Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Another Way to Get MNW Books in North America

Maggie Dana e-mailed me about a UK-based company called The Book Depository. They claim to provide free shipping anywhere in the world, and provide a modest discount on the cover price as well. Maggie says they are estimating a 7-10 day delivery time to the US on her forthcoming novel, which, given the 10-90 day delivery I've had from Amazon UK, looks very good indeed.

If this service works, it knocks the socks off Amazon. And Book Depository seems smugly aware of this fact--on the order page it lists the price including shipping, and even offers you a button to click through and buy it from Amazon UK instead. In the case of the paperback edition of Shock and Awe, they will deliver it for $9.26, as compared to an Amazon UK price of $20.56 after shipping is included.

Of course, Amazon US offers the book for $8.95 plus shipping, so the savings aren't huge relative to ordering from Amazon US; and are slightly higher than ordering it from your local bookseller. But it's nice to have another route.

I plan to order the next few MNW titles from Book Depository and see how it works. I'll keep you posted. And thanks, Mags!

Friday, April 24, 2009

Various Bits of Happy News

The mass-market paperback edition of Shock and Awe is now available in the USA. Sort of.

The "pub date" in the US is May 1, 2009, although it is still an import (though listed as Macmillan rather than Pan). Despite the May 1 pub date, there is at least one copy sitting on a shelf in a Barnes and Noble already (because someone ordered it and didn't pick it up. No, not me.)

That's likely to be the only copy on bookstore shelves over here, but this time round Borders and Barnes and Noble have it available online, and also will order it into their stores. So while it isn't likely to be thrust into anyone's face, at least it seems to be accessible. So if you haven't read my little opus and are so inclined, your local bookstore will get it for you for a mere $8.95.

That's the first cheery news item. The second is that our colleague David Thayer has landed a great NY agent for his novel Black Forest. Mr. Thayer is a killer writer and I can't think of a more deserving guy. Expect to be seeing a lot more of his name.

Third, Michael Stephen Fuchs' novel The Manuscript--one of the original six MNW launch titles--still seems to have some legs. All these years later, it is being released in a Czech edition.

I'm happy for MSF, but also a little jealous. I've had papers and speeches I've given translated into tongues that are mere hieroglyphics to me (Chinese and Thai, for example), and I always find it strangely exciting to see my words in print but rendered utterly unrecognizable. (Of course, for all I can tell, they might have been rendered nonsensical, too--how would I know?) I'd dearly love to see my fiction translated--preferably into something totally unfamiliar.

Is that desire weird, or normal. (Or, barring normal, normal for a writer?)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

POV, Part VI: Second-Person

(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)

(Jump to next post in series)

Hitherto you have lain perfectly still, because the slightest motion would dissipate the fragments of your slumber. Now, being irrevocably awake, you peep through the half drawn window curtain, and observe that the glass is ornamented with fanciful devices in frost work, and that each pane presents something like a frozen dream...
aaaaaaaaa--Nathaniel Hawthorne
aaaaaaaaaa The Haunted Mind, 1837

Second-person narration may seem oh-so-moderne, but it's been around for a while. It's certainly more common than first-person plural, and I'm told that after the success of Jay McInerny's Bright Lights, Big City in the mid-80s, writing classes were temporarily awash in second-person narratives. Tom Robbins, John Updike,William Faulkner, and many others have written in the second person, but second-person is more often found in short stories or individual chapters than as the sole POV for entire novels.

Most often the second person is no more than a swapping of "you" for "I". In McInerny's novel (which is in second-person present-tense--the sort of thing considered ultra-hep in the MFA programs of the Reagan era), there is no doubt that the narrator is telling you his own story. In Bright Lights, Big City, the technique works well, because the narrator is attempting not to own his feelings or take responsibility for his actions. It gives us only a distant connection with the narrator, and imparts a chilly feeling to the whole book. (I think the novel works brilliantly, but, as Dr. Johnson said of Paradise Lost, " one ever wished it were longer.")

One of the weasely features of the second-person POV is that the "you" can be read literally as "you" (the person I'm addressing), "I" (the narrator), or "one" (a universal, or at least something common to a considerable group). It can be hard to nail down, and "you" often creeps into conversational first-person narratives. It was especially popular in the glory days of noir and pulp, as in, She was the kind of dame that could make you do just about anything. That probably means "she could make me do anything," but it lifts responsibility from the narrator by also urging us to believe "she could make anybody do anything." The narrative "you" is a lot like the narrative "we" in that it might include or exclude us, the readers.

One of my favorite short-story writers, Lorrie Moore, often uses second-person, and sometimes uses it in a rather unusual form, with an imperative, instructional style. One of her funniest stories, "How to Become a Writer" (from her collection Self-Help) opens like this:

First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age -- say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She'll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a donut. She'll say: "How about emptying the dishwasher?" Look away. Shove the forks in the fork drawer. Accidentally break one of the freebie gas station glasses. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters.

The entire story is narrated exactly this way, in a rather odd tense, immediate but also retrospective. This narrator needs massive amounts of distance from the character (herself, of course) whose career she is narrating, and it is the distance that allows it to be so funny; would that we could see ourselves so objectively. (Moore has another similarly instructive story in the same book, "How to be an Other Woman," as well as several others also in second-person.)

If distance or plausible deniability are what you need, second-person narration is a good place to go. Second-person can be heartbreaking, but it's heartbreaking in an uninvolved, implied fashion, filled with irony. Strong emotion, strongly expressed, is difficult in second-person, because the form reads either as insincere or as objective and detached. When second-person achieves a powerful emotional impact, it is more by what remains unsaid, the notes that remain unplayed.

I think there are a number of things that can be learned about POV by playing with second-person. A good challenge would be to write a few pages where there was no question that every "you" refers to the narrator, and then write a few more where it isn't clear whether the narrator is speaking of himself or a group of people. (If you really want to break down the fourth wall, as they say in theatre, extend that last one to include the implication that the narrator is addressing the specific reader, the one holding the book.)

The "unreliable narrator" is often described as a concept that is only valid in first-person, as opposed to third-person, narrative. This isn't strictly accurate, but it's accurate enough for most purposes; if the narrator of a third-person novel tells us, as Orwell does in the opening of 1984, that the clocks are striking thirteen, we are supposed to be surprised at this fact, but we aren't supposed to question if the narrator is telling the truth.

Second-person narrators can be just as unreliable as first-person narrators. In fact, second-person narrators might be thought of as highly subjective first-person narrators trying to masquerade as objective third-person narrators. That seems suspicious all by itself, doesn't it?

In English, "you" is far less precise and nuanced than in many languages. We don't distinguish between a formal you and an intimate you; we don't even distiguish between you singular and you plural (except, of course, in parts of New York and New Jersey, where youse or youse guys is plural, and in the South, where you is singular and y'all is plural). When a narrator elects to say "you," we aren't sure if their meaning is "I," "one," you specifically, you as a group, you but not I--and there is not always certainty that the word is being used in the same sense from sentence to sentence. If it's imprecision you seek, if you want obfuscation, wiggle room, and loopholes in contracts, look no further. Second person is the shyster defence attorney of narrative form.

In my graph back in the second post of this interminable series, I showed second-person as having the narrowest range of psychic distances of any POV. It is the fuzziness of the POV that makes this true. The distancing effect keeps second-person from true intimacy, but its vagueness also prevents it from rising very high toward omniscience. The problem isn't that universal pronouncements can't be made in second person--in fact, it's the easiest form in which to make sweeping generalization. The difficulty is that the very viewpoint makes any generalizations slightly untrustworthy.

That said, though second-person POV has a narrow range of use, it is sometimes the perfect way to tell a story.

Usually a rather short story.

(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)

(Jump to next post in series)

Monday, April 20, 2009

POV, Part V: First-Person Plural

(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)
(Jump to next post in series)

So, here we go again. Having dealt with the main permutations of first-person, the next--brief!--phase of the class would deal with the most slippery points-of view: first-person plural, and second-person.

Why deal with these two together? Partly because they are comparatively rare, and partly because I think they share certain common features.

Probably the most famous fiction in first-person plural is Faulkner's short story A Rose for Emily. John Gardner declared that the narrator ("we") of the story is the town, the community in which the events happened. I have to say both yes and no. Structurally that might be feasible, but it's apparent that there is a single narrator, speaking as the voice of the town. Read any of the criticism around A Rose for Emily, and you'll start finding critics speculating on characteristics of the narrator--is it male or female? Obviously not young, because of the narrator's thorough acquaintance with the town across time...

In other words, A Rose for Emily feels as though someone particular is narrating--an individual voice, not some collective. So after a time, the reader begins to wonder--is this person really speaking for the town, is this truly the collective wisdom of the town--or is this simply someone claiming to speak for the broader group?

On the other hand, the "we" of A Rose for Emily seems to know so many obscure details about Emily's life, that it verges on omniscient...but still comes to us through a quirky, personalized filter.

See why I call first-person plural "slippery"? Is this narrator a particular person in disguise, or is this narrator all-knowing, some entity looking down on creation (or, if not the whole of creation, at least, like Jane Austen's narrator, omniscient about a segment of creation)? In either case, why wear the mask? It seems a bit fishy.

And, speaking of the illustrious Jane, much the same obtains in the use of first-person plural in Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club, where the "we" is the club. Probably. Or maybe just one member speaking for the club. But a lot of the wit is Austenesque, and therefore has an omniscient quality about it...

The Virgin Suicides is another well-known, well-executed novel in first-person plural. The narrative "we" in this case is a group of boys who knew the Lisbon sisters, and are, long after the events, trying to piece together an explanation of what happened and why. It's a marvelous read, but also slightly maddening in its elusiveness.

Sometimes the narrative voice of The Virgin Suicides takes on a nonfiction tone: "Supporters of this theory said..." At other moments, though, the adjectives and metaphors are so ripe or off-kilter that it is reminiscent of some of Tom Wolfe's early journalism, factual reporting and subjective reactions elbowing each other aside. Foretelling intrudes into the story (one of the sisters is said to have a long neck, and in the next instant we are told that "we" the narrators didn't suspect the day would come when it would be hung by a rope from a beam).

Yet the "we" of the novel isn't believable as a collective; the language turns too idiosyncratic to be a group creation. A group doesn't think that a young girl sunbathes next to a pool "sweating nectar." Trooping down into a basement recreation room, a whole group of boys do not simultaneously think that the light blazing up from below is such that it seems they are approaching the molten core of the Earth.

We are never sure how many boys constitute the "we," but some of the boys are described in detail, and some of those described in detail are not characters who would ever speak or think in the narrative voice of the book. Even more than in A Rose For Emily, everything points to a single narrator who has elected to hide behind a mask of "we." Why? Who knows?

Ayn Rand's slim little novella, Anthem, is first-person plural only in the most technical sense, as there is never any doubt that it is a single individual narrating. (Some might in fact say the whole book is merely a gimmick, and I suppose it is, but I thoroughly enjoyed it in my youth. Indeed, in retrospect, I would say the merits of Ms. Rand's novels are inversely proportional to their length.)

Apart from the fishy question of the narrator's identity (and the reasons it is concealed), first-person plural faces other challenges. First-person singular is as subjective and voicey as writing can be; even the most distressing first-person narrator (think of Lolita's Humbert Humbert) gains a fair degree of sympathy through their intimacy with the reader. That goes by the board once the narrator is "we." On the other hand, the narrative can't really swoop inside character's heads and dwell there in full POV, the way omniscient third can. "We" restricts the narrative to a certain distance from the characters, which can limit the reader's involvement. And, above all, "we" is one of those words that people hear mostly from the mouths of politicians, and this makes many readers immediately want to quarrel.

A piece that is absorbing enough, as in Faulkner, or clever enough, as in Fowler or Eugenides, may be able to overcome these challenges, but it sets a rather high hurdle for a writer and doesn't offer all that many apparent advantages. One of the assignments for the hypothetical class I'm victimizing here would be to try an write a piece that would arguably be best told from first-person plural. (None have ever occurred to me, so I'm glad I'm not in that class.)

We'll get to second-person in the next post. Honest.

(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)
(Jump to next post in series)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

POV Part IVa: One Last Note on First-Person

(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)
(Jump to next post in series)

Sorry to be away so long. Things--or rather, I--have been crazy.

In previous posts, I mentioned the fact that Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy didn't really fall into the realm of true first person narratives; certain passages deviate wildly from the first-person POV.

Before I leave the topic entirely, I'd like to mention one other book--this time a modern one--that stretches the limits of first-person until the basic rules are nowhere to be found: The Human Stain, by Philip Roth.

The Human Stain is narrated by Nathan Zuckerman, a recurring Roth character who shares a great many charateristics with Roth himself (including being a famous novelist). In some books Zuckerman is a third-person character; in others, he is a first-person narrator.

Although the story is told by Zuckerman, and there are some scenes where Zuckerman is present and involved, the bulk of the book details the lives of other characters, especially the protagonist Coleman Silk. In these passages, Zuckerman disappears entirely into what seems to be third-person narration. Stretches of what feels like third-person run so long that it can be a bit jarring when the narrator refers to "I" once more.

Occasionally Zuckerman explains how he came to know certain things about Silk's life, but he could never have gathered the level of detail or vividness by research or conversations. And in some scenes from the POV of other characters, it would be manifestly imposible for Zuckerman to know what he relates, since he tells not only their thoughts, but also shares events that the characters have kept secret from everyone.

This is not, mind you, a mixed first-and-third novel; it is resolutely a first-person narrative, but one that takes immense liberties with the form. Zuckerman never explains that he is reconstructing what people must have thought or must have done. He dramatizes many scenes as though he is omniscient, and doesn't bother to excuse them.

Of course, one of the reasons this works is because the narrator character himself is a novelist, and therefore we are willing to let him slip from a purported recounting into what is really a retelling or reimagining. The book has a foot planted in two worlds--it keeps up the pretense that the narrator is telling us a true story, but it also admits in a coy fashion that it is a novel. The dramatizations of what Zuckerman cannot truly know make the book more intense and gripping--in spite of the fog of ambiguity that comes with all of the third-person narration by the first-person narrator.

If you haven't read The Human Stain, you might want to take a look. Simply from theperspective of craft, it's a fascinating exercise.

(Jump to first post in series)
Jump to previous post in series)
(Jump to next post in series)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

POV, Part IV: More First-Person

(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)
(Jump to next post in series)

No matter how you feel about first-person novels, learning to write in first-person teaches discipline and discrimination that come in useful in other POVs. Anyone can learn to identify the boundaries of first-person perception, and the exercise of staying indisputably within those boundaries clarifies everything. Learning to color inside the lines is useful even if you plan to do all your work later by throwing paint at the canvas.

By "staying indisputably" within those boundaries, I mean not writing anything that might smear outside of the fully subjective. The biggest wobbles tend to be in self-reporting.

A first-person narrator can certainly say "His cheeks reddened." But can a first-person narrator say "My cheeks reddened"? Well, you can probably get away with it; a person can certainly feel themself flushing or blushing, and one might infer that one's cheeks were red even though it would be impossible to observe; but in the spirit of indisputability, you can't know that unless you're looking in a mirror. And you're not allowed to look in a mirror, either. (Feeling your cheeks become hot is legal in this context; asserting anything about their color is not.)

In this early, ascetic, monastic phase, there would be no “I grinned like an idiot.” There might be “I gave what I intended as an idiotic grin,” or “From their expressions, my grin must have looked idiotic,” or “I tried to grin as idiotically as possible.” There’s nothing wrong with “I grinned like an idiot” (other than its basic cliché nature); but the purpose of the exercises at this point would be to make it crystal clear to the writer where the exact boundaries of POV are drawn. Later on you can smear those sharp borders, but start by being as existentialist as possible—everything from the inside looking out. Participants would be encouraged to submit stories or chapters written as perfectly within first-person boundaries as possible--and to dispute each other's POV wobbles.

While trashing each other's POV transgressions, we’d begin a survey of first-person narratives with a look at The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and follow it up with The Sun Also Rises. Once we had the feel of the thing, we’d move along to odder approaches.

Advanced topics would cover slightly unreliable narrators, as in The Catcher in the Rye, and wildly unreliable narrators, as in Fight Club, and narrators who are somewhat unreliable simply because they are too young to understand, as in To Kill A Mockingbird, or Rose Tremain’s The Way I Found Her. We’d look at first-person narration used to tell someone else’s story: The Great Gatsby, Budd Schulberg’s wonderful What Makes Sammy Run?, most of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the short but structured Heart of Darkness, and Christopher Moore’s Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend.

In the advanced section, we’d take a close look at Maugham, probably concentrating on The Razor’s Edge (though others would do), to see how a first-person narrator can relate things he has only heard about and yet make them compelling—without ever violating first-person POV. We’d look at multi-POV first-person novels--certainly As I Lay Dying, and perhaps some others.

There are some first-person works that are impossible to imagine in other POVs. In the comment trail Tim Stretton mentioned Flowers for Algernon, where POV, form, story, and style unite almost perfectly. The best of Wodehouse's Jeeves stories are narrated by the befuddled, maladroit Bertie Wooster. Could any other voice insist they'd been kept awake by "the bellowing of the crickets"?

It is worth noting that Conan Doyle tried a handful of stories from Sherlock Holmes' point of view rather than Watson's. Seen through his own eyes, Holmes is rather tiresome. Do we want a superhuman dynamo talking about himself? Not unless he's going to be more intimate and revealing than Holmes. For the stories to work, we need Watson, who is always five steps behind Holmes (and usually a step or two behind the reader).

Although first-person narration from a truly iconic hero may spoil the story, sometimes an intimate, super-voicey first-person narrator is the only thing that makes a story tellable and tolerable. Lolita's Humbert Humbert, A Clockwork Orange's Alex, and Grendel's monster are made redeemable and readable by the combination of first-person intimacy plus incomparable use of language. In our subconscious minds, the narrative voice belongs to the character, not the book, and it is impossible to believe that someone who speaks so beguilingly is, if not loveable, at least redeemable; even Humbert, Alex, and the monster, despite the fact that all three revel in their own wickedness.


After we'd spent time kicking around those books, we'd loosen our ascetic ways, and put away the hot irons. People would be allowed to say things that were not indisputably locked in the first-person voice. The narrator would be allowed to say, "My cheeks reddened" if the writer believed it worked better. (But I'd wager that at this point, the writers would be more comfortable with "I felt my cheeks redden," which still isn't indisputable, but at least is highly subjective.)

Now we'd try some additional writing exercises.

The first exercise would be to move from a tight first-person POV to a point as omniscient as possible without destroying the sense of the first-person narration. The 'voiceier' the narrative style, the further this can be stretched.

The second exercise would be to get as close to reporting the going's-on in another character's head as is possible without claiming true knowledge--the art of conjecture.

The third exercise would be to write two involving accounts delivered by a character to our narrator--one with our narrator offering thoughts and commentary, and another where the other character essentially seizes the narrative for a time.

Finally, we'd all try our hands at a problem that is usually intractable: switching first-person narrators without a major labeled break. Virtually every multi-first-person novel elects to start a new chapter with a new narrator, generally with the narrator's name at the chapter head. There's a good reason for this practice; if there's a technique for a seamless pass of POV between two first-person narrators, I've never seen it done. It would be fun for a dozen writers to take a whack at the problem.

I'm sure at least one reader is about to ask where Moby Dick and Tristram Shandy stand in all this? Nowhere. Neither of those are strictly first-person narratives, no matter how often the word “I” occurs, and regardless of how convincingly both start out anchored in a single consciousness. Both are experimental works, far ahead of their time; and both of them are as strange or stranger than anything that has been written since.

And what about first-person plural? I'll kick that around a bit in the next post in this series, along with second-person.


n.b. It's interesting to note that this post includes virtually all the leading candidates for The Great American Novel (Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, Gatsby, Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird). If James was right that novel-length first-person fiction is barbaric...well, I guess we Americans must be a barbaric lot.

(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)
(Jump to next post in series)

Sunday, April 5, 2009

My Mom's Reading List

Well, actually this is only a snippet of her reading list. But she dropped me a note mentioning that she'd just bought Jamie Ford's Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet at Borders. Have ya'll noticed that the estimable Mr. Ford's book has climbed up to #15 on the New York Times Bestseller List? At least one of those sales is my Mom, Jamie.

Her note went on to say: "Also yesterday I was surprised to find L.C. Tyler's The Herring-Seller's Apprentice listed in my newest copy of Bas Bleu Booksellers-by-Post (Spring 2009 V. 191) Hudson, Ohio; review written by Maggie Topkis of Felony & Mayhem. Of course, I had to order."

She didn't really need to, since unbeknownst to her I happen to own two hardback copies of Len's fine book already, but what the hell--I'll keep one as part of my investment portfolio.

Anyone in the US wanting a paperback of Len's brilliant book can imitate my mother and preorder it here from Bas Bleu, or from Amazon. The cover is by George Booth, one of our all-time great cartoonists, and its street date in the US seems to be May 25.

Welcome to the States, Len!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

For those of you who don't hang out at MNW...

If you're a visitor to this blog but don't spend your spare time on the MNW Group Blog, you still might want to steal over there long enough to read the candid (Parental Advisory: some references to animal sexuality) interview with our esteemed editor Will Atkins.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

POV Part III: First-Person and Its Detractors

(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)
(Jump to next post in series)

Let me start by reiterating that I believe what a writer ought to write is precisely whatever the hell they urgently want to write, and in whatever style they want to write it.

But if someone wanted a prescription for learning POV--if I had to teach a semester-long class in POV--I'd make everybody start with first person.

A famous mathemetician (wish I could remember which one) asserted that mathematics could be right or wrong; but that because it was perhaps the only area of human endeavor that could demonstrably be right, math had a duty to be right. I won't go so far with the first-person point of view, but I believe that the boundaries and limitations of first-person can be made clear by working in the form. I further believe that understanding the discipline of of first-person narration clarifies the whole notion of point of view in the writer's mind (and, ultimately, in the writer's bones).

First-person gets some bad press. Some observers complain about the endless use of the word "I," which is a little weak as complaints go--it's not the sort of thing that's noticeable unless you go looking for it, and at least "I" doesn't have the slippery reference problems of third-person pronouns. ("Sam stood at the foot of the stairs. Bob jumped, and he heard the slap of his sandals on the linoleum." He who? He, Sam, heard the slap of Bob's sandals? Bob heard the slap of his own sandals? He, somebody else in this scene, heard the slap of Bob's sandals? "I" is a mercy compared to the labyrinthine possibilities of "he" or "she".)

I've heard more than one person comment that first-person narratives tend to start too many consecutive sentences with "I", giving the impression we are listening to a Mexican folk song ("Ai--Ai--Yi--Ai..."). Fine--but I've seen just as many third person manuscripts starting paragraph after paragraph with "He." Is "hee-hee-hee" somehow better?

True, the designation of the POV character is easier to vary in third person--you can choose from "he" or "Paul" or (please don't) "the burly detective." I think most of this sort of 'elegant variation' is to be deplored, but in any case I don't think the ease of writing in a form says anything about the inherent merit of a form. Once a writer has the possible repetitiveness of "I" brought to their attention, they ought to be able to develop the craft to minimize the problem. If they can't manage this minimal task, perhaps they should turn their hand to something less demanding--or, more specifically, to something that doesn't involve writing.

Henry James famously condemned any long first-person fiction as 'barbaric,' disliking the claustrophobia of being stuck in a single head, and there's something to that. Yet there are some mighty lengthy first-person narratives that never felt cramped to me. And a first-person novel need not be restricted to a single narrator (though many of the best are); there are some fine multi-narrator first-person novels out there, and some mixed third/first that work quite well.

First-person has certain limitations. The most commonly cited is the fact there can't be any dramatized scenes where the narrator isn't present, and, indeed, no facts can be introduced unless they are facts of which the narrator is aware. True enough (unless you consider truly odd novels like Moby Dick.) That's part of the useful discipline; selecting a narrative approach to a story always has limitations and implications, and knowing what can and cannot be accomplished in a given POV can put off many an enthusiastic charge up a blind alley.

In the hands of a skilled writer, however, even this objection need not carry much weight. In Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge and The Moon and Sixpence, the first-person narrator is frequently relating information he has only discovered through investigation rather than observed, yet the telling is--at least to my taste--utterly absorbing.

Maugham also allows long accounts in dialogue from parties other than the narrator--in effect, nesting another first-person account inside the main narrative. This is somewhat out of fashion, as pundits urge us not to do any one thing--dialogue, exposition, description, anything--for too long a stretch. But having a character relate first-hand events to a narrator can be very effective, and can allow the writer to have it both ways--the narrator can reflect on the other character's first-person account, somewhat like an omniscient narrator might, while the character takes over the movement of the story for a time. This used to be common practice; Evelyn Waugh was fond of letting non-narrators take over and ramble on, and, of course, Conrad's Heart of Darkness is nothing but a long account by a non-narrator, just barely bookended by our nominal first-person narrator. And, though it may get you slapped down in a writing workshop, plenty of good writers still use this technique; in the Zuckerman novels, some of which are third-person and some first, Philip Roth often lets secondary characters monologue to such an extent that they briefly (or sometimes not-so-briefly) become the effective first-person narrators.

An additional claim made about first-person narrative is that adopting it automatically lowers the stakes because the narrator has obviously survived to tell the tale. Well, there's stakes other than physical survival in most good stories, and besides, the claim isn't strictly true; some fine novels (Alice Sebold's bestselling The Lovely Bones is probably the best-known) and movies (Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty) are told by deceased narrators. In addition, in first-person present tense the telling of the tale is in no way contingent on the survival of the narrator, though the death of the narrator might make the ending just slightly

Of the objections to first-person narratives, the strangest I've ever come across is that, lacking an explanation of how and why the story is being told, the whole novel lacks credibility. And many of the early novelists may have worried about this; that would be an explanation for why so many first-person accounts were diaries or a series of letters (excuse me, epistolary novels). Many of these strategies are lacking in credibility themselves. True, people had more time to pen letters in the 18th and 19th centuries, but even in those less hectic times, few would put pen to paper when the house was on fire. (I've always meant to read Fielding's Shamela, a satire of Richardson's Pamela, wherein the heroine continues jotting down letters and diary entries in increasingly preposterous circumstances.)

But many critics of first-person narration persist in claiming the credibility of the existence of the manuscript is a major problem for readers. David Morrell, a talented and experienced writer, says: many explanations can there be for why a first-person account came to be written and how the manuscript arrived in the reader's hands?...For believability, the existence of the first-person manuscript had to be accounted for, yet I'd reached a dead end in making the explanations various and interesting.

With all due respect to Mr. Morrell, that's one of the dumbest things I've ever heard. Why don't such quibbles apply to third person? Talk about straining credibility: How do third-person narrators know anything at all? Where were they when these events happened? How do they see into people's hearts and minds and pasts? How do they manage to know what is happening to Susan and the baby in Putney at the exact moment Lester is climbing into a jitney in Tierra del Fuego?

It's a convention of the medium, that's how, and questioning the convention is like saying you can't enjoy a movie because you can't figure out how all this came to be filmed. Why people choose to complain about the feasibility of first-person narratives but not their their-person equivalents is a mystery to me.

The fact is, some people just don't feel first-person narration is as respectable as third--possibly because it feels somehow more natural and therefore, in the Puritan mind, is suggestive of sin. Well, selecting a POV is an artistic and craft choice, not a moral issue. People should lighten up.

And maybe I should, too.

But not quite yet. I still have some more things to say about first-person.

(Jump to first post in series)
(Jump to previous post in series)

(Jump to next post in series)