Editor's Notes 20.1

By Dan Lehman

November 20, 2018

Editor's Notes 20.1

A few issues ago, this space discussed the dangers of what some have termed “me-moir”: nonfictional self-absorption in an era increasingly dominated by noisy narcissism. We suggested that genuine empathy is a ready antidote and that such other-centeredness might help us not only reach outward for our topics, but even more importantly, help to coax deeply personal stories toward genuine connection. The secret, we suggested, was to hone skills that all good verbal storytellers possess: the ability to read listeners, to pick up on visual cues, and to imagine our stories as others would hear them.

Perhaps as an effort to imagine their stories in the minds of others, an increasing number of writers who submit essays and memoir to our journal are crafting narratives in the second-person voice. Though it remains the anomaly, it is an intriguing development about which we have divided minds, so what follows are our musings about its strengths and weaknesses.

First, a caveat. Feel free to ignore all this. No one has ever written anything much good by paying excessive attention to what someone else thinks. When writing sings, it fashions exactly the narrative approach that it needs. Everyone can think of a favorite piece of writing that succeeds precisely because it is unafraid to cut against convention. In our case, that would include almost anything written by the early (but not the later) Tom Wolfe. The only rule we insist upon is that nonfiction not lie to its readers. Nonfiction can be as adventuresome as it wishes to be so long as it doesn’t evade its truth. All our other ideas, our writers can ignore. We will know quality when we see it, and we love when it surprises us. Still, we do read nearly 3,000 submissions to River Teeth each year, even though we can accept only about two dozen, so we see most every narrative variation out there. Some variations work brilliantly, others not so much.

So here are some thoughts on the second person.

Brilliance: We cited Kerry Muir’s “Blur” in a slightly different context in our earlier column, but here we will claim that Muir’s essay makes deft use of second-person narration. In what follows, she puts her reader on a stripper’s pole: “The swing of a leg, the release of that grip that’s always like a balled-up fist in your middle when you push your hips from side to side, a swirl a drop a snap a release a droop a spin a suspend a roll a hard fall. Going forward, meeting somebody’s eyes, then snapping away and back, going round and round, hot air on your neck. Where are you then? Where is anybody? In the traveling circus of faces blurring, swirling around you, what matters? Nothing. Your edges soften so there’s no boundary between your own flesh and the smoky darkness” (RT 18.2).

Muir’s essay has since been named a notable in Best American Essays and is up for other awards as well. The passage works because of its diction, precision, sentence craft, and imagery. And, yes, it also works because it pins its implied reader to the pole, then melts that reader into a whirling blur of smoky darkness. The power of its second-person angle stems from its evocation of readerly emotion, not from its biographical details, but from its evocative feeling. In fact, we would submit, the more a second-person passage is laden with explicit life detail, the less likely it is to pull its reader into the story.

Why is that?

The easiest problem to detect is that a self-absorbed story does not become less self-absorbed if the author grabs his reader and insists that his self-absorption is really your (the reader’s) self-absorption. We still search for a public dimension in pieces, something that makes it important other than this happened to me (or even to you).

The other problem is more technical and subtle.

Let us imagine a story in which the chief character’s name is “you.” As it happens, Jay McInerney wrote such an extended story a decade or two ago in the fictional novel, Bright Lights, Big City, whose protagonist—laboring as a fact checker at a New York magazine, troubled in his marriage, dipping into good blow wherever possible—ostensibly is the reader. But the dense social and plot detail that decades later makes Bright Lights, Big City a still-interesting novel ultimately endangered its narrative strategy. That is, the more often McInerney’s “you” takes a turn that a given reader’s “you” would not take, the more fragile the author’s narrative conceit becomes and the more tenuous its strands.

By contrast, second-person narration seems to work better when it is sprinkled like savory spice, not laid on as a full course. In her recent Stonewall Award-winning nonfiction book, The 57 Bus, Dashka Slater shows the way. Slater builds her book around the details of a dramatic crime in Oakland, wherein an agender high school kid named Sasha is set afire by another Oakland youth while riding home from school on a city bus. A triumph of reporting, Slater’s book succeeds precisely because of its deft scene writing and its density of nonfictional detail. Probably no more than a passage or two of its 300-plus pages dips into the second person, all the more effective because of its relative scarcity.

Here is one occasion near the beginning of the book, when Slater first introduces the public burning. Here, the author works on the cusp of present tense and future, within the angle of third-person and second-person, in short, whatever it takes to convey her story’s truth:

“Sasha sleeps as Richard and his companions goof around, play fighting. . . . Sleeps as Richard surreptitiously flicks a lighter and touches it to the hem of that gauzy white skirt.

“Wait.

“In a moment, Sasha will wake inside a ball of flame and begin to scream.

“In a moment, everything will be sent in motion. . . .

“But none of that has happened yet. For now, both teenagers are just taking the bus home from school.

“Surely it’s not too late to stop things from going wrong. There must be some way to wake Sasha. Divert Richard. Get the driver to stop the bus.

“There must be something you can do.” (Emphases added)

From the word “Wait” onward, Slater addresses her readers directly, grabbing us by our scruffs and demanding that we intervene in the story that is about to happen in narrative and already has happened in history. The “you” in the final line is not just another name for “I” —as we often see in the second-person narratives sent our way—but a universalizing moment. Once we know the facts of her story, Slater bets we’ll want to intervene, just as surely as Muir bets her readers have a whiff of the exhibitionist, a desire to lose ourselves in dizzy daring, at least in the moment of reading, if not in actuality.

So continue to send your things our way. Stretch us, surprise us. Show us how we are wrong. Puzzle it out. Count the benefits and costs. Make it great. We will be waiting.

—DWL

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