The Sex Pistols of POVs—Discussing Second-Person Narration with E. J. Levy
Sitting at a wrought-iron table outside of the Wild Boar café on an unusually warm autumn evening in Fort Collins, CO, author E. J. Levy, my roommate Ben Findlay, and I have invented a game we’re hoping will gain some traction with the extremely limited parties who might enjoy discussing something like this: who are the musical-artist-equivalents of the three narrative points of view? It’s begun with a stupid analogy of mine that Levy has been kind enough to entertain: I posited that, accepting the fact that Ringo is the most superfluous Beatle, John Lennon is first-person (idiosyncratic, solipsistic), Paul McCartney is third-person (wildly popular, a reliable standby), and so George Harrison must be second-person (underrated, underused).
Talking about nonsense like this is just the kind of thing Ben and I normally do—we’re in the CSU writing program together, and are roommates, too—but to have Levy here to accompany our discussion is a rare treat, like we’ve siphoned someone off of the adults’ table, asked her to ignore the spilled gravy and plasticware, and to answer our dumb questions. It’s only the second time I’ve met her, and she is unfailingly polite and sweet in a way that stretches beyond sincerity or being well-raised. She’s just come from teaching undergraduate fiction writing and has only positive things to say about them: their experimentation, their fearlessness. It’s late in the day, and at the point in the semester when the first wave of fatigue tends to set in, and yet here she is, talking about how her students are delighting her at every turn.
And couching her rebuff of my analogy in more politeness and apology than she ought to, she supplies a far cleverer one: “Second-person seems more like the Sex Pistols of points of view, because I feel like it challenges us, it disturbs us, and it forces us into an uncomfortable position. It’s like meeting somebody in black leather who is grabbing you by the lapels.”
Ben and I have decided to talk with Levy about second-person POV given the quality of her short story, “Theory of Dramatic Action,” originally published in Another Chicago Magazine and later included in her 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award–winning collection, Love, In Theory. She read it to kick off CSU’s creative writing reading series, a story that was met here with pretty unanimous esteem. It’s a second-person story in the vein of Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer,” or, perhaps more accurately, in the proliferation of the second-person stories that have been published in the wake of Moore’s widely anthologized text: Junot Diaz’s “How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie),” Pam Houston’s “How to Talk to a Hunter,” etc. But it’s a fresh take on the form, owing just as much to screenwriting conceptions of narrative exposition as it does the “how-to” sendups.
We ask Levy why she thinks second-person is so Sex Pistols. She leans forward in her chair, sips from a can of sweetened iced tea, and says, “I think it’s shocking for a culture that’s so set on being self-determining. It’s an interesting point of view for American writers in particular because I think we resist that kind of instruction or imperative. And what’s fabulous about second-person is all that it can accomplish just by showing up: how it implicates us in the story, because it’s speaking directly to us as often as it’s speaking to the writer himself or herself.”
I’d spent the week prior trying to think of something intelligent to say about second-person narration, and Levy just throws these out as a matter of course. I think about steering the conversation back to music, but it’s clear that we’re digging more deeply into the drawbacks and attractions of the POV. She’s already made passing references to Aristotle, Bach, and Godard; I’m feeling the need to hold my own, even though I probably can’t. I say, “I wonder why people have a problem with second-person narrators; why don’t we see as many second-person stories as we do first- and third-person? And I’ve heard it’s because people don’t like to be pulled into a story that way. But isn’t that what good fiction does though? Pull us into the narrative in a way that feels inevitable?”
Predictably, Levy has a thoughtful answer, as if she’d had access to my questions beforehand (she didn’t). She says, “Second-person defies the comfortable illusion of the fictive dream. We are, at every moment, aware that we are and are not that person. It’s an awkward kind of insistence that speaks to us so that we remain ourselves, even as it insists—for this moment or for these ten pages—that we become Lorrie Moore or Pam Houston or Junot Diaz.”
It’s a point well-taken, and one that illustrates the complexity of an oft-misunderstood form. Levy offers an anecdote of an art-curator (ed. note: we couldn’t get her to divulge the name!) who, while enjoying a gallery of Monet’s paintings, was disturbed by a performance-art piece on another floor, whose participants were screaming. “I came here to look at the Monets,” the curator had said, “not to be disturbed!” Levy manages to bring it back to second-person: “Its charms are often intellectual or comic or arch ones, that don’t allow us to settle into a passive experience, which I think is useful. Art should disturb us.”
Ben’s been quiet, probably thankful that he has someone other than me to talk to. He’s usually quiet anyway; if our relationship is a brotherly one, he’s certainly the older brother, content to let me spout off nonsense and then set me to rights. I’ve been here at CSU longer, but Ben somehow seems more at place. He says, “It doesn’t have to be a you-are-this-thing. Sometimes second-person can be more subtle, and presented as a question: Do you know what I mean? Do you relate to this? If a story says, “You get on an airplane,” a resistant reader might say, “No, I don’t,” but the writer isn’t actually demanding that. I think the author is saying, When one gets on an airplane; do you understand this?”
Like much of what Ben says, it’s something I find myself agreeing with, and turning over in my head long after he’s finished. I add, “My recollection of Bright Lights, Big City isn’t me being in that world. It’s strange: it almost reaches that point where the novel no longer hinges upon that in-your-face-ness of it—it falls away—and I can picture a character who is called ‘you’ but who isn’t me. I think most of the stories that do second-person really well tend to have that happen.” Only halfway through this comment do I realize I’ve found a way to disagree with Levy, but hey, she seems open to the discussion.
“Ideally,” Levy says, “you don’t want to use it just as stunt, but rather where it bespeaks something significant psychologically. So if it’s drug-addled youth, you’re self-distanced because of how tranquilized you are, or how hyped you are on coke. Or it’s the self-alienation that comes from growing up in a racist America, as Diaz uses it in ‘How to Date a Brown Girl.’ Or with Lorrie Moore: the character is so self-alienated that she’s writing about people exploding in the kitchen, because she can’t write about the divorce, or her brother coming home damaged from Vietnam, or losing her virginity.”
Ben adds, “It’s interesting that second-person addresses the ego directly, and sneakily pulls us out of our own egos.”
It’s strange because psychological and narrative distance, two parts that are so important to the way we compose or understand stories, are not something on which I’ve expended an awful lot of mental energy; they seem to exist more after-the-fact, something that I don’t typically notice when reading, and certainly don’t make a conscious effort to employ when writing. But unsurprisingly, Levy has managed to convey these considerations’ exigency to understanding the texts; second-person is the only way that “How to Be a Writer” (or Levy’s own “Theory of Dramatic Action,” for that matter) could have been written.
Ben shifts in his chair and offers some more thoughts on second-person’s status as the odd man out: “I remember reading on a journal’s submission guidelines that they were growing tired of the second-person POV and the first-person present tense. They didn’t say that you couldn’t, but it was pretty clear that you couldn’t.”
“And those are things,” Levy replies, “that we often default to for the cheap effect: the cheap sense of intensity that comes with those POVs and tenses. And that’s what’s lovely about Moore’s story: how it reclaims things, because it takes normal life and makes it matter. But it’s important to not let the formal choice eclipse the substance.”
This touches upon one of the things that came to mind when I first read Levy’s story: how careful she was in negotiating the potentially hazardous waters of using second-person, especially in light of the all-too-famous (at least in literary fiction circles) works that preceded her. Are editors too wary of it? Will they be more willing to put it down? When I ask about this, she says, “I think it’s enough of a rite of passage for American writers since Lorrie Moore that editors may be more interested in it rather than less, but we have to add our own knowledge of that history. As Eliot argues in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent,’ we have to be the piece of silver in that solution of oxygen and sulfur dioxide.”
I smile at the ease with which she references a nearly century-old essay on criticism, and offer my own reference, apropos of nothing: “If nothing else, I think Jay-Z is the most first-person musician ever.” When she claims an unfamiliarity with Jay-Z, Ben and I inform her that we’re going to have a hip-hop party in her office to bring her up to speed.
We talk a little about self-help books, since they’re perhaps the form of second-person writing with which those outside of the lit-fic community might be most familiar. Levy, Ben, and I all find that we haven’t actually read any, though I was forced to slog through a corporate version called Who Moved My Cheese?. Levy seems to delight in this: “Actually, the really interesting update of the second-person story might well be one that wrestled with its present incarnation as principally being about how to make more profit: a commercial one, and not the debased religious instinct, which is how it always seemed in the form that Lorrie Moore was sending up.” I wonder if maybe Ben has begun to write this in his head.
Levy manages to conclude up our conversation with another brilliant analogy: “Second-person should remain shocking, and when it just becomes technique or tricking something out to look fancier than it actually is, then it’s like the Sex Pistols t-shirts—”
“Purchased at Spencer’s Gifts,” I interject, excited to get back to it.
“—which are the antithesis of the thing that it set out to be, which is to disrupt our comfort or, in the case of second-person, to disrupt our easy relationship with story.” Ben and I nod in agreement, glad to have found another reference with which we are familiar, and one worded so thoughtfully.
We recommend using the comments section below for all manner of debate/disagreement on the most obvious musician POV. Bonus points if you can figure out if Springsteen is first- or third-person.