The Problem with Writing in the First Person
Back in February the Guardian published a guide for aspiring writers entitled ‘Ten Rules for Writing Fiction’, which assembled the tips and hints of dozens of well-known authors. The article was entertaining, intermittently useful and full of contradictions. ‘Write only when you have something to say,’ wrote David Hare, while in the adjacent column, Esther Freud advised ‘Don’t wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.’
Amidst all the advice about murdering babies, cutting ruthlessly and avoiding clichés like the plague, one of the pointers that stuck in my head was from American novelist Jonathan Franzen: ‘Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.’
At first sight Franzen’s point seems self-evident. No writer would want to set out on the process of writing a novel, or even a short story, in the company of a dull protagonist. A third-person narrative provides the greatest scope for the author to switch between objective, subjective and omniscient viewpoints and, arguably, allows for more emphasis on plot and incident rather than getting bogged down in the nuances of the central character’s voice.
But I have to admit a certain fondness for a well-sustained, nuanced, first person voice. I remember years ago being sucked into the flora and folk of the Mississippi through the rich vernacular of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. As a teenager the opening lines of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye seized me and pulled me into the story:
‘If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and that David Copperfield kind of crap.’
When I first embarked on writing my novel I initially tried out a detached, third person narrative mode, but found that it didn’t suit the story. I could only get a purchase on the highly personal and subjective material when I started writing in the first person. Yet, as Franzen suggests, writing a first person narrative can be incredibly difficult to sustain. I repeatedly have to go back over and over the manuscript, just to check that I haven’t accidentally forced some inappropriate turn of phrase into the mouth of my narrator.
Another risk with writing in the first person comes from the fact that I’m highly impressionable. My careful attempt to sustain a convincing narrative voice is frequently derailed by whatever I happen to be reading at any given time. I recently read Martin Amis’s Money, only to find that my narrator became infected with a rambling verbosity that had to be seriously pared down at a later date. A friend told me she experienced a similar problem after reading Angela Carter’s Wise Children: her own prose suddenly turned a garish shade of purple.
Some of the most memorable works in literary history are derived from the narrator addressing the reader directly, from Herman Melville’s ‘Call me Ishmael’ at the outset of Moby Dick to Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Reader, I married him’ at the close of Jane Eyre. More recent highly recommended examples of first person narratives include Tod Wodicka’s 2008 novel All Shall Be Well and All Shall Be Well and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, which is told from the point of view of a 67-year-old Medieval re-enactor from New York, and Jackie Kay’s short story collections Why Don’t You Stop Talking and Wish I Was Here, whose informal, everyday voices sing with a rich poetry.
I’m keen to hear about other people’s favourite first-person narratives as well as any recommendations for further reading. Do you have a preference for first person narratives? Is there a narrator you’re particularly keen on? Oh, and while you’re at it, any advice on driving those interfering voices out of your head?