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.
My 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I’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?