Since I am very lucky to have access to writers and editors at Zoetrope, and since this study actually started there as a question I posed on one of the message boards, I asked some of them to tell me of their experience, either as writers or editors – or both! First up, Marko and Thomas. All stories mentioned here are available online!
The main question I asked was: “Why did you use second person?”
Marko Fong (who appears several times in this blog for his stories and his insights into issues of craft, like here and here) intrigued me initially by saying he saw 2nd person as a kind of alienated first person, so I asked him to elaborate on any second person stories he had available online:
thanks for thinking of me…I have two online. Also very glad that you’re going to write something about 2nd person.
I struggled with Law of Return until I decided to go second person. One of themes of the story is what makes someone complete. Would the narrator still be the narrator if he didn’t have OCD. Can Ambrose be Ambrose without being Itzhak’s father? The “you” is used to underscore that issue of “which is you?” and in the narrator’s case is the OCD you or is it something to excise? He’s trying to figure it out.
Battleship, I saw in second person. I think it’s also an alienate “you”, but in a different sense. It’s more of a “this can’t be happening” feel. There’s this science fiction like scene at the beginning, there are all these things that happened in the family. The narrator almost hasn’t had a chance to process it all normally. He sees it happening, but he can’t acknowledge feeling it. Hence “you” is both alienated and sort of accusatory.
So for Marko, in the case of “Law of Return” a change to second person resolved a writing issue and strengthened the theme of the story! And I love the idea that he heard the “you” as he started writing “Battleship” and used it as alienated and accusatory! These insights into how a writer writes are gems! Thank you, Marko!
Thomas Kearnes also uses second person, quite often in fact. He is very helpful in figuring out what is keeping a piece from working – one of my mantras when I am working on a piece is, “Will Thomas be surprised?” – so I was delighted to get some insight from him on his use of second person:
My history with second-person narration is quite extensive. Indeed, the first flash I published back in 2005 was written in the second person. I have no clue why I employed this device. To my recollection, I’d never read a short story that used it. It was total inspiration.
Throughout my career, the “you” voice has cropped up again and again. To date, I’ve published at least 10 stories that use it. In some instances, the narrator is addressing another, usually a lover. In these instances, the narrative style just increases the intimacy. It’s like reading a stranger’s love letters.
In other instances, however, the “you” voice is meant to be, in the words of one of my colleagues, “the voice of God.” In “Your Big Dick Can’t Save You Now,” I felt a first-person narrative would be unwise since my protagonist is so shut down emotionally. A third-person narrative, on the other hand, would allow the reader to witness the story’s vulgar, heartbreaking elements from a distance. Using the second-person voice forced readers deeper inside my protagonist’s psyche. I wished to offer them no escape. You know you’re screwed when even the narrator is taunting you!
Hope that’s a good enough explanation. Thanks again for including me in your project. Feel free to ask me anything else if necessary. Take care!
I love this idea of the increased intimacy of second person, as in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Once in a Lifetime” – and also as the “Voice of God” – the ultimate instruction manual! This is such a powerful story, and I agree part of that power is the use of second person. Thank you, Thomas!
I think it is very interesting that one author is using second person to show the alienation the protagonist experiences, and another to increase intimacy between protagonist and reader – and both work! I just saw the movie The Bicentennial Man where Robin Williams plays a robot who changes over the course of two hundred years, and in the beginning he refers to himself as “one” – “One is glad to be of service.” Then only after he moves closer to humanity does he refer to himself as “I.” I think the “you” of “Battleship,” the way in which it is used, invokes a sense of the more formal “one” and is distancing, alienating. But the “you” of “Your Big Dick Can’t Save You Now” is more of someone looking at the protagonist – what Thomas calls the Voice of God. This is similar, I think, to the way in which third person can be very close to a character, or very broad, and can zoom in and zoom out. So can second person!
Next up will be editors Ellen Parker (FRiGG) and Joe Levens (The Summerset Review).