I Need Help With “I,” Or Thoughts on Literary Segregation and the 1st Person Narrative

writing_wednesdaysThis post is part of an ongoing series Called Writing Wednesdays. I would love your comments below!

It’s hard to know where some prejudices develop. My bias against bad drivers—something we Prince Edward Islanders specialize in—came to me slowly. I’m sure when I began driving I cared little for what other people did on the road. Now when I see some lazy clod bending around a corner without a turn signal or some jerk speeding through a school zone, I just launch my dashboard booster rocket and disable the undercarriage of their vehicle.

My bad driver prejudice was a slow, steady build.

But I remember the distinct moment I developed a prejudice against 1st Person Narratives. The setting has begun to fade. I was in grade 11 or 12 at high school, and either in a conversational style class (like English or Health), or in a lunchtime club. There was a guy my age who aspired to be a writer and had actually begun well. He wrote for two hours a day, a feat that astonished me. I desperately wanted to write, and probably blamed my lack of writing on the fact that I worked 40 hours a week throughout high school and university. Yet, there was a sixteen year old at his task—at my task, and doing it better than me.

me me meMy reaction was peculiar. I almost reached for my desktop rocket launcher. But I restrained myself, and listened to what he said. I realized as he spoke that it wasn’t because of flipping pizzas that I didn’t write. It’s because I never sat down at the computer to do so. And when I sat down one day, I didn’t sit down the next. My admiration for him replaced my astonishing hostility.

But he also said something that stuck immediately. “I hate 1st Person Narratives,” he said. I challenged him, and he explained that 1st Person Narrative was full of dreary introspection, limited point-of-view, poorly drawn voice, info dump, and overused surprises about who the narrator really was. At least, that’s what I’ve come to believe. For I took up his prejudice in that moment and have borne it ever since.

I am starting to feel limited by this policy of discrimination, however. First, I have been unable to institute a strategy of segregation that actually worked. So often 1st Person Narratives slip into my beside reading pile without my notice.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going to leave out three kinds of 1st Person Narratives, all of which work quite well:

  1. The Narrator as Voice Character: These sorts of stories come from authors like Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket, and C.S. Lewis. Neil Gaiman once said that reading Narnia as a child was the first time he realized there was an author behind the fiction. I love this sort of thing when done well.
  2. Epistolary Fiction: These are books in diary or letter form, like Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, some parts of Jane Austen’s books, some coming-of-age literature, and even travelogues like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.
  3. Detective Fiction: I just don’t know enough about it, but I like being in that sort of head—the inquisitive genius or struggling puzzle-solver.

If I were to defend my 1st Person prejudice, I would go to the Twilight series. I don’t think it is terrifically bad literature; I just find it dreary to read. And I think Stephanie Meyers’ breakout bestseller is the stem cell of a new development of Young Adult (YA) 1st Person Narratives. The Lightening Thief series and The Hunger Games trilogy are both in the 1st Person. I quite liked The Hunger Games, but it took a few pages to get past the voice. Suzanne Collins does well at finding ways for Katniss to get caught up on what’s happening, but I think the last book of the trilogy gets bogged down by her inner voice.

 50 Shades of Bad WritingI’m not sure how the Hunger Games Copycats have done, but the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon—also in the Twilight inheritance—is exactly what’s bad in publishing in my generation. It is an older Gen X (or young Baby Boom) British writer trying to sound like a young American millennial whose indulgent inner narrative causes her to wander into a pedophilic relationship laced with robotic sexual neuroses. It epitomizes all that can go wrong when one is lost in the land of the 1st Person Narrative.

True, true, we have The Great Gatsby and a number of other period “greats” in the 1st Person. But even a good book can be limited by voice. I think Albert Camus’ The Plague has exactly this limitation. As I check my prejudices, however—as I wander my bookshelf—I see that I might be limiting myself. Gene Wolfe and Orson Scott Card use the 1st Person. So does Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. and Margaret Atwood—not always, but in some of my favourite books, and when they do it, they do it seamlessly. Huck Finn and The Outsiders and Kit’s Wilderness and The Shakespeare Stealer are all examples of 1st Person done well in YA fiction. Khaled Hosseini does this brilliantly—thought it might be an example of #2 above, a memoir—and I hear John Green’s work is very good.

It is possible, then, that my anti-1st Person prejudice is neither helpful nor even true of me. My bookshelf betrays my self-deception, It turns out that I do like 1st Person Narratives, with some hesitation. It may even be my schoolmate—who is now a published author—the father of my faux discriminating taste, may have matured even faster than me. We’ll see. But it is definitely true that 1st Person Narratives are worth consideration.

After all, this entire piece was written in the 1st Person.

Now, the question is whether I can leap over this mental wall to extend my writing to 1st Person stories? More on that next week.

Questions: What do you prefer, 1st person or 3rd person? What’s the best 1st person book you’ve read?

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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38 Responses to I Need Help With “I,” Or Thoughts on Literary Segregation and the 1st Person Narrative

  1. jubilare says:

    *chokes a little* Um… “Meyers does well at finding ways for Katniss to get caught up on what’s happening, but I think the last book of the trilogy gets bogged down by her inner voice.” Collins. Collins, not Meyers. 😉

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    • Oh dear… very bad typo! Fixed.

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      • jubilare says:

        Hehehe, wise choice. Both writers have some vehement fans out there.

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        • I’ve met some! I honestly didn’t hate Twilight. It was like Dan Brown level for me. Not quite. More like John Grisham with his shirt off.

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          • jubilare says:

            *laughs* I’m not really entitled to an opinion (though it is hard not to form one, anyway) as I have never read any of those authors. I might as well be illiterate when it comes to current popular writers, though I am not proud of that fact, as some are. Since I read so slowly, I have to be very particular in choosing what books to read, and if something doesn’t shout at me, I’m likely to pass it by.

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            • You aren’t missing much!!
              Actually, probably not true. I don’t have time to read Canadian literature much, but I do know that I’m missing something.
              You have a strength in that you can read deeply as you go. I often have to read something twice.

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  2. clisawork says:

    What I find difficult about first person is that only way to know about the person speaking is their reporting of what other people see about them or the author’s cheat as we see the character’s reactions to things and then have to riddle from that who they are. That may not make as much sense and I think it does. In other words how do you know what a character looks like if they are the one telling the story? They have to look in a mirror, or someone else has to describe them and then we have to decide if they are giving an accurate description. Is the character honest? In literature classes it was always an assumption – the narrator was always honest but I think that is a cheat also. No one is 100% honest. First person is limiting because it places a larger burden on the reader to sort out the truth and to see the wider picture of what is happening through only one view point. I think that unless an author is aware that they are responsible for the more than just what is happening in their narrators head (and I have seen authors fail badly at this) the narrator and thus the reader are rendered, hmmmm, how to say delicately, stupid? Unable to see past the end of their own nose? Unless that is what the author is going for, but who wants to spend 200 pages in that kind of head? I’m sorry, have I gone off on a tangent?

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    • Completely non-tangential. These are some of my concerns, hence the overused, “surprise, so-and-so is really the murderer” kind of twists.
      To be honest, though, I still think I’m being unclear and biased. I haven’t actually read many 1st person stories I hated because of the voice. And some I loved, like Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” or Kerouac’s “On the Road.”
      So I’m not sure. I think you targeted the biggest thing; if an author is unaware of her power and responsibility, it could go bad.

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      • jubilare says:

        I’ve seen it be done badly, but then I’ve seen all other point of views done badly, too. My personal bias, though, is against present-tense. It always makes me feel like I am reading a screenplay, and I can’t help wondering how the present moment came to be a book. I understand the immediacy and uncertainty it is supposed to bring to a story, supposedly why it is relatively popular right now, but it just feels unnatural, somehow. However, that may just be because I haven’t read much of it.

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        • Does anyone else live in an area where present tense is used for the past (historical present)? Here, people tell stories like this:
          “So then he says to Bob….” All meant to capture the past.

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          • jubilare says:

            Yes, but I don’t consider that the same thing. That is a dialect shift that is obviously intended as past-tense in the same way as a double-negative means a negative, not a positive. Does that make sense?
            It is not a book intending to represent a present moment as unfolding before your eyes. Or, at least, that is how I see it. I could be wrong.

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    • jubilare says:

      Did your lit classes never cover the “unreliable narrator?” We explored that pretty thoroughly, and I found it interesting, and so I like 1st person more easily than Brenton. I love that moment when I am reading and I realize “waiiit… I see the narrator’s slant, now.” Most of the good 1st person stories I read have an unreliable narrator (to some extent) because the author is smart enough to realize that people are biased creatures. And biased doesn’t always mean “I don’t want to be in this person’s head.” …an then there are things like My Last Duchess. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173024
      *wickedgrin*

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      • I never was in a class like that, no. But I do know about the approach. Even in Camus you are left at the end wondering about the accuracy. I quite like some limited view pieces as they embiggen their worldview.
        What did you think of “The Help,” which had a rolling 1st person?

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        • jubilare says:

          I never read The Help. My mother did, and it pissed her off as a White Savior narrative, among other things. After hearing her account of it, I wasn’t really interested. As she was also my lit teacher for many years, and a darn good one, by all accounts, her word on books carries a lot of weight with me.

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          • I am sensitive to that narrative, the White Saviour, or the Righteous Gentile.
            But as a piece about white discovery of the other, it was pretty good. I just found the shifting 1st person narrative to be less than elegant.

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      • clisawork says:

        I think biased is different from not telling the truth. Sometimes I think that it is a built in assumption that the narrator will never lie to the reader, which denies a part of humanity. Magical realism solves that problem nicely though. That is why we suspend belief or is that disbelief?

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        • jubilare says:

          Part of the point is that unreliable narrators can and do lie, and part of the fun of reading them is to discover when and why they do. That’s a matter of preference, of course. It is perfectly fine to dislike having to deal with unreliable narrators, I just can’t agree that it is a weakness of 1st person narrative. The question of recall is one that is less often addressed, though. Everyone remembers events differently, and that rarely seems to be acknowledged in fiction (mystery fiction sometimes being an exception).

          It’s “suspend disbelief” 🙂 but why would magical realism be an exception?

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          • clisawork says:

            Having read One Hundred Years of Solitude which was written in a straight forward manner, truth became less about this is what I am telling you and it is the truth because I am telling you there is a flying carpet and I am telling you about a massacre with equal directness – it is more like this painting http://www.wikiart.org/en/jacek-yerka#supersized-featured-256833 What is the truth in this – the cat, the pots and pans, the angel? All are painted with the same realism, the same earnestness, the same sense of being grounded in reality and yet there is an angel with wings but it completely belongs, just as a flying carpet completely belongs in a novel that includes a government out of control that massacres people. Magical realism allows an author to create a landscape that disconnects the reader from their everyday life and in doing so is able to introduce them to radical ideas and images that would be otherwise outside of their ability to grasp or imagine. At least that is my reading.

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        • jubilare says:

          Can’t reply to your reply, so I will answer your last comment here. 🙂

          But that can be done with or without 1st person perspective, and a 1st person narrator to a magical realism story may be as unreliable or reliable as a narrator in any other genre.

          What you say about magical realism disconnecting readers from reality enough to alter their perception is true of all fiction to some extent, though it is more obvious with the fantasy genres (including magical realism). I would also argue that it is strange to assume that the ideas and images that can be embodied in such stories would otherwise be beyond the grasp or imagination of the readers, but that will take us off on a bit of a bunny trail.

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          • clisawork says:

            Magical realism differs from fantasy in that it doesn’t deliberately construct a fantasy world, in the same way that Columbus’s account of the New World didn’t deliberately construct a fantasy world. If things happen in reality that are so beyond what you think should happen in reality that you have no way using ordinary language to describe them, then you revert to the language of the strange, the mysterious, the fantastical. Magical realism does this deliberately, introducing the reader to the strange and fantastical because the reality of events that they introduce are almost to impossible to be believed. If I want to tell you a truth that you won’t believe because it simply can’t be true, first I teach you the language that will help you understand how this can be true. I will tell you a story that is so fantastical that by the time I get to the actual truth you will be immersed in the language, the vocabulary, the culture of these events and people and you will understand how this came to be and how it can be true.

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            • jubilare says:

              I’ve not read the book you speak of, so let me clarify a few things.

              1. is it fiction?

              2. does it contain fantastical or unbelievable elements?

              If so, I would group it under the big tent of Fantasy fiction. I realize many people find that term pejorative, and so like to argue that this or that doesn’t fall into the category, but I have yet to run across a better term for it.

              If the answer to one of those is not yes, then you may need to bring me up to speed so that I know what the book you refer to is.

              And what do you mean by a truth that can’t be true?

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              • clisawork says:

                In the example of Columbus – his writings, well he seems as is he were high on something. He wasn’t – it’s just that nothing in his life had prepared him for South America, for the people he encountered, for their culture. So he invented a language to describe it.

                As for a truth that can’t be true – imagine living in the 1940’s and hearing rumors of the concentration camps. Hearing rumors of the numbers of the dead. How could it be true? Could anything in their past prepare an ordinary person for the truth of that? How could they believe it? How could they absorb the truth of it? Many initially did deny it – it was so terrible, so beyond imagining that it could not be true. If I need to speak a truth that is too terrible to be believed but I want you to absorb all of it in all of its tragedy, horror, grief, and all of its impact on a personal and social level how do I do that? Magical realism. http://www.amazon.com/One-Hundred-Years-Solitude-P-S/dp/0060883286. Events that have a basis in reality, events that occur but seem to be denied, or ignored, events that receive a headline and then go away. How do I communicate truths that are too large, too complex for a simple “this is the truth”. Even 200 pages of “this is the truth”. Emotional truths, political truths, large imcomprehensible events. Introduce the fantastical and then put reality in that context and truth is exposed. Like “The Garden of Earthly Delights” http://www.wikiart.org/en/hieronymus-bosch#supersized-featured-195402 Fantastical painting – and yet people find truth in it over and over and over again. It contains human delight and human suffering in one huge swath, drawing the viewer into its point of view to introduce truth. How can pleasure lead to suffering – that is the question Hieronymus Bosch seeks to answer. Other people find other questions and other answers in the painting but the fantastical element leaves open the possibilities. Also in 1500 fantasy as we know it did not exist. This clear bright line between fantasy and reality was not so clear and Magical Realism goes back to what you said about memories and how we remember. What part of our memories are fantasy, and what how does that affect the truth of events? How we tell stories about events?

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        • jubilare says:

          Hmm, ok. Thank you. That makes a bit more sense to me. Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” is, apparently, often considered magical realism, and I have read that.

          I am not sure how much we disagree, or even if we really do or if this is all semantics, but two things occur to me.

          The first is that, until the “Age of Reason,” the kind of “truth that cannot be believed” you describe was fairly absent from humanity. We have massive imaginations, and an understanding of great horrors. Greek and Roman historians wrote, and probably believed, fantastical things, and the blending of literal and mystical is something found in the earliest of human stories. I tend to believe that our ancestors understood the useful interplay between reality and the unreal for conveying complex ideas. As for horrors, ancient texts are by no means silent on the subject, as they would be if people could not be expected to believe them. Do people go into denial? Certainly. But it is not because they are not capable of understanding; it is because they choose not to, it is easier not to. In that case I would say that magical realism is not so much trying to get people to believe unbelievable truths. It is trying to trick them into really looking at reality whether they want to or not.

          The second observation is that what you are describing of the purpose of Magical Realism is, from my perspective, the purpose of all good fantasy (and a lot of other kinds of fiction, too). The ultimate purpose of fantastical stories; stories that blend the mystical, the fantastic, and the unreal with realities and truths, is to help us view reality at an angle in order to see it afresh and from a different perspective. Bosch’s allegorical paintings illustrate this very well as they are far from the known, and yet the intent is to convey an aspect of reality.

          Tolkien created a world with dragons and dwarves and dark lords, but all the while he is writing about reality: the wars he suffered through, the interplay of faith and choice, the realities of corruption and betrayal, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. To say that a work like that is somehow less about reality than something more firmly based in real events or places is, I think, is missing the point through being too literal. Freed from the trappings of the overly familiar, truths that are very present and real in our world can be explored in ways that cause us to see them differently.

          In short, I can easily see how, stylistically and in form, Magical Realism is its own thing. However, I would still consider it a sub-genre under the blanket of Fantasy Fiction or, if you prefer, Fantastical Fiction. It serves the same purpose, exposing reality by changing the lens through which we look at the world.

          Apparently, though, this is a hotly debated question. I had no idea, because I generally ignore debates among the literati, but simply looking up “Magical Reality” showed me some interesting arguments. Thus we come to the tangle of semantics, and how each person defines words. You’ve certainly widened my horizons. 🙂

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  3. My bias is against forced third person – that is, when the conclusions of a paper are clearly first person conclusions (this is what I think!) and are presented as objective facts. I understand why teachers try to stop students from using “I”, but it rarely, if ever, stops them from stating an opinion or encourages them to dig deeper into why they’re saying what they’re saying. I find that encouraging my students to use the first person gets them to explain why they think what they do – which takes it out of opinion into analysis anyway.

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  4. Sue Archer says:

    I think it depends on the type of work and what you are trying to achieve. I read a lot of epic fiction with multiple characters and complex plots, which generally end up being in third person. I think writing a good first-person novel is very challenging, because you spend so much time inside a character’s thoughts and you need to make that inner life both credible and interesting. When it’s done right, it’s amazing. I’m with Jubilare in that present tense drives me absolutely batty. I end up focusing on the tense and it takes me right out of the story.

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  6. houseboatonstyx says:

    I, or my young self, share the prejudice against books like the Doolittle Series and Kidnapped, which are good adventure material filtered and clogged by that narrator’s feelings, and even Oswald’s narrative Bastable, and of course Rebecca and Till We Have Faces.

    I love Kipling, Colette, The Alexandria Quartet, Huckleberry Finn, and probably others where I don’t even notice the 1st person. And Lewis’s The Great Divorce; the 1ST person parts of the Space Trilogy and the Narnia series; and Salinger’s stories that were narrated by Buddy Glass*.

    There are a lot of common factors to be found, but what strikes me is a distinction that Blythe made in ZEN IN ENGLISH LITERATURE, between styles that are:

    objective about objective things (Imagist)

    objective about subjective things (yay Kipling, Colette)

    subjective about objective things (Frost?)

    subjective about subjective things (boo! Invictus, “I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life”)

    * Whom I tried several times to find in the card catalog at the Carnagie Public Library.

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