The Second Person Study, Part 13: Editors Have Their Say – Ellen Parker (FRiGG) and Joe Levens (The Summerset Review)

You are allowed to use Second Person!

Hello! I am Zin! In various workshops and writing classes, I have noticed a lot of hostility towards second person stories! They are considered “gimmicks” or just confusing and not good stories. I have also been advised that “no one will publish a second person story” which as I have said before may be why I have never read a bad second person story – only the really great ones get past all the gatekeepers!

So I asked a couple of editors I know from Zoetrope if they groan when they receive second-person story submissions, if they have ever published second person stories, and if they ever write in second person.

Joe Levens, who publishes The Summerset Review, answered:

I personally do not have a problem with 2nd person when it is done right. I do think it is best for shorter stories, maybe at most 3000 words. The style can get a bit monotonous in pieces longer than that. Just my view.

We have published 2nd person pieces in The Summerset Review. One of my favorites is here: “Eddie” by Shellie Zacharia.

And yes I have written in 2nd person myself. I enjoy it.

I much prefer 2nd person pieces where the reader can quickly realize the narrative voice is really the protagonist, where he/she chooses to refer to themselves indirectly (i.e. 2nd person) to try to put some artificial distance between the real person and the narrative person. As in the example above. For some reason, that appeals to me. The other type of 2nd person, which is more like an instructional voice, I don’t really care for. But it could just be me.

Joe again brings up the notion of second person creating distance between the character and the narrator, which I think is similar to what Marko calls “alienated first person.” The story Joe provided, “Eddie” by Shellie Zacharia, shows this, it is truly wonderful! It loops around, the present and the story the protagonist is writing and her past and, finally, her future, I love that! The competing pressures on the protagonist generate great conflict throughout the story. And what I love most is that this story is about a writer writing a story – another no-no! So Joe Levens is quite a maverick! Either that, or I have to stop listening to people who say things like “Do not write in second person” and “Never write a story about a writer writing a story.” I am going to add this story to my Online Fiction Etc. To Read and Love page! And I find it interesting that while he is fine with the “standard” form of second person, he is not so fond of the “hypothetical” form (using the nomenclature introduced in Part 2 of this Second Person Study by Richardson). Having just struggled with Self Help by Lorrie Moore, I have great empathy for this! Though I enjoyed “How to Leave Hialeah“, go figure. Small doses, as I said in my comments on Moore.

I asked the same question of the wonderful Ellen Parker, editor of FRiGG. I became acquainted with Ellen both on Zoetrope and from when she published some flashes of mine last year. She is very smart, very funny, and very independent-minded and outspoken, so I was eager to see what she would say:

Actually, I don’t see second person used very often. And I do not have a negative reaction when I see it. It’s like any other storytelling mode: in some writers’ hands it works; in others’ hands, it doesn’t. In fact, I just read a submission to FRiGG yesterday that’s in second person and IT BLEW MY FOOKIN MIND. It’s really good. [Ellen added later: I want to add that the second-person story that I read in the submissions for FRiGG was accepted elsewhere, which I deeply regret, but maybe I’ll ask the writer where it will appear, so people can look for it. Also, I asked that writer to send me another story, and she did, and I took it because it’s also incredible.] When second person is used that effectively, it becomes invisible. The reader does not even notice it. It becomes organic to the story. And, in fact, it might have been the best narrative mode for that story because the writer is a woman (or has a woman’s name–so I assume it’s a woman) but the story is about a father. If this writer had used a more traditional narrative mode, the reader might have been confused for a while (and maybe for a long while, well into the story) about the gender of the protagonist. We are prejudiced when we see the name of a writer before we read the story. If we see a woman’s name, we automatically expect (right or wrong) a female narrator or protagonist. Somehow, though, using the “you” form throws off, or at least deflects, our usual gender biases when we read a story.

I’m trying to think if I’ve published a second-person story in FRiGG, and I’m pretty sure that I must have, but I can’t think of one right off the top of my head! If I think of one, I’ll let you know. And if I have not published a story in second person, it’s not because I don’t like the mode, but because I really don’t see it used very often. I think it might have been a more popular mode in the 1980s, after “Bright Lights, Big City” came out.

I have never used second person in my writing–and, now that I’m thinking about it, perhaps one of the reasons is that my fiction is SO “chick lit” (a term that has become pejorative, but should not be)–it is forcefully, militantly, unapologetically told from a very female point of view. When a writer uses “you,” I think that writer is asking every reader to identify with the protag. My typical narrator doesn’t always give a shit whether men understand her. In fact, she probably assumes men WON’T understand her.

I love that gender comes into play here! In the course of this Study with Brian Richardson as our guide we have seen that second person does tend to be unsettling and unstable because, in fact, the reader, narrator, narratee, and writer tend to merge and diverge, and here is a writer whose protagonists do not want that!

This is such a wonderful viewpoint! I am fascinated! It is maybe feminist narratology! And it just so happens that Monika Fludernik, my other guide to the science of second person, also teaches courses on feminist literature, and so perhaps I will learn more as I continue to study! I have made a start on Dr. Fludernik but I have to confess, she frightens me when she says things like this:

The function of address combines with an ‘existential’ situatedness on the histoire level: the addressee is also an actant. Under these circumstances the addressee is an intra-diegetic narratee, but not in the well-known “metaleptic” mode (Genette 1980: 234-237) where the extra-diegetic narrator playfully addresses a character (an entirely non-realistic, deliberately anti-verisimilar procedure, violating the boundary between discourse and story).

I suppose I have no business reading this stuff without an MFA at the very least, but I am working on it, one incomprehensible sentence at a time, for a future part of this Study!

And still, the more I read about second person, the more interesting I find it!

Thank you Joe and Ellen!

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