first person narratives and reader evolution

Based on several of the comments yesterday, I think I need to set the record straight. The panel on which I said that I did not like first person narratives was so many moons ago I cannot even say which conference I was attending. And – here’s the important part – it is no longer the case. Really. Just ask some of my current clients…

Going through my agent-shelf (not my to read pile – yikes) here are some first person narrated books: C.E. Murphy’s Urban Shaman (from the Walker Papers series), Storm Front by Jim Butcher (and the rest of the Dresden Files series, for that matter), Donna Ball’s Smoky Mountain Tracks, Nightlife by Rob Thurman, David Skibbin’s Eight of Swords. I suppose I had better let them all know the bad news. I even represent books in which the narrative has more than one approach. For example, Elizabeth Bear’s Hammered, in which one character is in first person and several others are not.

First person narratives are lovely – if done well. Which is always the crux of the matter. At the time that I made that apparently infamous remark, I had not read very many good ones. It was, then, a challenge to win me over. The truth is, though, that I have discovered that as long as something is done well, I will read it.

I thought that paragraph I wrote yesterday made it clear that it was an old objection, no longer valid. This is not the first time I have told this anecdote and gotten this reaction. Someone suggested to me that people don’t read as carefully online as they do on paper. I begin to suspect that might be true. Does anyone else have that experience? Apparently it can spread misinformation. Be careful in your research, people. I sure hope no one reads this entry and believes that I now prefer first person to everything else. That’s not the case either.

Agents are readers first and foremost, before they do the business. Readers evolve, or at least one hopes they do. I would avoid stagnation like the plague. There are books that I loved as a child which still ensnare me, but there are others that I no longer find gripping. I have read books this year (Hal Duncan’s Vellum, comes to mind) which I may have passed up years ago. (I thoroughly enjoyed Vellum, by the way.) I would not be at all surprised if other people reading this have, in the past, thought they liked or disliked something and later have proven themselves incorrect. Or worse yet, changed their minds. Perhaps there are some who prefer not to experiment. I am not one of them. Give me the adventure and discovery.

29 responses to “first person narratives and reader evolution

  1. Someone suggested to me that people don’t read as carefully online as they do on paper. I begin to suspect that might be true. Does anyone else have that experience? Apparently it can spread misinformation.
    I don’t. I find people just as prone to come up with boneheaded, unsubstantiatable interpretations when reading books as when reading blogs.

    • Perhaps it is that online reading (either by blog or list) is more interactive and so I can see it happening in a more instant way. Reading a book is a more solitary activity and the discussion often follows afterwards, not during. Which, of course, can still lead, as you say, to some very imaginative interpretations.

  2. You have control over how you say something, but you have no control over how another person processes and incorporates your words. Frustrating, but true. People will take your words and run with them in whatever direction they are inclined.
    I think the original post was clear, and any objection is them, not you.
    I’ve been lurking for a few weeks, BTW. I came via way of EBear, and have been enjoying the posts.

  3. It was clear.
    And you have mentioned this here before, I recall.
    Did you get such a wave of response at that time, too?

  4. Someone suggested to me that people don’t read as carefully online as they do on paper. I begin to suspect that might be true.
    Don’t fool yourself; it’s every bit as true offline, as online. It’s a sad tendency. There are also other mitigating circumstances, which have nothing to do with reading at all, known as “real life”. It’s funny, that they should still say to read the fine print. What about the rest of the contract? XD
    There are books that I loved as a child which still ensnare me, but there are others that I no longer find gripping.
    I noticed that with A Wrinkle in Time, which I’ve re-read, and been less enthralled by: but I can still read Asimov’s Foundation series and enjoy it (So I was an eclectic reader when I was a child).
    Then again, there are the books intended for the younger audience that I read as an adult, and think back to when they wouldn’t print books for children or young adults with such mature content: this is “mature”, compared to the books I devoured when I was younger, which were actually intended for younger audiences.
    So long as they don’t confuse the reader (me) as to viewpoint, I don’t mind first person; but please, spare me from present tense. Impressions and interpretations of what the character sees at a given time can be confusing if the author adds “but little did s/he know that..” You know; the paltry attempt at foreshadowing.
    Experimentation in reading? I’ve done it, and I will do so again. I remember when, desperate for anything to read, and having no fresh material anywhere in the house, I resorted to those formulaic, “nursey” romances.
    Come to think of it, I do not like the romance genre: I have, however, read and enjoyed certain books within the genre. I recently obtained a sued copy of The French Passion, for example. It’s an historical romance, which I had fist read excerpts of in a weekly periodical (possibly The Enquirer, but definitely one if its ilk). I was rather impressed, not only with the richness of detail, but also that the author stated that the book seemed to write itself, in a process akin to “automatic” writing, and since I was doing a lot of reading on paranormal phenomena at the time, well…. lol. The Thorn Birds, which I also enjoyed reading then (though probably not today) was another one, as was The Disgraceful Duke (another historical)., Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, Ann McCaffrey’s A Stitch in the Snow–reasonable choices, IMO. The formulaic ones get a bit tiresome after awhile, but these (even The Thornbirds) never really go stale; they each have character, story, and individual voice. (Of course, that’s just IMO: I remember one “soft” SF book I read by another romance author which had cheesy aliens and situations, but that was IMO, and I wasn’t the publisher, so… lol)

    • Books that still ensnare
      There are many authors whose works I no longer enjoy. I came to writing later in life, and since I became a writer my critical eye has developed. Some authors stand the test of time for me better than others. I still love Mary Stewart. I’ll have to give Wrinkle in Time another shot. It was my favorite book in sixth grade, right before I discovered Tolkien.
      — Virginia Miss

  5. I thought it was clear.
    I know that people mis-read all the time, online and off, but there does seem to be… an extra layer of something that makes it even more likely to happen online. Maybe it is the increased speed – we can respond as readers immediately, so we often don’t turn things over in our minds as we would with print. And I also think people tend to skim more; I do, anyway, and it’s a habit I’m trying to break.

  6. sorry
    Hi. I am one of the people who posted “now I know not to query you” and I think I was half asleep when I posted that last night. What I meant to say was, from reading your blog (or other agent blogs), it helps to determine who to send to and that’s great. I actually got that you had changed your mind. If I can figure out how to remove that commment, I will. If not and you can, please do!
    As far as reading carefully, I expect you’re right. It’s not always easy to read on computers, so people (I) skim. That wasn’t the case here, I just didn’t write clearly. Sorry about that. I’ll be more careful.

  7. After a while, you get to the point where you get a weird tingle when you write something that a careless reader is going to misinterpret. Then you start adding things to your posts like “Just to be clear: I am NOT saying all cat-owners are morons.”
    Speaking for myself, I definitely read less carefully online than I do with books. In part that’s because I exercise a different sort of choice with books. I pick up a book because I want the content. I read (for instance) my flist or a mailing list because the authors are usually interesting. I skim most entries to find out if its something I want to read, then move on if it’s not.
    It’s good practice to really read carefully anytime you want to leave a comment, though. I learned that the hard way, I’m afraid.

  8. The reason you think you don’t like first person is because it’s so difficult to find it done well. It seems like every aspiring writer and their mother thinks they can write first person, and that’s really not the case. But the ones who do it well make it all worthwhile. 🙂

  9. People don’t read carefully, period. They are forever seeing things through the lenses of their own worries. This becomes prticularly true when they are looking for advice or information, and trying desperately to read between lines for any sort of edge.

  10. First person *is* hard to do well…
    But I’m attempting it in my current WIP, an urban fantasy.
    I’ve got books from a bunch of the writers you rep: Urban Shaman (fun voice, esp. when Joanne Walker talks to the mystical coyote); Storm Front (just bought; can’t wait to dive into that one); and Hammered (hubby got the entire trilogy – which I hadn’t realized was a trilogy), which I received for Christmas last year – I’m hoping to start reading that one soon, too (it seems like more of a fall/winter series to me).

  11. I wondered, in reading that, as my first thought was… “But doesn’t Jim write in “first person smartass?””… But then I doubted myself and thought… “Maybe first person narrative means something else and I’m going to look like an idiot for mentioning it.”
    Self doubt and a desire to not look dumb won the day, but I’m glad to know that I wasn’t insane. 🙂

  12. I suppose I had better let them all know the bad news.

  13. It was clear, at least to me that your “hatred” was from the past. But in the case that history tends to repeat itself it made me feel as though you would never like any of my work.. I cannot help but to write in first person narratives. I’m on my third novel and all of them, (very different subjects) are YA and first person narratives. I have been a reader of your LJ for a while your style and voice has me convinced we would work well together. You seem so honest and it’s apparent that your heart is devoted to your love of great books. For these reasons I really wanted to send you a query. But I feel cautious because I only want an agent that would LOVE my work and truly understand my writing. So you don’t hate first person, but do you have a passion to read them?
    N.C. Murphy

  14. (not my to read pile – yikes)
    I’m going to be adding to that pile next week.
    ::feeling the guilt::

    • Heh. Bring it!
      And, actually, I was referring to the actual book-shaped reading pile that I’ve been accumulating. It’s 3 floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Manuscripts fall into an entirely different category. 😉

      • Heh. Bring it!
        She says that now. Even though we will be asking for, like, comments and such.
        Manuscripts fall into an entirely different category. 😉
        Likely the Taller & Heavier category.

  15. I found it perfectly clear.
    Actually, it reminded me of my husband, who told me a few months ago that he couldn’t get into an anthology because the first story was told in first person, which he doesn’t like. I did *not* point him to his collection of Anne Rice novels. This incident prompted me to believe that first person is something that many people notice only when it is done poorly, like present tense, or many other writing styles.

  16. OMG I wrote my book in 1st person, R U saying I’ll never get published!!?!1!
    Just kidding. Don’t know whether people read more sloppily online, but in my experience they certainly have a tendency to overreact more online. I just thought I’d demonstrate. 😉

  17. Hummus
    It’s like Hummus!
    I tried hummus once and thought it was absolutely horrible!
    Turns out that not everyone makes hummus with paprika. the lack of paprika makes me love hummus so much I could marry it.
    ps when people read… their minds wander, filling in words where they think they belong, interpreting what they think they see. I found when I read from the net, I have to highlight sections at a time so I won’t wander on the page.
    is that very ADD of me?

  18. *delurks* Oh, if there is one thing I have learned so far, it is that readers can’t read, online or offline. They will ignore or twist your words however they wish. It can be highly frustrating.
    I always read carefully when I’m interested in something, and I certainly pay very close attention to all agents’ blogs. I thought you were quite clear.

    • Ah, and I would add that though I tend to think I dislike first person or stories told in the present tense, a good writer can handle them in a way that makes me whimper from jealousy. The problem is when a bad or a so-so writer uses them, then all the ways it doesn’t work jump in your face. It’s best to practice with the ‘usual’ style first.

  19. Hmm. I certainly parsed it as “I used to think this, but don’t any more.” On the other hand, in the last week or two at least one of the erotic romance publishers managed to give people the impression that they would no longer consider first person manuscripts. (I’m not sure whether it’s actually true or not, as I only saw the reaction to it, not whatever it was that set people off.) If there’s been an outbreak of publishers saying stuff like that, maybe a lot of writers are feeling touchy on the subject and inclined to read *anything* about first person as “1st sucks”.
    For what it’s worth, I’ve had feedback from readers saying that they thought they didn’t like first person until they read one of mine that’s first person, and were converted. Some were urging other people on a mailing list to try the book even if they didn’t normally like first person. I do wonder how many people out there have been turned off first person by reading a few poorly executed examples as their first experience of the POV.

  20. Query and Synopsis
    So, out of curiosity, what do the query and synopsis look like for a first-person book? Are they also in first person?

  21. better step back off of 1p… 🙂
    I struggled for the first six months of pre-write on whether to 1st/3rd person in my novel. During my MFA march 1p was pretty roundly disdained, but mainly by profs who hadn’t sold commercial fiction and didn’t read it. For me–for this character–first person was the right vehicle. IF I did it right, but it feels like I did.

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