Sunday, April 29, 2012

Second Person POV, part 1

Second person point of view gets a lot of bad press. The most positive opinion I've seen of it in print suggested second person POV is an especially distant form of first person, where the author uses "you" instead of "I" as the pronoun for the POV character. That argument makes a lot of sense if you're talking about the bored, hard partying, thoroughly disconnected protagonist of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, one of very few novels ever written in second person. The "you = distant I" theory doesn't work so well for other second person stories, like one I've discussed in a previous blog entry: Pam Houston's "How to Talk to a Hunter." 

I find second person interesting because hardly anybody will admit to liking it, yet it never goes completely away. The obvious objection to second person is that the author seems to be writing from the viewpoint of the reader, but that objection doesn't make sense in many cases. If a story begins, "You are the new breed: an eight-year-old with a Ph.D. in mathematics and an affinity for soul music," clearly the author's not writing from the reader's point of view. In fact, the only time I've ever seen second person used to represent the reader is in those old Choose Your Own Adventure books.  (Yes, there are new CYOA books out there, but I mean the ones that made you roll dice while fighting monsters. Anyway...)

I can't find a second person POV story that's ever been published in a magazine with strong editorial standards that would be improved by changing the POV. The latest one I've read is "You, On a Good Day" by Alethea Black. This story is in issue #163 of One Story magazine. It starts by talking about an unhappy protagonist with a strong sense of restraint:

You don't give the finger to the black pickup truck that tailgates and passes you aggressively...

The story goes on to list many, many things "you" don't do today, and sometimes, why "you" don't do them. The reader learns a great deal about "you" and "your" life up to that point as it lists things "you" don't do. About two-thirds of the way through, the story shifts to the positive:

On this day, you wake up and remember the sight of your four-year-old nephew aiming all of his fire trucks at the television during the coverage of the California wildfires because he wanted to help.

This story could have been written as "I don't do this, I don't do that," and then "Instead I do this, and I do that," and it could have worked. But I think the protagonist would have come across as the most self-obsessed narcissist this side of Narcissus himself. 

The story could have said "She doesn't give the finger..." and "On this day, she wakes up and remembers..." That might have worked. But I think the story's effect would have been less immediate, and possibly more annoying, because at some point readers would expect to learn a name, or be given a reason not to know the name, and I doubt I'd have liked the story as much. Using the second person here lets the author write about self-obsession without annoying the reader. 

The magazine's web site ( has a short interview with the author, and the author is asked about the second person POV choice, and she says the story came out of a talk she was giving herself at one point, when she was presumably talking to herself like "You shouldn't do this, you should do that." I can see that kind of thinking in her story, and I think it works.

I think at least 99% of good fiction would fail if it were converted to second person. However, I believe second person works in extremely rare circumstances, and in those circumstances, nothing else will achieve the effect you're going for.

Read any good second-person stories lately? Which ones? 

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