Pity the poor Second Person. The name alone is enough to puncture its self-esteem. Second fiddle, second best, second rate.
No wonder this voice in literature gets no respect. Actually, it gets less than respect. It is reviled! “I won’t read anything written in second person.” “It’s fingernails on a blackboard to me.” “The writing was good but I couldn’t stand the POV.” So say ordinarily easygoing readers and critics.
But hey—it’s just a voice, like any other. And I think we can all agree that in these times we shouldn’t be in the business of shutting voices down. So let’s ask the much-maligned Second Person to speak, to give us a little insight into its utility. Then maybe the you-haters out there can open their minds enough to listen.
I’ll turn it over to You. But first, a word from our sponsor. (Note: Diaz”s reading is rated R for profanity and references to naked body parts.)
Hello, I’m You. Wait—that came out wrong. I mean, I’m am Second-Person Voice, the one that seems to point a finger at the reader, to call out from the page, making its presence known. I know there’s a contingency of readers who prefer that language fade into complete transparency, leaving on the page only a doorway to emotion. I’m for emotion as much as the next Person, but sheesh, can’t we have a little fun getting there?
Maybe it’s the artifice that makes people hate me. I get it: having a non-existent thing (a Voice) draw attention to itself while you’re trying to read a story is annoying. But what if you open that crack in the side of your head where ideas get in just a little wider and let me in, too, so I’m no longer separate, no longer stuck outside here on the page? Instead, I’m a Voice inside you. Ah—too frightening. You’ve been raised in a culture in which Voices in Your Head=Bad.
You see what I’m doing here, don’t you? I’m using myself to address you! Am I really so dreadful? I would argue that the style of essay you are reading right now calls for an odd and playful Voice. I mean, when your narrator is Second Person, you practically have to let me speak in my eponymous voice.
Skilled writers use me in all sorts of delightful ways that make readers laugh or cry without grating on their ears. It’s a matter of being appropriate. You wouldn’t wear a ballgown to tennis practice and you wouldn’t wear tennis whites to a ball. So don’t use You (me) in a long work of plot-driven fiction, or in a fairy tale, a biography, or a research paper—unless you’re Being Experimental, which is fine but always a bit dangerous. I have my place, just like my cousins First Person and Third.
My message to you this evening is that we all have a place in this world. (The same goes for my much-maligned little punctuation friend, the semicolon.) So remember, people: Appropriateness, moderation, inclusiveness. I think we can all agree that these are words to live by today. And if I can be of any assistance in the Voice department, I am more than happy to help out.
Thank you. Or do I mean “thank me?”
Opinions about the use of second-person POV
- Why Should a Serious Fiction Writer Use Second Person Narration? (Editor’s Opinion Blog)
- Is Second Person POV a Smart Choice for a Novel? (Novel Writing Help)
- When to use the second-person POV in fiction (The Writer)
What’s your opinion on second person? Love, hate, or don’t care as long as it works?
One of my favorite novels – All the King’s Men – reverts to second person every once in a while. I think those parts grabbed me more than the narrative style. I agree it’s fun to experiment and no voices should be repressed, but then I’m also a fan of the omniscient narrator.
I read that novel long ago, and didn’t remember the POV shift. I will have to revisit it! And you’re right–it’s hard to go wrong with the good old third-person omniscient, though I understand it’s falling a bit out of favor these days.
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I haven’t read it in a long time and so I’m relying on my shaky memory, but I’m pretty sure the you is in there. 🙂 Yes, we’re not supposed to use omniscient these days and that’s kind of a shame. I love it when I find it in the classics because it gives the writer the chance to make fun of the characters.
Thanks for the interesting and informative blog, Audrey. Though I use second person sparingly, I feel it is a good tool to better connect with my readers in the non-fiction magazine articles I write.
I agree: non-fiction (especially instructional articles) can be well-suited to second person. There’s less of an issue in non-fiction with readers wanting the actual writing to disappear so they can lose themselves in the story; it’s okay for them to be aware that they’re reading something!
Very clever post. I’ve never felt inclined to use the second person, but I think that’s just because I’ve never conceived a story where it would be appropriate. It’s not really “you” talking; it’s the narrator (the writer) talking to the reader. (Ideal for presenting instructions.) I’ve seen it in some older works, though I can’t remember any specifically. Works that address themselves to “gentle reader.” Nice for a children’s story, where you want to make the child feel intimately involved. It also works for any tale that is set up as one character having left an account of something for another character to read, i.e. when the entire story is in the form of a letter, for example. It can make for a very intimate and personal story because it casts the reader in a direct relationship with the writer.
You touched on many of the reasons why this point of view DOES work–thank you for counterbalancing the vitriol! I’ve only written a couple of stories in second person (I don’t think I’d use it for an entire novel). One story appeared on a web site that solicited comments and sure enough, several of the comments weren’t about the content of the story but about how much the reader disliked the POV.
I haven’t read a book written in second person, but I did read one written in first-person plural, and I must admit, it wasn’t for me as a reader. As a writer, however, I respected the bravery of the author to try something different, and that alone made it worth reading.
It’s important to know your tastes as a reader–there are so many books out there that we’ll never have time for all of them, so it doesn’t make sense to plow through ones we find unappealing! And it’s always interesting to contrast how we approach something as a reader vs. as a writer.
Interesting way of presenting the dilemma. I enjoyed it. As mentioned, Mary Karr makes an abrupt switch from third person to second in her memoir, “Cherry.” It’s important – I think – to find out why the second person, and how it will/would change the story. Great topic for any writer.
I am going to check out the Mary Karr books. And yes, this is a rather writerly post. I’m not sure how many readers give it much thought!