Saturday, October 31, 2009

writing in first person POV and other perils


Has there been an overwhelming tendency in contemporary times for authors to favor writing in first person point-of-view?  Cris Mazza, an author and professor of writing, thinks so, and discusses results of her informal surveys in "Too Much of Moi?" published in The Writers Chronicle, Oct/Nov 2009.  Mazza surveyed literary magazines and story anthologies, including about 150 stories within each category, and 123 novels.  She generally found first person narratives to be on the order of 60% to 70%, but with up to 80% in some individual magazines.  For the novels, about 66% of the total, and 87% of thirty-one first novels, were in first person.

Mazza makes a point that "While 65% may not seem overwhelming, it would be considered a landslide in a primary election that offered more than two choices on a ballot."  Our authors' ballot, would of course, include first, second, and third person candidates, with at least several variations of the latter: typically called omniscient, objective, and limited third person.  Not many enduring stories have been written in second person (here's a plug for one contemporary work, Chris Lynch's "Freewill.") Generally, fiction written more than a few decades ago favored limited third person, and older classic fiction favored omniscient third person.

Various motives are given for writing in first person.  Some authors believe it to provide a more intimate story, one that feels more 'real' to a reader, and, in view of the current market popularity of memoirs and 'chick-lit' stories, may provide a narrative style of obvious appeal to a wider share of the reading public.  Good first person stories have been, and will continue to be, written; but an author should have a good understanding of the potential weaknesses.  Mazza says "Really effective first person should be like viewing the story's events through a clouded, scratched, nicked, warped, or otherwise marred piece of glass, or plastic."  Otherwise, one of the pitfalls may be that it becomes all too easy to slip into a mode of narrowly relating a character's emotional and physical responses to a series of obstacles placed in the way of the character getting what she wants.  A straightforward, major problem, multiple sub-problem obstacles, and final resolution, constitute the road map of the story.  It becomes difficult to include perceptions of irony, nuance, and character complexity that can raise the story to the level of a literary work.  Another potentially draining situation is when the first person author and the story protagonist become the same character, probably a common problem.

Some good, in-depth material on the advantages and disadvantages of the several point of view narrative styles are given in "The Art of Fiction," by John Gardner, and "Creating Fiction," edited by Julie Checkoway.

2 comments:

bh yoo said...

I love big fonts in your blog at first for my eyesight gets worse getting older. I'll visit from time to time to read your subconscious flowing. Cheers!

Jack said...

Thanks for your interest in my blog, bh yoo, and for signing on as a follower. I need to get busy and post this month's edition soon!

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