I’ll bet not a single editor in the world would encourage their authors to write from a second-person point of view. Many publishers and editors say the POV is wearing, potentially confusing, repetitive and not worth the trouble. But, come on, is it really that bad? After all, it’s as natural to our self-expression as the first-person.
When we want to instruct someone, we use second-person. When we hope they will relate to that thing we did that we maybe shouldn’t have done, we use second-person. When we want to sell something or we want to put a little emotional distance on the thing about which we are talking, we use second-person. All this to say, there’s a time and a place for the second-person, even if most believe fiction writing isn’t one of them.
Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and The Sweetheart by Angelina Mirabella are two recent and successful examples. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney is another. Italo Calvino’s classic, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller also uses it masterfully.
To author C.J. Hribal, second person has a power and usefulness that should never be written off. His Pushcart Prize-winning, second-person POV story “’Do I Look Sick to You?’ (Notes on How to Make Love to a Cancer Patient)” can attest to that. Hribal said he chose to employ second-person with this story because it creates and collapses distance simultaneously. “It’s a hinged perspective,” he said in a phone interview. The ‘you’ can be read as ‘I’ or ‘she’ or ‘he,’ thus forcing the reader to identify. “The ‘you’ pulls the reader in more than they want to be, and, at the same time, the speaker is trying to step away but can’t.”
“The ‘you’ pulls the reader in more than they want to be, and, at the same time, the speaker is trying to step away but can’t.” – C.J. Hribal
That’s only useful if, of course, the story calls for it, and Hribal’s story certain did. In one of our earlier posts, Hribal explained that he wanted to engage his reader in “empathetic imagination,” placing them in the position of the caretaker and the patient as lovers. Hribal said the reader, knowing that the narrator is trying for distance, feels the constant push-pull nature of the POV, making the experience of the story all the more tender.
The perspective also makes room for humor that would come off as callous if done in the first person. For instance, in one of the story’s summarized scenes, the narrator’s girlfriend had been joking about losing her hair, but now, in the bedroom, she’s crying. “Note to self: this is NOT the time to say ‘That’s okay. I’ll pretend I’m Captain Kirk making it with a hot alien,’ as you do, which goes over a lot less well than you’d think.” Second-person creates the space for comedy and terror.
Hribal points to Lorrie Moore’s collection Self-Helpand Susan Minot’s “Lust”as two masterful examples of second-person in short-story fiction. “The ‘yous’ add up [in Minot’s story]. She’s disappearing as the ‘you’ appears more.” That gets at the story’s intention: to convey a sense of loss and alienation.
So second-person can and does work. BUT! Hribal says it’s easy to do the second-person point of view badly. “It can create a false intimacy,” he said. The approach can feel like artifice and the hinged perspective can read like finger-pointing and didacticism. The key to understanding whether the voice will work for a given story is in answering, “Why does the character want the hinge?” If the need is real, then the voice can be sustainable for the writer and reader. And Hribal will be using it again with his next novel, The Other Life.