Friday, June 29, 2007

Writing and Reading the First Person

Narrative is a funny thing. Especially first-person narrative. On the one hand, we can never really trust the first-person narrator to give us the whole story. He or she never reveals everything - there are, necessarily, blind spots. Things the narrator chooses not to mention, things the narrator doesn't see because of his/her subject-position. But the only way that first-person narration can really work is if we "trust" the narrator in spite of our best instincts. I mean, sure, the narrator might be crazy or clearly presenting facts in such a way that he/she is someone with whom we have sympathy. If we really don't "trust" the narrator, at least on some level, it's really difficult to get it up to continue reading. I mean, if we feel at the outset that the narrator is fucking with us for no apparent reason, what's the point in continuing? That's not to say that we can't acknowledge the unreliability of a narrator even as we keep reading. But even if we believe that the narrator is unreliable, we've got to be on board with that unreliability, to see it as something worth thinking about.

Now, in the conventional realist novel with first-person narration, we get one viewpoint, and any resisting reading that we perform means that we interrogate that one perspective that we have in front of us, a perspective that by its very design inspires identification on the part of the reader. But after realism, first-person narration goes a bit wacky. What we get instead, most often, is a collection of first-person perspectives out of which we as readers must then attempt to make some kind of sense. In performing that operation, we arrive at a version of something that we might call "the truth." But, of course, that "truth" is also subjective, right? We, in our reading, ultimately "write" a version of "truth" that depends not only on the subjective narratives that we evaluate but on our own subjective experiences. So if you give a group of people a collection of narratives to evaluate, each person will likely come up with a different "truth."

Of course, depending on the choices of the author, and the number of narratives with which the author provides readers, the author can to some extent attempt to control reader response, but such attempts at control can never be perfect. No author can anticipate every possible interpretation, try as any author might. Something is always going to slip through the cracks.

So on the one hand, this is something that I'm interested in exploring as a literary critic. It's something I force my students to pay attention to as they evaluate fictional texts, and it's something that preoccupies me in my own reading and scholarly work. I'm interested in separating out the narrative layers and in figuring out how they fit together in some kind of composite in the reader's head.

But I also think (because as much as I wish it weren't true a lot of the time, that I try to work out my own personal shit through my work) that my preoccupation with this stuff has to do with problems (though "problems" is probably not the right word) in my own writing and in my own self-presentation. One reason I've not been able to embark on writing a novel in any serious way is a problem with narration. I wrote stories throughout high school and college - took fiction-writing classes in college, had a number of false starts on novels - but by the end of my undergraduate career I felt like I had no clue how to deal with narration, and by the time I was in grad school I gave up on writing fiction. Now, part of this I think has to do with anxiety of influence shit - reading all the stuff I read, it's hard to imagine writing anything that measures up at a certain point. And it's not that I would expect myself to write the great American novel or something, but even if I were to write a crappy novel, I'd have to figure out some kind of narrative approach, and I just don't know how. I suppose the answer would be just to write and to see where things go, but I can't give myself permission to do that, somehow.

And then there's the self-presentation issue, and blogging is part of that. I'm the "author" of this blog. One might regard each post as its own distinct text. As you read each post, you come up with a composite "truth" about Dr. Crazy. But let's say that you have access to more "texts" - some more filtered (like my academic writing), some less filtered (like email), and some even less filtered than that (in-person interaction and/or phone-talking and/or IM). The "truth" that you come up with will be different. And then let's say there's another text even, like my journal, which would add yet another layer, or let's say there are also other texts, like emails to other people or conversations that I've had with other people. Is it possible to get to the "truth" of a person in discourse, to come up with a whole truth? Probably not, right? And then the other side of that coin becomes this: is it ever possible to be honest - to tell the truth? One can try, sure, but ultimately any such thing is contingent upon a variety of factors, right? But so then one can make an effort to be consistent across texts, but in spite of my best efforts, I'm not. I say one thing, and then I do another, or I say another in another context. And so then I wonder whether narrative consistency - in any context - is possible, or even if possible, if it's desirable. I mean, I think that I've always assumed that it is desirable - necessary even - but it's something that I can't seem to maintain. So if I can't maintain it, then is it desirable or necessary? To what extent is consistency in narrative false? I suppose the problem is in trying to pin things down with words. Perhaps such an effort is always going to be doomed to fail. But if it is, then why produce all of the writing/speech that I produce? Why not just shut the fuck up, if language is always going to be inadequate? Why try to define everything and to locate it in language, which is what I always try to do?

Ok, clearly I'm procrastinating. Back to work.


that said...

What if we substituted "interpretation" for "truth" here, thereby setting aside any lingering aperspectival or essentialist baggage?

And perhaps narrative consistency isn't so much a virtue in itself as it is a virtue when counterbalanced w/ or juxtaposed against surprise/ improvisation/ spontaneity/ complexity?

Me? I'm procrastinating too.

Sisyphus said...

I always wonder why don't more people lie in their blogs? (or if they do, why don't I find any of them) Why do people seem to continually confess their "truth" about their lives and likes and opinions instead of trying to create some fantastical alternate compensatory identity? Why don't we write our lives here more as fictions? I was wondering if instead (to be a devil's advocate to you here) we cannot escape our consistency, our habits, in narration, that it is too much work to consistently imagine an other self, or perhaps that we cannot see how to overturn the conventions of this medium. I mean, to be a troublemaker, your very interest in and noticing of narration and consistency is consistent to you, or your persona on this blog.

Not that I don't also completely agree with you on what you said earlier. And while I'm at it, the beginning of the post reminded me of that book by Ishiguro --- I think it's A Pale View of Hills.

Combat said...

I'm afraid that I have tagged you in the eight random things blog game. See
for details. I hope that you will participate.

The Combat Philosopher

Nik said...

I agree with Sisyphus to some degree--when trying to create characters or other identities, I'm always afraid it's so obvious that it's me. The same tics, inflections and pauses in my speech seem to come through in my writing and peg me every time. However, I do think it's a fun exercise to write something in first person and then change it to the third to see how wildly differently the voice reads. While the first person may be suspect, the third person is three degrees of unbelievability--which makes it read more believably, sometimes, somehow.