Sunday, February 11, 2007

1st person

We're editing a first-person YA novel at the moment and I was reminded reading "How Novels Work" that Henry James was partly responsible for a dip in the use of the first person in novels: "The first person, in the long piece, is a form foredoomed to looseness" and "the terrible fluidity of self-revelation" and "it has no authority, no persuasive or convincing force - its grasp of reality & truth isn't strong and disinterested". A dip that has well and truly been righted with more than half the Booker prize winners of the last ten years or so being at least in part in the first person. I like first person but James' comments reminded me that as a child (not a teenager) I preferred the adult warmth of the 3rd person, the sense of sitting on the narrator's knee - and Ali, at black dog, said she too had preferred the first person. The first person seems peculiarly suited to the the intense egotism of the teen years.

8 comments:

Brian said...

Ouch. "Intense egotism?" That's an interesting take. I'd argue that there's a certain amount of YA lit out there that reflects this viewpoint. But it might be considered a bit dismissive of the teen point of view.

I find it easier to think of the teen years as a proliferation of introspection, which can easily be mistaken for egotism. There's an escalated need for self-identity and the only way to achieve that is by studying the self on a micro level.

I haven't read "How Novels Work" but I'll have to check it out. I'm interested what James has to say about second person.

Andrew's black dog blog said...

Thanks for the comment. I guess I might temper my post by adding the view that most of us are quite egotistical (it is sometimes what makes us interesting) and one of the skills of adulthood (often gained in teen years) is to put a comfortable face on that egotism.

Andrew's black dog blog said...

& thanks for the teenreads.com link that I picked up from your blog.

Quick said...

It sounds like Henry James might have been more tolerant with shorter pieces.

I prefer whichever voice suits the story. As a reader I'm really not fussy about such details. I just want the story to work.

As a writer (with only short stories published), I've written in third person and first person with the story or instinct dictating how it should go.

The only story to have won a respectable prize was written in second person present tense, but I don't think I've been tempted to try it again. Not yet anyway.

Khylan Seriphyn said...

So I take it Henry James never wrote a successful first person story then?

Khylan Seriphyn said...
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Penni said...

Reading the unsoliciteds, first person seems to be the POV of choice for less accomplished writers. I find that first person, if it's not done really well, can be a bit tell-y rather than show-y. And often first person YA narrators end up being a bit inactive - reporting what they see rather than what they do, not necessarily taking the story into their own hands or driving the narrative. But when it's done well, it's absolutely fascinating and absorbing.

Andrew's black dog blog said...

Interesting, Penni. I take your point about being tell-y. And the voice often becomes the author's rather than staying fully in character. The first person often does seem limited, which creates plot problems and can give a flat unchanging tone to the words. Third person seems to give the writer more options; but when that first person voice works it sucks me right in as a reader.

We get a lot of 3rd person in the unsolicited, but they tend to be pitched at just under YA - and often these are the stories that have that old-fashioned flavor.