Orca Blog for May: The Problem with “I”

Lately I’ve been rejecting a lot of fiction submissions written in the first-person point of view. So many that I’ve begun to ask why—what is it about these stories that’s turning me off?*

First-person has long been an excellent choice for conveying a character’s individual view of the world. Examples like James Joyce’s “Araby,” Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” and Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” are classics that quickly come to mind. More recently some of George Saunders’s stories as well.

When done well, first person offers a glimpse into a character’s inner psyche. But remember that it’s also often referred to as the unreliable narrator; that psyche is tempered by motivations and long-buried embarrassments, which are suppressed in the name of ego, the image a character presents to the rest of the world. That person’s past is usually revealed through the story’s subtext, the signs and symbols within action and dialogue that serve as illumination of the character’s soul, and place it in relation to the reality that surrounds it.

That conflict between characters’ inner and outer worlds—how they relate to other people and experience growth—seems to be missing in some of what comes in through our submission portal. The result, especially when presented in first-person, are stories that exhibit a deliberate ignorance of the world. They are self-indulgent, sometimes self-aggrandizing. And for sure, they lack subtext.

First-person is, on its surface, the easiest POV to write. Just adopt a persona and a situation, and off you go. Maybe that’s why we get so many. No need to worry about other characters too much, since the story is about this one person. I think that’s the problem, though. One of the attractions of stories written in third-person POV is their world building. The characters are part of a world, not isolated from it. They must react to its demands, relate to other characters—in short, participate. So many of the first-person stories we get seem to want to escape from that. They seem narrow, limited, not fully formed.

Some of this seems to be a function of our times. In a culture in which every person is encouraged to express his or her inherent “specialness,” it’s easy for writers, especially younger ones, to misinterpret that to mean to the exclusion of others.

One writer who I admire, Rachel Cusk, has shown how the opposite of self-indulgence can make first-person POV truly work. In her Outline trilogy (Outline, Transit, Kudos) she has created a first-person narrator who remains primarily in the background, letting other characters tell their stories, and barely even reacting to them. It’s incredibly refreshing to read these novels, in which Faye (the POV character) acknowledges the world and perhaps more importantly, her place in it.

It seems that such engagement with the world is what’s needed now, both in fiction and reality. You have to live in the world. So do your characters. Give them the opportunity to do that and maybe your first-person story will find its way into our pages.

– Joe Ponepinto

*Note: I am aware that writing a blog about the shortcomings of the first-person POV in first-person POV is something of a literary oxymoron. But it seems unavoidable, since the nature of a blog is opinion. So bear with me.