules of the world. I will need to define the rules of my world that I am presenting to you. As Wood puts it: “reliable manipulation” (2019:15) of the narrative to create the sense of the unreliable narrator.

The question for my work is who is going to be the narrator? Will it be me, one of the people photographed, or another character not seen? Wayne C. Booth places an emphasis on the distance between the characters of a narrative and the author (1975: 155). Wood notes: “As soon as someone tells a story about a character, narrative seems to want to bend itself around that character, wants to merge with that character, to take on his or her way of thinking and speaking” (2019, p. 16), which suggests that the distance is created automatically by the reader of the work. I see my role in constructing the world in which the narrator operates, although I am not sure on who will be identified as the ‘narrator,’ I don’t think it will be me and will be created from the quotes that I have been collecting about the work. Perhaps the main reason for me not being considered as narrator, is as Wood notes: “first person narration is generally more reliable than unreliable; and third-person ‘omnicient’ narration is generally more partial than omniscient” (p. 14). For my work of photography, the reader is less able to suspend disbelief of my authorship, which would draw attention to and increase the artifice associated with this construction – leading to a poor execution of the concept. If as Wood is suggesting that the third-person is actually more unreliable and bias, then effectively, the narrator can be made from the text that accompanies the images.


Booth, W. C., 1975. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 11 ed. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Wood, J., 2019. How Fiction Works. Revised Edition ed. London: Vintage.

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