I need to write some sort of extended article or essay on the various uses of second-person narrative in fiction. (Yes, I really need to!) Maybe after I finish writing this novel - novels pay better than rants on point of view. But yesterday I was moved to write to the Comments editor of the Guardian about a piece on second-person in that day's paper. Though it pains me, here's the link to it.
The writer of the piece (Iowans: remember how Marilynne Robinson used the word "piece" when she didn't want to concede something was a story?) is mainly talking about blogs, but gives various examples from fiction and seems to suggest that the 'internet' is culprit for the use of second-person in stories and novels. Much as I love to blame the internet for its many crimes - like me knowing anything at all about the Kardashian family, or students being able to contact me at weekends and to address me as "hey" - I don't really think we can add use of the second-person to its list. Can't we just go back to the good old days when everyone blamed Lorrie Moore?
Anyway, here's what I wrote to the editor, for filing in the Guardian's bin:
Dear Comment Editor,
Morven Crumlish in today's paper (Saturday 6 July 2013) is making a very basic error: misreading second-person fiction. The "you" in a second-person story by, say, Junot Diaz is not supposed to be you-the-reader. It's a narrator who's talking about him- or herself, but in a way that suggests alienation from the events described, or emotional/ironic distance.
When Diaz was asked why he'd chosen second-person for his story 'Miss Lola' - published in the New Yorker last year - he explained: 'I really needed distance from this story. Every time I wrote in the first person it was just too close. Tried third person, but that flopped as well. Second person ended up being the only way to get through. I guess I wanted my narrator to be “in” the story, but also to be able to comment on his younger self a little.'
A famous example from the (pre-internet!) 80s is Jay McInerney's BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY. The opening lines are: 'You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge.'
We readers aren't supposed to think that WE are the person at a nightclub in NYC, taking vast amounts of cocaine and about to lose our job, etc. The second-person narrator is observing his own out-of-control life, unable to cope with the trauma he keeps hidden from readers for most of the book, the death of his mother.
Sure, Lorrie Moore - also famous for using the second-person before the internet 'inspired this shift in writing style' - employed it in a different way in her 1985 collection SELF-HELP: she told the Paris Review that she used 'the mock imperative of the second person' in part 'to satirize formally the idea of advice and a culture of advice.' But again, I don't think someone reading 'How to Be an Other Woman' (for example) will think it's about anyone but that character, Charlene, and her particular situation. Again, here's the opening: 'Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie. First, stand in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-seventh Street window, press your face close to the glass, watch the fake velvet Hummels inside revolving around the wing tips; some white shoes, like your father wears, are propped up with garlands on a small mound of chemical snow.'
When we read stories like this, we do not have, as Morven Crumlish contends, the 'understanding that you are in the same clique as the writer.' We don't have to relate to things we're reading, or identify with characters in a story or novel. As she points out, we should not only read 'content that speaks so directly and without conflict to your own experience.' But I doubt that Junot Diaz is expecting us to live the life of a Dominican-American young man, or that his (very wide) readership is part of his 'clique.' I doubt that Lorrie Moore cares whether the reader is a woman or has even been to New York. Most fiction writers want as many readers as possible, not just readers who happen to share an age, gender or geography with a particular character. Like much good fiction, these stories bristle with vivid and particular detail, bringing into focus worlds that may be very alien - in time, place, experience - to a reader.
I can't address the 'confessional journalism' to which Morven turns in her piece, but please reassure her about the second-person narrative in fiction: it's not all about us!
University of Sheffield
Oh yes - I invoked the job title! This always works in Britain. When I taught in Scotland, I sent a job-titled email to the Edinburgh Lit Festival, asking to chair some sessions - based on my experience at chairing writers (like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Monica Ali, Tash Aw, Peter Ho Davies, Tea Abreht, Kate Grenville, etc) in other festivals - I received ... hmm, no reply at all.