by Hannah Earthman
My name is Hannah, and although I didn’t begin this post writing “your name is Hannah,” I freely admit to (sometimes) liking second-person narration.
While it may be a little too dramatic to call second person the dark alley of literary writing, it is a place where most modern-day writers of good repute don’t want to be found wandering—and not just for fear of running into whatever sketchy patrons may be lingering there.
Second person has many detractors for many legitimate reasons. Some acquisitions editors, primarily of literary magazines it seems, mention receiving such an onslaught of present-tense second-person short stories that it becomes a “one more and I swear I’ll scream” sort of scenario. I’ve heard the argument that use of this POV comes across as trying to strong-arm the reader into the action of the story instead of relying on the more fundamental tactics of storytelling to accomplish the same thing, only subtly.
And then there’s perhaps the most adhesive of the stigmas writers face when they replace I or he or she with you: being literary for the sake of being literary.
This last one’s tough. Being lumped in with such tactics as all lowercase letters, dashes instead of quotation marks, and post-modern staggered, flipped, or otherwise deviated text can make second person seem a POV best left to “the pros”—those writers who can seemingly get away with anything because, well, they’re them. In the hands of other writers, however, it can be viewed as a too-apparent reach for the high-hanging fruit of The Literary. Too obvious. Gimmicky. Yikes.
As with many approaches to writing, however, there’s a usefulness to second person that’s sometimes forgotten. One novel that frequently makes best-of book rankings exemplified the appropriate use of second person: Bright Lights, Big City. In this ode to (or warning against) life for a young person in the Big Apple, Jay McInerney gives us a narrator who is a long distance—and not geographically—from his upbringing. Readers learn through the course of the book that he’s grown remote from his family of origin, and then from his ex-wife. Work’s not going well; he’s on the verge of losing that. And his friends? They’re around, but they’re to-an-extent friends—not the sort a person’s likely to spill his soul to. In other words, he’s not really feeling like himself these days.
Here is the opening line of Bright Lights, Big City: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” It’s a line that soundly sets up a narrator at odds with himself—who may logically look at himself as a you rather than an I.
Later in the book, in reporting a conversation with his mother, the narrator offers this:
You tried to tell her, as well as you could, what it was like to be you. You described the feeling you’d always had of being misplaced, of always standing to one side of yourself, of watching yourself in the world even as you were being in the world, and wondering if this was how everyone felt. (Emphasis mine.)
Many people, in day-to-day nonliterary life, have probably been able to relate to the feeling of watching themselves, and feeling out of place. Bright Lights explores what can happen when an individual feels that way for an extended period of time—when that is the reigning motif of a person’s life. And there’s hardly a more efficient way imaginable of conveying that than use of second-person POV. By writing this way, McInerney was able to note—effectively and continually—the state of feeling removed from oneself without directly commenting on it.
If you’re writing a story in which a character is out of touch with his own actions, thoughts, or even current whereabouts, you can always explore second-person narration to see if it feels right. And keep in mind that even those acquisitions editors who say they’ve seen about enough of a particular tactic to last a lifetime will also often comment on the fact that they’re completely open to seeing that particular tactic used well.
Will you face an uphill battle if you use second person? Perhaps. Will you knock readers’ socks off if you use it brilliantly? Probably so. An experienced literary editor can help you determine if this point of view is the right choice for your work and can provide substantive advice for implementing it—or any other POV—in the most powerful way possible.
Hannah Earthman is an experienced editor who can providing a succinct analysis of strengths and flaws in a manuscript.