The Point of Point of View

I’m always somewhat suspicious of the first person narrative. It seems, to me, too personal, too biased, and often too contrived. Any written account is meant to be read (diary perhaps excluded) and will therefore be subject to editing, self-fashioning, and similar fictionalising, maybe even ‘falsifying’ consequences.

It can, of course, be well done. Recently I soared through Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close which (if you’ve read it you know) takes story-telling and puts it on its head with first person narrative, multiple POVs through letters, photographs, and several temporal perspectives that secretly interlink and only come together at the end. First person creates great tension and invites to rich character-reader relationship.

While I do think the first person point of view can be incredibly rewarding if done well, I don’t trust it. Bleak House by Dickens is a great example: Esther is about as reliable as a sly fox and the novel shows all the weaknesses (and, admittedly, some strengths) of such a narrative. If we can’t trust the narrator, I feel like it diminished the value of the story! The involved narrator will always be biased and self-augmenting/self-deprecating and whether done explicitly or implicitly, suspicion will taint the story.

The third person narrative is the most common for novels, I think. This mode gives an external point of view, and puts the author/narrator in control of angling, knowledge spectrum, and omission. What does the reader need to know? What can we sneakily hide and only reveal at the end? Mystery novels, thrillers and so on with complex plots benefit from this form. Unlike the first person narrative, where you are limited to one person’s perspective, here the story can be told through a variety of gazes.

Third person was my default mode until recently. First a short story by my own hand, and then reading Extremely Loud &c, has made me all confused. Then again, the first person narrative in Extremely Loud &c, is so skilled. It tells a story in a remarkable way, and it’s tempted me to try.

What other successful first person narratives are there out there in contemporary literature? And what are your thoughts on this issue?


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