In praise of the second-person narrative

You go into the library and take down a book. The librarian smiles at you as they pass, and you sit down to read. It’s written in second-person, ‘you’ not ‘I’ or ‘they’, and it begins to grate on you. How dare this author tell you what you’re doing? I’m not! you scream, every other line. You put the book back on the shelf and leave.

All the writing advice I’ve read says don’t use the second person. It’s contrived, it’s ‘experimental’ for the sake of it, it gets up people’s noses. For years I didn’t write, wouldn’t have dreamt of writing, fiction in the second person. And then I did, and I quite liked it, and now I can’t get enough of it, both as a writer and a reader.

I understand the feeling some readers have that it’s dictating to them, spying on them, describing them. After all, if a writer says ‘you’, who are they addressing except the reader? Who else is there? And yet…

I had one of those sudden shifts in understanding, like when I saw e-readers as the Walkman for the bus, with books as the LP collection you keep at home. The writer isn’t addressing me as reader, I’m eavesdropping on a conversation they’re having with someone else. I’m reading letters over their shoulder. They don’t know I’m here. Think of it like that and the second-person narrative becomes deliciously intimate, transgressive even. It’s where the reader gets to experience unfiltered lives, not the parts that ‘I’ choose to narrate about myself, or that someone else has observed about ‘them’.

I still wouldn’t overdo it, I’m sure a diet of purely second-person would get wearing, but then I also get sick of first-person and that seems almost prescribed in flash fiction. Reading someone’s early-draft short story recently, they said ‘is it ok in second-person or is it too gimmicky?’, which is sad because the voice fit the story, and assuming they weren’t using second-person to be experimental for the sake of it, then it’s no more of a gimmick than any other choice of tense or narrative voice. If it works for you as a writer, use it. If you’re unsure as a reader, try it again, only this time imagine your ear pressed against a flimsy dividing wall.

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