Second-person narration

by look i have opinions

I’m starting to think I just don’t read second-person narration the way other people do. I don’t mean things like “Reader, I married him,” or epistolary passages with a lot of “you”s; I mean narratives in which the point-of-view character is referred to or addressed as “you,” without any clear justification in the text. Almost every time anyone comments on second-person fiction, they say one of these two things:

  1. I don’t like how the story tells me what to do and feel.
  2. I like how the story forces me to become the character and to feel implicated in their actions.

Which actually both mean the same thing. “You” = the reader. Or at least, “you” is a shortcut to reader identification, “you” demands something extra from the reader.

To me, this seems a deeply perverse way of reading fiction. It goes against logic. Take the opening lines of Junot Díaz’s story “Miss Lora” (from the April 23, 2012 issue of the New Yorker, online here):

Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother would you have done it? You’d remember how all the other guys had hated on her—how skinny she was, no culo, no titties, como un palito, but your brother didn’t care.

As an address to the reader, this just doesn’t fly. The reader doesn’t yet know what the main character “did,” and therefore is incapable of wondering about it. There’s at least an even chance the reader is not one of the “guys.” Even supposing he is, he may not know what “palito” means. He may not even have a brother. So most readers can discard the “‘you’ = the reader” hypothesis right off the bat. The question is, why don’t they? Or if they do discard it, why do they continue to read “you” as somehow implicating or including the reader?

Some examples (not trying to pick on any particular blog or reviewer here):

  • Díaz himself says some interesting things about second person in “Miss Lora” and then adds, “Only so much a person likes being addressed as ‘you’ by a complete stranger.”
  • The blog Fail Better says of the same story that “the main character is inactive and passive, […] an unfortunate side-effect of choosing the second person, in that Díaz makes the reader assume all the responsibility of action.” This makes no sense to me at all. The story isn’t a Choose Your Own Adventure book, nor does it have any “Lady or the Tiger”-type ambiguities, so how could the reader act on it?
  • In a review of Stewart O’Nan’s A Prayer for the Dying, the Chicago Tribune refers to its use of second person as an “effort to merge [the main character’s] consciousness with ours.” (Presumably, other narrative modes seek to alienate us from the point-of-view characters. Who knew?)

I used to think people were just wrong about this. I thought response #1, above, was just a knee-jerk reaction to a superficiality, no different from an aversion to Comic Sans. And I thought response #2 came from people who read second person the same way I read it, and then afterwards convinced themselves that the narrative mode enhanced their ability to identify with characters.

But these two responses are so ubiquitous that they’ve changed my mind. I’ve come to think it’s just a prerational thing. People don’t read fiction on a completely rational and cerebral level, nor should they. I’m just better at suppressing the natural response most readers have, maybe because I’ve read more second person than most, or because logically inconsistent readings bother me. Or it’s possible that I’m actually kidding myself about suppressing that response. Somebody should do a psych study on this.

Here’s how I think I read most second-person narration: pretty much the same way I read first or third person, but with a slight difference. The narrator is not actually talking to us or to any similar audience. The narrator is talking to the character, and readers are just listening in.

We don’t know who’s doing the narrating, but I tend to read as though it’s the character talking to him- or herself. For me, second person rings true to the way people talk to themselves in private, or the way people talk about themselves in a very informal setting. It feels intimate, even voyeuristic. And if you think about it, this is no weirder than first person. We don’t usually ask how first-person narrators got to be so good at writing/storytelling, or how they can recall so much detail, or (for present tense) when they find time to narrate at all.

It would also be logically consistent to think of the narrator as a mysterious being who talks only to this one character and who we’re not supposed to think about too much. Again, this is no weirder than a third-person omniscient narrator, a god-like being who for some reason passes the time telling stories, or a third-person limited narrator, who must be either a psychic or a biographer.

I like to think that if second person were more widely used, most people would read it in logically consistent ways.

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