Thursday, April 2, 2009

POV Part III: First-Person and Its Detractors

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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.

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Nikwdhmos said...

Good stuff as always. My first attempt at a novel was in 1st person, but each chapter switched POVs to another narrator. I meant it as an experiment, and it probably didn't work -- but I still like the book. ;)

Tim Stretton said...

I agree that first person is a good place to start out. It's relatively easy to find a voice, it's easier to control distance than any species of third (because it's more constrained) and, as you say, it makes explicit the limitations inherent in any choice of viewpoint.

It's also more versatile than it's given credit for - there isn't much beyond excellence and a first-person viewpoint linking The Big Sleep, My Cousin Rachel, Flowers for Algernon and The Book Thief.

Ryan David Jahn said...

I recently read the book that David Morrell quote is from, and it struck me as kind of silly as well, though I did think he had a point about why DELIVERANCE shouldn't have been written in the first person (which was that the narrator, while telling the story in the first person, vows never to tell a soul about what happened).

Norman Mailer, on the other hand, loved first person and spent a good deal of time defending it in THE SPOOKY ART.

David Isaak said...

Hey, Nikwd--

There are examples of rotating first-person that work quite well, but I've got to say that it's quite a challenge coming up with multiple distinctive voices.

A writerly friend of mine, Rufi Cole, wrote an entire novel where the first-person viewpoint changed every chapter, never repeating. I'll talk about this in a later post. I think it worked very well indeed--but what a task!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

For sure. At the risk of a really dumb analogy, first-person is category like "vegetables," while third-person contains so many possibilities as to be more like "food." (We'll see if Aliya Whiteley gives me veggie credit for that or not.)

That's an excellent and unlikely list of books, and it's gratifying to see them lined up next to each other. One of those points I wish I'd made myself.

(Indeed, I probably will someday.)

David Isaak said...

Hiya, Ryan--

Yeah, the point about Dickey's book makes sense. But, then, Dickey's really a poet, not a novelist. They have a license to get sloppy, right?

The interesting thing about Mailer's defense of first-person (and, I suppose, mine as well) is that we think it needs to be defended in the first place. Why people constantly sling mud at this particular, innocent POV is a mystery.

I blame Henry James and his acolyte Percy Lubbock, but maybe the history of this smear campaign goes back farther in time...

mags said...

Great stuff, as usual, David. But I wonder if the average reader can even tell the difference, on a conscious level, between first and third person. The mother of a friend of mine hated what she called "I" books. Refused to read them, even in her favorite genre, detective novels.

Once upon a time, I felt the same way, but now it's my preferred reading (and writing) zone. I used to avoid present tense novels, too, but that now ranks way up there in my fiction druthers. But only when told from first person POV. I can't abide present tense novels from third-person POV.

For now.

Maybe I'll change my mind some day. It's happened before!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Mags--

I try to be open to liking as many kinds of things as possible, on the theory that this will grant me more enjoyment on average. I guess I'm essentially a hedonist, though I like to dress the idea up as Epicurianism.

I agree that third-person present can be a bit awkward at times, and I'm not quite sure why. I need to think about that.

Luckily, I don't need to say anything about third-person for a while. In the meantime, that funny electrical-fire smell is me thnking about the problem.

Matt Curran said...


You really need to combine all these posts into some kind of "How to..." bible, they're brilliant (and a great distraction).

The Morrell quote makes about as much sense as trying rationalise James Bond movie continuity. The whole point of writing fiction is suspending disbelief, as well as being entertaining. It shouldn’t matter if there is a rationale behind using first person; as you say, third person presents the author as this god-like narrator, and by that rationale turns the majority of literary masterpieces into fantasies.

I confess I haven’t tried writing a novel in first person yet (though I’ve written plenty of short stories from first person and present tensed POVs). I’ve been tempted to but I would say that it is harder to write an “objective” piece of prose from first person unless the narrator has no emotional link or investment in the story, and there is that whole peril thing too which I used to agree with – and from someone who tends to kill of his main characters on a regular basis at the moment first person would stop the story dead in its tracks. But since reading books like The Book Thief, my opinion has changed somewhat, as we’re looking at a first person narration of someone else’s life, and it works wonderfully well. The fact the narrator is Death itself, heightens the narration (especially when accompanied by the blurb: “Death will visit the Book Thief three times…”). Genius.

David Isaak said...

Hi, MFW--

"The Morrell quote makes about as much sense as trying rationalise James Bond movie continuity."

Couldn't be summarized better.

I can see that you wouldn't have spent much time in first person with the sorts of novels you write. Not only do you mow down major characters, but the scope of your stories would make it hard to cram into first-person. The kinds of tales you tell inherently need a lot of range.