In storytelling, the second person is a conundrum, since its biggest strength is also its biggest problem.
Even after reading several stories told in the second person, I am surprised by its use in fiction. That is because, by using the second person or the ‘you’, the writer is thumbing his or her nose at one of the time-honoured conventions of storytelling that states stories should be told in the first person or the third person.
In storytelling terms, the second person is a curious conundrum, since its biggest strength is also its biggest problem. Since the ‘you’ addresses the reader directly, he or she feels that the writer is talking to them. When the reader identifies with what is being said then the second person is great. In journalism, for instance, it can help grab the reader’s attention immediately. Just think of a headline that goes — the government is going to raise your taxes. The reader is instantly brought into the story.
In creative writing, however, the ‘you’ jabbing at you from the page can be a complete turn-off, especially if the story deals with characters and situations that are foreign to the reader, such as a story set in a different culture, religion or social class. Even where there is no cultural disconnect, the ‘you’ can be annoying.
One of the best-known short stories written in the second person is British writer Peter Ho Davies’ ‘How to Be an Expatriate’. The first two sentences read: “Go to America. You love the books, the TV shows, the movies.” When I taught the story in Britain, invariably, I would get a student who’d say, ‘Who is this man to assume all these things about me? I don’t love the books, the TV shows, or the movies!’
Some of the most well-known stories in the second person seek to avoid that pitfall by subverting traditional narrative. ‘How to Be an Expatriate’ clones the structure of an instructional manual, as does Junot Diaz’s ‘How to Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)’. Since instructional manuals tend to be written in the second person, its use is justified. Other writers choose to use a format where one character addresses another. For instance, Mohsin Hamid’s novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist takes the form of a monologue addressed to an unnamed American. This monologue provides a valuable frame for Hamid’s actual conversation, which is with the reader about the complex relationship between Islam and the West in the aftermath of 9/11. Other writers, while not using the second person exclusively, use it a lot by utilising the letter format to tell their story. Since letters are addressed to individuals, the author can get away by talking directly to them, while keeping the reader at an appropriate distance, since the letter is addressed to another character. American writer Lionel Shriver’s We need to Talk About Kevin is a prime example, where the main character writes letters to her estranged husband about their son who is responsible for a fictional school massacre.
Another scenario where the second person can work is where the voice is conversational. Some people use the second person to refer to themselves. So when they say ‘you’, they actually mean ‘I’. The British writer Graham Swift makes use of such a conversational ‘you’ in parts of his Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders . And a part of South African writer J.M.Coetzee’s Summertime adopts the Q and A format where the second person is used.
The second person is especially resonant when the writer is seeking to point an accusing finger at someone. A good example is British writer Anne Donovan’s short story ‘But’. Donovan writes from the point of view of a carer who has a child with special needs. Although the story is told in the first person, Donovan uses the carer’s voice in the second person to accuse the reader and, by extension, society for its attitude towards children with special needs: ‘We are the ones whose eyes you don’t want to meet…To you, our children are not cute; you turn away from them as though they were invisible. That is what hurts most—you don’t see them the way we do, miss their beauty, shot through with pure gold.’ Here the second person comes at the reader with a directness that can make him or her squirm.
Literary greatness is often synonymous with pushing the envelope. Telling a story successfully in the second person is one of the ways to do that. When it works, you can produce something that is truly memorable. On the other hand, the point of view has its obvious pitfalls. For that reason, while any number of writers have used the second person successfully, no one has done it on a regular basis.