“I think fiction writing which does not acknowledge the uncertainty of the narrator himself is a form of imposture which I find very, very difficult to take. Any form of authorial writing where the narrator sets himself up as stagehand and director and judge and executor in a text, I find somehow unacceptable. I cannot bear to read books of this kind.” – W. G. Sebald
That this is the age of first person seems undeniable. Essay and memoir are—have been for some time—culturally ascendant, with the lines between fiction and essay increasingly blurred (I’ve written about this here). In its less exalted form, first person dominates our national discourse in many guises: the tell-all, the blog post, the reality confessional booth, the carefully curated social media account, the reckless tweets of our demented president. We are surrounded by a multitude of first person narratives, vying for our time and attention, and we respond to them, in our work, and increasingly in our art, in first person.
My impression, as a writer and teacher, is that over the last 10 or 15 years there has been a paradigmatic move toward first person as the default mode of storytelling. In a workshop of 20 student pieces, I’m now surprised if more than a third are written in third person. When I flip open a story collection or literary magazine, my eye expects to settle on a paragraph liberally girded with that little pillar of self.
Anecdotal evidence tends to support this suspicion. A completely random example: six of the last 10 National Book Award winners have been first-person narratives; of the 55 previous NBA winners stretching from 2005 to 1950 (Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm), the tally is 40 to 15 in favor of third person. This is, of course, completely anecdotal and almost certainly statistical noise, to a degree. Still, it’s suggestive. As recently as 10 years ago, creative nonfiction specialist jobs barely existed at the university and graduate MFA level; last year, there were more creative nonfiction job openings than comparable tenure track positions for poets. Essay and memoir classes have sprung up everywhere. Whether this trend is significant and whether it will continue are debatable; that it is a trend, seems less so.
It worries me that we may be slowly losing the cultural ability or inclination to tell stories in third person. Why does this matter? Because, I believe, third-person narration is the greatest artistic tool humans have devised to tell the story of what it means to be human.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood cites Sebald, decrying third person as obsolete following the horrors of World War II. Wood comments, “For Sebald, and for many writers like him, standard third-person omniscient narration is a kind of antique cheat.” The general argument, as advanced by Sebald, and more recently, by writers like David Shields and Will Self, seems to go: Flaubertian third-person omniscient narration is a jerry-rigged, mechanistic anachronism blithely ignorant of the historical context that renders it obsolete; far from “realism,” it is almost wholly artificial, beginning in the first place with the artifice of a narrator and extending through the sleight-of-hand known as free indirect discourse (crudely put: the blending of narrator and character perceptions). First person narration, the corollary would go, is more immediate and less contrived. It is authentic.
Most people seem to agree. These critical interpretations both reinforce and describe a more popular apprehension of first-person narrative—that it is the most direct and natural form of storytelling. In creative writing classes, teachers will often advise students to employ first person with more overtly raw or emotional material, operating on the rationale that first person has an implicit honesty third does not. Sebald’s quote—as to the inherent (and therefore inherently truthful) uncertainty of the essayistic perspective—is simply a more sophisticated version of this position, what we might call the naturalistic view of first person.
First person, however, contains a contrivance central to its character that third person does not: audience. In first person, someone is addressing someone else, but absent narrative framing to position these someones—a la Holden Caulfield directing his speech to a ghostly doctor—we find ourselves in an inherently ambiguous space: to whom, exactly, is this person talking, and why? The uncertainty of this space, I would argue, is largely filled, intentionally or not, by the voice of the narrator, its presence and authority. Even if this narrator declaims her own uncertainty, she declaims it with certainty, and she declaims it toward an imagined audience, in a speaker/listener relationship. There are no competing voices, no opportunity for the objective telescoping of third person, and so the reader essentially become a jurist listening to a lawyer’s closing argument.
In this sense, all first-person narration is unreliable, or placeable on a continuum of unreliability. It isn’t accidental that the greatest examples of the first-person novel—Lolita, The Good Soldier, Tristram Shandy—make ample use of unreliability and/or intricate frame narration. The best examples of the form lean as heavily as possible on first person’s audience-related pretenses. Third-person narration, in contrast, contains no similar inherent claim to authority, and therefore tends toward a version of the world that is more essentially descriptive in character. A third-person narrative, whether in the form of a short story or War and Peace, is a thing to be inspected by the reader. It is, in a sense, a closed system, a ship in bottle, and the reader can hold it up to the light to see how closely it resembles a real ship. If it does, part of the reading experience is to imagine it as the real thing; but it can be assumed, in a kind of contract on the part of intelligent writers and readers, that the shipbuilder is not pretending his model is fit for actual seafaring.
In other words, the existence of a third-person narrator—that artificial authority Sebald found intolerable—signals the act of storytelling, and in doing so, encodes a structural uncertainty that first person lacks. Third-person narrators no longer walk onstage and deliver monologues, a la Jane Austen, but we still understand them to be devices in service of telling a story—a contrivance that announces itself as such. They are the artifice that enables the art, and they are truthful as to their own untruthfulness, or perhaps better, their truthlessness. Compared to the explicit machinery of third-person narration, first person’s artifice seems covert, a clandestine operation. This is not necessarily an argument against first-person narration—in able hands, this concealment can be a means of exposing greater truths about the subject of the writing or its writer—but it is an argument against the proposition that first person is somehow more transparent or “honest” than third.
The other common objection to third-person narration, and by proxy an argument for first person, also concerns the artificiality of the third person narrator, not in artistic but rather, experiential terms. This is the second prong of the naturalist argument: it isn’t a thing that exists. No one walks into a room and thinks of themselves, “he walked into a room.” Also, no one simply watches other people walk into a room without being aware of their own frame of reference. And this is true: close third person, via free-indirect discourse, models human consciousness with an intimacy that strives toward first person’s access to a character’s thoughts and emotions. Why then, the argument goes, not dispense with this clumsy intermediary and go right to the source?
Counterintuitively, third person achieves an effect, both in spite of and because of its narrator, that is more “realistic” than first. While no one walks into a room and thinks, “he walks into a room,” it can be asserted with even greater force that no one walks into a room and thinks, “I walk into a room.” No one, that is, who isn’t an imbecile or robot—not characters who figure heavily in the canon of great fictional protagonists. The experience of being a human is, in fact, an experience of dual consciousness. Human beings are social creatures, and human existence is an endless negotiation of the immediate, subjective perspective, and the greater objective context. We constantly divide our attention between the first- and third-person points of view, between desiring the shiny object in front of us and figuring out what it means for us to take it: who else wants it, what we have to do to get it, and whether it’s worth taking it from them. In this sense, close third person not only accurately models human cognition, but omniscient third does as well, since, while we cannot read other people’s minds, we are constantly inferring their consciousness—their motives and feelings. The human experience is a kind of constant jumping of these cognitive registers, from pure reptile-brain all the way up to a panoramic moral overview and back down, and human ingenuity has yet to invent a better means of representing this experience in art than the third-person narrator. The apparatus of third-person narration, while wholly artificial, ironically enables the most authentic depiction of the quagmire of personhood.
Irony is key here, in both cause and effect. Third person’s scaffolding of multiple, competing levels of awareness is inherently, structurally ironic; the effect created by these slightly ill-fitting beams and joists, as the demands of narrative push and pull them against each other, is a large-scale, resonant irony. Writing about the ability of narrative to convey humanity’s huge profligacy of type, Adelle Waldman, in a New Yorker piece from 2014, quotes Leo Tolstoy’s depiction of Vronsky:
He was particularly fortunate in that he had a code of rules which defined without question what should and should not be done. The code covered only a very small number of contingencies, but, on the other hand, the rules were never in doubt, and Vronsky, who never thought of infringing them, had never had a moment’s hesitation about what he ought to do. The rules laid it down most categorically that a cardsharper had to be paid, but a tailor had not; that one must not tell a lie to a man, but might to a woman, that one must not deceive anyone but one may a husband; that one must not forgive an insult but may insult others, etc.
She says, “If someone like Vronsky were to give an account of his moral code, it would not, we can be sure, read in precisely these terms.” This is true but neglects an important aspect of this rendering of Vronsky’s moral code, for we see at once in this passage a social view of Vronsky’s hypocrisy that shades toward a self-awareness of his own hypocrisy. This shading—the ironic bounce of the repeated “never,” and the pompous “most categorically”—both enact Vronsky’s pompous hypocrisy and suggest a shiver of cognitive dissonance, of unease, that seems to come from Vronsky himself. The point is debatable—maybe Tolstoy is just calling Count Vronsky an asshole—but in a general sense, the ironic space that third person carves out creates a productive ambiguity that deepens character the same way these little ironies of the self, the simultaneity of objective and subjective, deepen human existence the more a person is aware of them. In this case, they suggest a Count Vronsky who is not only an asshole, but also, perhaps, very slightly aware of his own assholishness, as most assholes are. It at least implies that possibility—a complex position unavailable to first person, in which a Vronsky POV would essentially either cop to his own hypocrisy, or strategically introduce it through unwitting revelation in the usual reliable unreliable method.
As a thought experiment, try to imagine Ulysses written in the first person, the dueling solitary consciousnesses of Stephen and Bloom. We are, of course, embedded deep in Bloom’s and Stephens’s minds, but we are embedded there, via virtuoso free-indirect discourse rather than first-person. It is surprising, in a way, that Ulysses was not written in first—after all, here we have the summit of stream-of-consciousness narrative, with an emotional and associative immediacy that has informed 100 years of writing all the way to the essayists of the moment. Not only this, but the fracturing of consciousness and Dublin’s social institutions as represented in the book are (as we understand, in a somewhat trite though probably accurate sense) a cultural response the First World War; per Sebald, we would expect such a narrative to dispense with the puppetry of third-person narration. So why not in first? What would be lost?
Among other things, it would more or less be simply a record of human confusion. It would be an exhaustive, exhausting trek through Dublin, unremitting in its assault on our senses. Ulysses is already exhausting enough in this regard, but many of the moments of relief are moments of perspectival shift: the wider view of Stephen in the classroom, for example, or the anti-Semitic Citizen throwing a biscuit tin at Bloom as he flees the pub, righteous and triumphant. These, and similar moments allowed by the omniscient narration, crucially allow in other people, complicating the dominant note of mental claustrophobia. I say crucially, because the novel is not, ultimately, about mental claustrophobia, about being trapped in oneself; it is about the opposite, about the inevitability and value of social connection. A Ulysses in first would represent, in spite of its erudition and catholicity of reference, essentially a shriveling worldview, rather than the enlarging one it offers. HCE: Here Comes Everybody.
All of which is to say that the current critical and cultural movement away from third-person narration should be taken seriously, and to some extent—as much as such a thing is possible—resisted. Matters of taste come and go, and it may seem silly to imagine third-person narration disappearing. After all, it has persisted in its current form for going on 300 years. But many pinnacles of high art recede and disappear in the face of changing norms. It was probably similarly hard for the 19th- century art lover to imagine classical portraiture and Renaissance brushwork disappearing. David Shields and similar critics may be dismissed as extreme, but they give voice to a larger cultural impulse, the enthronement of unmediated personal experience and feeling (as though such a thing were possible, even if desirable) as the height of written expression. Reviewing Meghan Daum’s essay collection, The Unspeakable, Roxane Gay writes, “When it comes to the personal essay, we want so much and there is something cannibalistic about our desire. We want essayists to splay themselves bare. We want to see how much they are willing to bleed for us.” The promotion of this kind of writing is, in turn, a collective response to larger cultural currents, among them the still shockingly recent advent of the Internet and reality television. In this context, it is not hard to imagine omniscient third person, with its many registers of complex irony and representation, becoming the truly outmoded art form that Sebald and others would like it to be, an ornate artifact of a slower and more explicable age.
And it’s true that in a very real sense, third person is not the narrative mode of our time. A Henry James novel is essentially the anti-tweet. Its aesthetic roots are in a more contemplative era, an era with fewer distractions and, simultaneously, more incentive to consider one’s place in the larger social context of a world that was rapidly expanding. Now that the world has expanded to its seeming limits, we see an urge to put the blinders on and retreat into the relative safety of personal narrative. This impulse should be resisted. We need to engage with our world and one another, making use of the most sensitive instruments of understanding we have at our disposal.
Image Credit: Pixabay.