Kate (kate_nepveu) wrote,

Arisia not-panel report: Unreliable Narrators

[Written on the train today after the wifi went out.]

I have literally been carrying paper notes from Arisia around in my shoulder bag since January, hoping to find time to write up some of the other panels. I particularly wanted to do the one about unreliable narrators, which was late at night and [personal profile] sovay and I got a little tipsy on fatigue and trading references, to the point where we kind of--well, not kind of, did--took over the entire panel. Fortunately I know the other panelists ([personal profile] ckd and Sarah Smith) were well able to interject if they wanted to.

Unfortunately my notes are more cryptic than useful at this point, months later. But what the panel boiled down to is that [personal profile] sovay, especially, and I can apparently come up with more kinds of unreliable narrators than I would have thought. I'm not going to go back and quote the panel description because it was pretty weird and unhelpful, but we definitely did not agree with its suggestion that an unreliable narrator correlates in any useful way with genre.

Let's see, how to organize what I do remember or can reconstruct? We talked about the usual unreliable first-person narrators, those who are doing it deliberately (famous Agatha Christie book, Liar which I have not read, Megan Whalen Turner's The Thief [with a digression into why everyone should read those books, or at least the first three]), The Fortunate Fall which opens with the narrator promising us that we will close the book knowing less about her than we did before--I don't know if we know less, but we certainly do not know how she feels about the events of the end of the book) and those who are unreliable because they are, e.g., writing for their own eyes and so leave things out/phrase things in a realistic but potentially misleading way (Agyar, other epistolary works). There's also the narrators who are unreliable just because people are unreliable--I think I told the anecdote of being in court, hearing my opponent say something and thinking, "Ah-ha! A concession!" and writing it down, and then getting the audio recording and discovering it was no such thing. We mentioned The Innkeeper's Song, which is multiple-first, as an example doing of this well.

Then we went further afield: is there such a thing as unreliable third? Well, there's the tight-filtered third that e.g., Lois McMaster Bujold does, that is very strongly colored by the POV character's personality and limitations, so they might draw incorrect conclusions etc., but it's usually reasonably clear to the reader the way they're limited. There's the third-person POV character who is carefully not thinking about things (one of Garrett's Lord Darcy stories). (I was talking with [personal profile] coffeeandink recently about a story, fanfic so it's not known to most of you, where I guess the POV character was doing this so much that I literally could not tell how the POV character, or half the other characters, felt about anything emotional, which was kind of frustrating.) I think the third-person question is where an example [personal profile] sovay gave comes in, a book called Camomile Lawn which involves a present-day thread and a retrospective thread that interplay revealingly.

We went off into fake histories, where the historical and mythical interpretations of events are shown to be different from "what really happened," or at least how the characters they were happening to understood them--Jane Yolen's Sister Light, Sister Dark and White Jenna. Then there's the weirdness that is Mary Gentle's Ash, which [personal profile] sovay described because I didn't like it and have forgotten most of it, but which seems to have had the act of translating and publishing history change the present day (?). And there's the cheerful disregard for accuracy that is Paarfi in Steven Brust's Dumas pastiches, where Paarfi is writing historical romances with, for instance, conversations between only two characters, neither of whom would ever talk to him (probably he has ones between characters who die before they could have either, too). (I'm sure we could do an entire panel on narrators in Brust.)

I have a note that says "trauma," which I think is meant to refer to another reason why a narrator of whatever type might be unreliable. I also have a note that says "Twin Peaks," and I have no idea what we meant.

Anyway. That's what I remember or can reconstruct at this point, at least while my brains are melting out of my ears in this sauna-like Amtrak train. What are your favorite unreliable narrators, what are some interesting variations or possibilities that you've seen, what are some examples you don't think worked? (Mark spoilers, please.) comment count unavailable comment(s) | add comment (how-to) | link

Tags: cons, cons: arisia, cons: arisia: 2013

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