I’m in the middle of reading a short story collection. It’s a first collection by a young author and on the whole it seems a promising debut. There are some very strong stories in it. But there is one that has me scratching my head. It’s written in the second person and I can’t figure out why the author opted for this perspective in this story. It depicts an individual experience rich with specific detail. But rather than “she does this, she does that” or “I do this, I do that,” the author writes “you do this, you do that” and so on. What purpose does the use of the second person serve here?
It may be that despite the specificity of the experience depicted, the author is seeking to give it an air of universality. If so, I’m sceptical about the second person perspective as a device for doing so. It seems to me that an author can lay out a specific experience attributed to an individual character and in doing so convey the emotion beneath it in a way that makes the reader connect it with his or her own experience without the heavy-handed direction of addressing the character as “you.”
A related possibility is that the author is using the second person to heighten the sense of identification between reader and character. Making the main character “you” literally puts the reader in the shoes of that character. But here too I have my doubts. It seems to me that a first person story could accomplish this more effectively. A story with “I” at the centre situates the reader inside the character’s head and compels the reader to view the world through that character’s eyes. A story with “you” at the centre imposes that character’s experience on the reader from the outside. As a reader, this can make me quite belligerent. I find myself talking back to the story in childish fashion, meeting every “you did” with “no I didn’t.”
I’m not taking the position that there’s no place for the second person perspective in fiction. Indeed, one of the stories in my forthcoming collection is written in the second person. Why did I choose that perspective for that story? The “you” that the story is addressed to is not the reader but a character who features in it. It is essentially a letter from the narrator to an ex-lover. There the reader has the option of standing with the narrator who is telling the tale, or with the character to whom it is being told. Or, of course, the reader can stand outside both characters and relish the role of eavesdropper.
Another instance that I can think of where the second person can work well is in fiction in which the narrator or the author truly is addressing the reader in metafictional fashion.
Now here is the point when I start explicitly addressing this post to “you”! Do you have strong feelings one way or the other when you encounter the second person perspective in fiction? Can you offer up suggestions of novels or stories in which the second person perspective works well or of novels or stories in which you think the second person perspective fails? I’d like to grapple with this issue further and I think that a bit of research is required.