First person writing has a long and illustrious history – from older classics like Dickens’s Great Expectations or R.L.Stevenson’s Treasure Island, to more modern classics such as Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Kerouac’s On the Road, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, to modern prize winners like Pierre’s Vernon God Little and, if I remember rightly, Martel’s Life of Pi. These are books that jumped into my mind as I am writing this – I hope I have remembered their first person PoV correctly! (If not, tell me.)
So it has come as quite a shock to me to realise - relatively recently - that there are a stack of people out there who simply won’t pick up a book written in the first person, on the apparent assumption that they won’t like it. Not just a few, but a surprisingly large percentage.
Now I can understand John Doe saying, “I don’t read chick-lit” or his wife Jane saying, “I don’t read Westerns”, on the grounds that there is a very good chance that they won’t like that particular genre. We all have our preferences. But the books within each of these genres have a lot in common within one another, and it is probably this commonality that John and Jane don’t like. John doesn't like kiss and tell, Jane loathes horses and ranches.
But to say you won’t read something written in the first person kinda sounds to me like saying, “I don’t read books with red covers”. First person stories have only ONE thing in common – the first person viewpoint. To say you won’t like it, is to banish a slew of stories on every conceivable subject matter and theme, set anywhere on, or off, earth, many of them brilliantly written, and certainly not necessarily particularly simplistic or even linear. You can still have sub plots!
Would John and Jane also say they don’t like it when their friends tell them stories of what happened when they broke a leg mountain climbing and were then attacked by a bear / had a flaming row with their girlfriend only to be arrested for disturbing the peace / made a fortune on the stock exchange? All first person stories. We listen to first person stories all the time.
The reasons people give for not liking the first person written narration are often odd.
Take the “too linear” excuse. Yes, I agree, it can be linear, although there are ways of minimising this (see yesterday’s post). And if you look at many novels, you will find that they are often related from one point of view, the main third person character. Absolutely linear even though they use third person. A good example of this is (once again if I remember correctly) Challion’s Curse by Lois McMaster Bujold. As I recall, it didn’t waiver from the PoV of the main protagonist. A very popular book – and it could easily have been written in the first person. Wouldn’t have made a whit of difference to the story. And that doesn’t automatically make it a bad book.
So I don’t really understand the viewpoint of John and Jane. Not understanding is not why I am rethinking using the first person, though.
I am rethinking because, as a non-bestselling author, I cannot afford to have potential buyers browsing in a bookshop put the book down the moment they pick it up, on grounds that have nothing to do with quality of writing, or subject matter, or theme, or genre. I need readers, and it is just plain silly to put so many people off reading my work on the grounds of my choice of narrator. I don’t want to limit my reading public.
So, at least until I make it ‘big’ (when or if?), I am not going to write another book in the first person. Call me silly, if you like, but I’ve caved in to the exigency of earning a living from writing.