Craft Chat: Second Person
Our editors return to our conversation on perspective with some thoughts on a point of view we’d like to see more of: second person. We were lucky to publish Nancy Ludmerer’s “Matchbox” on Monday, a fantastic example of the power in this perspective.
Cole Meyer: We’ve published very little in second person at The Masters Review, but it’s not because we’re opposed to it. In the past couple of years, besides “Matchbox” there are two stories (both contest finalists) that jump out to me as strong examples of second person: “Ghost Story” by Becca Anderson and “How to Spot a Whale” by Jacqui Reiko Teruya. I’d love to see more second person come through our queue, but it seems to be such a tricky perspective to get right. Often when we’re making final determinations on a story that’s in second person, I find that we’re hesitating over whether the perspective is actually working for the story. Why do you think that might be?
Brandon Williams: I’m a big believer that second person has some really particular uses, and it’s absolutely great for those, but often the question is whether we’re gaining anything from halfway hiding an I perspective that’s not really hidden (I realize there are other versions of second, but this is the one we see most often). Unlike other POVs, then, it kinda needs an argument, a framework of logic in the story, for its use—why aren’t we in first, which it shares a lot of cool benefits with, and why aren’t we in third if we’re stepping away from interiority?
Melissa Hinshaw: As a possible example to Brandon’s point, I think a lot of second person stories we DO see are relationship-y or family ones, where the second person is used, and the I is dressed this way as an unsaid commentary on the relationship at hand: this obvious and unflagging focus on some other person saying something very much about the relationship. So these stories all kind of end up being about the same thing, or at least carrying the same tones of desire, longing, pain, disconnect, etc. The reason we aren’t in first or third person in these stories is because of the nature of the relationship the story’s about.
Because we see so much of this, I am very interested in second-person stories that do something besides that (a unique and specific argument/framework like Brandon is talking about). I also remember some second person stories that have more of a “choose your own adventure” vibe to them, where the relationship is between the narrator and the reader—why is Lorrie Moore coming to mind here?
BW: I’m a huge fan of more experimental 2nd persons like that! So often we get stuck on the hidden-I 2nd, but there are so many other things to be done with it; the choose-your-own-adventure, the instruction manual (I wish I could think of a better example so I didn’t have to reference this dude anymore, but my go-to here is “How to Date a…” by Junot Diaz), the epistolary of course.
The weird sorta-conversational that’s got an I but You are the main character: “Orientation” by Daniel Orozco.
CM: think you’re making a great point, Melissa— it’s not so much the perspective in those cases, it’s that we’ve seen this story before, and too often.
And I’m a huge fan of “Orientation”! I remember writing a story in undergrad that I only realized after the fact was basically a rip off of that story. One of my few experimentations with second person. I think I was too embarrassed once I realized that to go back to that perspective.
BW: Guilty of exactly the same.
MH: Great now I need to do it too! You guys have inspired my week’s work Also I have verified Lorrie Moore: 6 of the 9 stories in her collection Self Help are in second person.
CM: Another example that comes to mind is “How to Leave Hialeah” — I’m not sure if I’m able to find an accessible version of this story online, but it is on JSTOR for those who have access.
BW: Ooh, that looks really interesting.
CM: So I guess it may be helpful for us to consider how these second persons are working most effectively. What would they lose in first person or third person? Would they lose anything? Because I often find that that’s the advice I’d want to give a lot of the writers I’m seeing experiment with second person: Try this story again in first or third.
BW: And that’s the thing, right? Second person doesn’t really have a clear camera advantage, so it has to have an advantage on some other storytelling leverage in order to use it. And unless you’re building new ground with it, we see a lot of stories doing the same thing with it (those family/relationship outsider stories Melissa mentioned).
MH: Second person stories we see a lot seem to lean heavily into this …. very FEELY space, like swirling with emotion, like that’s what the second person seems to be used for largely. That might be what authors fear losing in first or third. Maybe it’s good to do a draft in second, find emotion, and then consider how to allot it in first or third person— which might in part be a pacing issue, like from our last chat, knowing when to slow down and feel scenes out versus speed them up and drive excitement. Titrating emotion. Emotional regulation. Something like that.
It’s this “swept up in the you” sense, this totally enraptured thing you get in second person. So it might be good for authors who find themselves doing that to think about how that would translate into first or third if the POV of the story wasn’t doing all the work of it.
BW: And that feelingness, of course, can easily get in the way of (or hide) characterization or plot. We talk about this all the time with stories that feel voicey but empty, and the floatiness of 2nd person can definitely exacerbate that.
CM: Are there any examples of, like, really long second person stories? Any novels? I can’t think of anything off hand. Because I do think there’s a really strong sense of intimacy in second person that can be hard to balance for so long. And that may be why (in my estimation, at least) second person seems to be most successful in small packages. Flash fiction, shortish stories.
I’m sure I’m about to be proven very wrong, and there’s an obvious and famous example of this, but I just can’t think of one.
MH: I had to Google this and If an a Winter’s Night a Traveler came up (Italo Calvino)— that felt like a “Oh right duh” to me, but that book is kind of all over the place for reasons beyond second person too. But other than that I can’t think of much…
CM: Ha, it almost seems unfair to pull out Calvino, but good point!
BW: There are more first plural novels than second person.
Do you guys know Girlchild, by Tupelo Hassman? It’s not in 2nd, but it does have multiple chapters that use something like 2nd instructive.
MH: I haven’t heard of that! I am familiar with authors using second person in some chapters, especially when they are writing from multiple characters and switching between them each chapter.
CM: I know There There has some chapters in second person, too. In any case, I do hope we see some more attempts at second person! I love experimenting with voice and perspective, and I’m always encouraged to see others trying their hand at it as well.