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Readercon: Other Points of View

This was a good one. Description:

Other Points of View.
David Louis Edelman, Laurie J. Marks (L), Maureen McHugh, Wen Spencer, Peter Watts.
In several places, Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club adopts a first-person plural viewpoint: "we" are thinking about the conversation described, and the reader gets to think about who, exactly, "we" may be—not everyone in the room! While third person and first person singular are the standard viewpoints in fiction, here we talk about the alternatives, and when we (you?) can best employ them.

(Marks noted that POVs of "The Other" would be a cool topic. Also, she noted that Peter Watts' autobiography in the program book was hysterical. james_nicoll, he used your quote about the will to live!)

Marks started with a rundown of unusual POVs. She mentioned third-person plural, "they," which I just don't understand at all: how is "they" in any way different than "he" or "she," except in the number of people who happen to be in the scene?

She then began the discussion of second-person by reading the opening of Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life".

Spencer: is that really second, or a first person speaking to a you?

Marks: is it possible to write in second without there being a first?

Spencer: example from a book that I think is probably Warchild by Karin Lowachee, in which a child is kidnapped by pirates and is so traumatized that what's happening to her is told in "you."

Watts: re: "Story": if it's a letter, it's second, but if it's a rumination, it's first. (The reasoning behind this distinction was not explained.)

Edelman: agrees that "Story" is first. Thinks that the archetypal second is Calvino's If On A Winter's Night a Traveler

Marks: restates question re: "Story" as, who is protagonist?

Spencer: disagrees with restatement. POV is the person talking or where the camera is placed; increase the distance as move first-second-third. "Story" is looking through the mother's eyes. (It's a little mind-boggling to think where the camera is in second).

Marks: problem: first person is implied no matter how second is written (not sure if this was a question or statement)

McHugh: the problem the panel is having is one that's not addressed much these days, who's the narrator versus what's the POV, which is a really complicated question. Always puts these sentences up on a blackboard: "It was a dark and stormy night. She heard a shot ring out." Her students always say these are in third, but then she asks them, who's saying the first sentence? The character isn't standing around saying "dark and stormy, dark and stormy" for hours while the storm continues.

For first person, the convention is that the narrator is telling the story at a later date, which is very artificial. [*] But the funny thing about second person, is that in conversation it's used to distance the speaker from what's being described (she told a story of an awkward grad student: "so you go to grad school, and you think it's going to be great . . . "). Just because there's an implied "I" behind the POV, doesn't mean the POV is "I," it just means the narrator is saying "you."

[*] papersky, do you have an easily-linkable version of your first-person classifications? Because I disagree with McHugh here, and linking to something of your classification is the easiest way of doing it.

Edelman: re: position of camera: Hitchcock had a characteristic shot of a character standing at the edge of the frame, watching, just like the audience. That's second person: you're watching the person watching the action.

(general noises of agreement)

Marks: thanks for the distinction between POV & narrator. If POV & narrator never meet (I'm not sure precisely what this meant), as in Warchild example, there's a point to it, because it underlines the character's trauma.

Watts: he used second in Blindsight for the opposite reason, for a character with very little (awareness of an) inner life, to try and gain immediacy that the character doesn't feel in first. No-one's noticed, but the POV is most vibrant when the character is talking about machinery. (It's not clear from the discussion whether the character is consciously narrating. I will have to look.)

Audience: Keith Roberts, Molly Zero: the narrator is telling story to the protagonist. Can see no advantage to telling story this way. Re: Chiang's "Story," this is really an epistolary issue.

Marks: this shows that there's two types of stories one is likely to end up with in second: (1) the bizarre telling someone else what they did and (2) epistolary, such Cunning Man, which is a very long resignation letter to a non-appearing character (is this by Robertson Davies? the online descriptions aren't quite the same).

Audience: "you" implies an "I," and this is true of third as well, because someone has to be writing this. 19th century fiction is predominantly third but then narrator slips in, such as Dickens in A Christmas Carol.

(I think that's really omniscient with a mostly-self-effacing narrator. Anyway, this is another convention: we pretend in third that there isn't an author behind the story. I'm not sure that calling the author "I" is useful.)

Audience con't: English allows one to convey any subject through any pronoun, regardless of the formal rules of grammar. Example: secretary giving a warning to someone: "we're feeling a little grumpy today," meaning "the boss".

Audience con't: How To Be An Artist: first person future-tense graphic novel

Audience con't: If on a Winter's Night starts with a very general "you," which could be anyone reading the book, and narrows down into a specific you

Edelman: (very paraphrased): the book couldn't keep up that opening, it's impossible to write a story to every reader

(someone, maybe McHugh): not well, anyway.

Watts: the conventional wisdom is that people are going to rebel against second, because it's kind of peremptory; not sure he agrees.

McHugh: well, these are conventions. People can rebel against or adapt to them.

Spencer: there are genre differences: people love first in mystery private investigator stories, hate it in other kinds of stories.

Watts: so why don't we see more second, if problem isn't that it's seen as imperious? It's kind of cool.

Edelman: it's distracting, because it's not a traditional way of telling stories, so the reader has to work to get past the POV to the deeper meaning.

Spencer: is it commercially off-putting?

Watts: but that's a chicken-egg problem

Edelman: it's like a novel with no paragraph breaks

Marks: a book has to succeed in spite of the conventions of writing, and so has to have a good reason for breaking them.

The panel then moved to first person plural.

Marks: Karen Joy Fowler's Jane Austen Book Club has multiple types of POV in the book, but about the group itself, the POV is almost always "we"; and it's never possible for all the people of "we" to know the facts that are being said (I think I heard that right). Also cites a paragraph that talks about characters as "they" as third-plural.

McHugh: not sure she agrees that "we" is the narrator. The storyteller/narrative voice moves through POVs, "we"-"you"-"I," and "we" itself constantly shifts through parts of "we." The narrator is the storyteller, the implied intelligence, the personality created between author & page (I think). It's not written in third, it shifts through it. (see below)

Marks: no, but uses POV in very peculiar & unique ways. Whether the voice is the narrator is less essential than the question of what's gained or lost by this use?

McHugh: she thinks that Fowler's protagonists are often tricksters, and now the narrator is

Panel: draws distinction between unreliable & deliberately deceptive. (I'm not sure that the second isn't a subset of the first in my idiom.)

Spencer: very tight third is exhausting to keep up. Letting the POV flow back gives the reader a break.

McHugh: it gets a little Blair Witch

Spencer: fluidness is the art

Edelman: he did recently write in "we," as a Greek chorus POV, almost by accident (story forthcoming in the Solaris anthology). The earlier drafts were about the leader (of a space mining colony, I think), who he didn't care about; he cared about the group instead.

McHugh: very Marxist!

Marks: one of situations where the unusual POV works, because it does add a layer of meaning/subtext

Audience: Interfictions anthology has a "we" story, later id'ed in the dealers' room as Christopher Barzak's "What We Know About the Lost Families of —— House", where the POV is the adults in a small town.

Audience con't: also noted that people seemed to be saying third plural when they meant first, is it an uncomfortable thing?

(I think this was a reference to McHugh.)

Marks: no, I think I was just confused. Or I meant it.

McHugh: Ayn Rand's Anthem does start as a "we" book: "really appalling."

Edelman: the master of subtlety!

Marks: she's writing down in her notes, "read, but don't buy"

Audience: re: second implying an I: "Choose Your Own Adventure" doesn't

[later: Me: but would be interesting and creepy if it did!

Another audience member: a story did that, called "Instructions" (which appears to be by Bob Leman [ISFDB]): it's "Choose Your Own Adventure" except you don't get to choose! (Someone else: Tachyon reprinted it recently, but I'm not sure in what.)]

Audience, con't: Sheri Holman's historical novel The Dress Lodger is told from the POV of all the people dead from cholera in epidemic

Karen Jay Fowler, from audience: there's a distinction re: second based on whether the "I" specified or not

Marks: there is a rhetorical "you," as in McHugh's example

Karen Jay Fowler: Chiang's "Story" is about telling stories, so it's a first person telling a second person

McHugh: that's a really cool idea, that the story-within-the-story is "you"

Marks: it looks different depending on where you focus (I think the "it" here is the POV, but I'm not sure)

Edelman: you often shift tenses around campfire for effect

Marks: in second, actually "you" is the reader, but the reader is becoming the protagonist, so at some level there's always a "you" and "I" because there's a reader (if I understood this properly, which I'm not sure I did). It's very interesting that the story is implicitly the reader's.

McHugh: Which brings us back to "Choose Your Own Adventure" & Calvino

Audience: another form told in second: the technical manual

Audience cont: how many stories are told entirely in first? most spend a lot of time in third

(I have a very different idea of what constitutes "entirely" than many, apparently.)

Marks: how is it possible to tell story only about yourself?

Audience: and who would care

Marks: tried to write something in second plural, but she couldn't keep first plural out of it. Read something that was a "we" telling a "you all" to bugger off.

Post-panel discussions:

Someone mentioned that Bright Lights, Big City is in second that's really an implied first. She thought it was a way to try and build sympathy for the really unlikable implied narrator, which sounds kind of weird to me because I think my reaction would be feeling it was imperious, as Watts said; but it was a very popular book, so it must've worked for a lot of people.

Amateur porn is often in second-person, which seems kind of a mix of peremptory/instructional and (unusually?) hopeful; also has a very strongly implied "I."

[ Readercon link roundup ]

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Ah. Yes. "You are likely to be eaten by a grue."

It seems to me that "Choose Your Own Adventure" is a specialized instance of roleplaying, now that you mention it. Except that the GM is much further removed.

I'm so glad someone brought up the distinction between the narrator and POV.

I think an unreliable narrator is one who believes what he is saying. Deliberately deceptive is a different thing, either an apologetic or more like a mystery where the clues are deliberately hidden. "the Haircut" is a good example of the first. The barber, reporting the conversation in the shop about an absent guy, makes it clear they all admire him--but the reader is likely to find him despicable.

People sometimes seemed to be using terms in ways I don't, but it was still a chewy panel.

And I won't insist on "deceptive is a subset of unreliable," since either way seems unlikely to result in much confusion.

"He doesn't know which of us I am these days, but they know one truth. You must own nothing but yourself. You must make your own life, live your own life and die your own death ... or else you will die another's." (... in original.) Alfred Bester, opening of "Fondly Fahrenheit."

A nonfiction example of "unreliable narrator" -- Picture in a National Geographic story on Saudi Arabia's Empty Quarter. The caption explained that this was a nomad of the Empty Quarter, entirely untouched by outside influences, cooking his rice over a bunsen burner.

. . . that second one is really very embarrassing.

Second-person example that I forgot to mention:

Harry Potter fanfic called "The Lack of a Letter" (link to Wayback version), in which there's an "I" that's the narrator, but the "you" is explicitly the reader.

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I was thinking that headlong & reflective can have explicit methods of getting onto the page, and that braindump can't--and then I realized that in science fiction maybe it could, but it would have to about a really short period of time or later edited to remove extraneous stuff. Either way, it could be interesting.

(And because I am like that: this is also over in http://papersky.livejournal.com/342506.html)

These notes, themselves, exhibit an interesting POV. In particular, consider these lines:
Marks: how is it possible to tell story only about yourself?

Audience: and who would care

That strikes me as a very Greek-chorus moment.


(Unfortunately, "audience" in this and all cases refers to a single audience member. I think that makes me an unreliable narrator . . . )

(We met at Readercon, but may have missed the "Oh, you're _you_" moment; Hannah Wolf Bowen here, three seats or so to your left in the second Saturday mafia game.)

I just grumped about "Stories of Your Life..." over at rushthatspeaks, so you get random nattering instead. Yahoo.

>Spencer: example from a book that I think is probably Warchild by Karin Lowachee, in which a child is kidnapped by pirates and is so traumatized that what's happening to her is told in "you."

Neither here nor there, really, but fwiw, the narrator of Warchild is a he.

I rattled a bit about the function of the 2nd person in Bright Lights, Big City over here: http://buymeaclue.livejournal.com/247979.html

a while back.

Hi! And thanks for the correction about _Warchild_--I didn't hear Spencer's comments very clearly.

Interesting about _Bright Lights_, thanks. Will Shetterly's new novel appears to be mostly in second person, so I'll have to keep your comments in mind when I read it.