Monday, February 28, 2011

Pardon Me While I Rant

Okay, one more time. Just because a story is written in the first person, doesn't mean there's no suspense because you know the main character isn't going to die. I don't know who started this old chestnut, but I know of many cases where that doesn't turn out to be true. (Double Indemnity comes to mind.) I just saw this in a book review and couldn't believe someone was still saying this.
Besides, beyond the point of danger to the narrator, last time I checked, most books had more than one character to worry about. And, as far as that goes, if you're reading a third person book about an established character like Tarzan or Drizzt or James Bond, I think it's a forgone conclusion that that guy isn't going to die either, but does that ruin the suspense for you? Jeez.

End of rant.


Anonymous said...

Man, do I ever hear you loud and clear.
Decrying use of first person is like saying you don’t like a picture because it’s got too much red in it. Doesn’t matter that it’s a picture of a sunset—it’s weak because it’s red. This is a fine review for anyone who dislikes red, but utterly useless for the rest of us.

The oft-used justification that first person precludes suspense because the reader knows that the narrator is not going to die is absurdly inadequate.
First off, is the life or death of the narrator the only source of suspense for the reader? It’s hard for me to even imagine such a pinched viewpoint—the reader has no interest in the fate of secondary characters or the resolution of any number of plot elements beyond the survival of the narrator? If anyone seriously adopted this stance it would insure that they read very little genre fiction at all.

Second, to disparage first person in such a way flies in the face of dozens of authors who have written masterpieces of suspense in the first person. Perhaps the reviewer is comfortable dismissing Edgar Allan Poe, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Leigh Brackett, H.P. Lovecraft, Jim Thompson, Roger Zelazny, M.R. James, Robert Bloch, James M. Cain, and God knows how many others, but if they are then I suggest this calls into question their capacity to review anything, much less genre fiction.

Seriously, the argument is so specious and shallow that I’m inclined to see it as a simplistic cover by the critic, used to gloss over the fact that they don’t like the work and cannot be bothered to understand why.

John Hocking

Charles R. Rutledge said...

Good points all, John. My other issue was that when I started reading first person books when I was a kid, I didn't assume that the story was written by the narrator unless he or she specifically said so. Archie Goodwin sometimes lets you know that he is chronicling the adventures of Nero Wolfe. But I never thought Chandler wanted us to think that Marlowe was writing his memoirs and I don't think Travis McGee was sitting down to pen his own adventures in John D. MacDonald's books. First person was just another way to tell a story, no different than choosing third or second or whatever. I think it was Lawrence Block who pointed out that in some cultures, storytelling was always done in the first person, as if it had happened to the narrator, even if the story had occurred in ages past.
But yeah, it irritates me when I see this, obviously.

Rachel said...

First time for everything I guess... I've never heard this statement! Moreover, I can't imagine it being used. I don't even know what I would say to a person who didn't have the sense to be embarrassed to say such a short-sided thing aloud. How odd! Besides all the good points already made, I've read first person books where the narrator is the main character and s/he has died.