First person or third?

On the face of it, writing in the third person will be the more attractive option. It gives the writer complete access not only to what his characters do but also what they think. This is the writer as God approach, and it isn’t surprising that the majority of novels and short stories are written in the third person.

Writing in the first person faces the author with a major question at the outset: how does the narrator come by his information? There are two approaches to this. The author might decide that, for his purposes, it will not be an issue and the narrator will know very much more than could happen in real life. For example, he might have astonishing powers of recall, giving us lengthy passages of direct speech as if, between his ears, he had a fully functional tape recorder or digital recording device. This is what Pawel Huelle does in ‘Who Was David Weiser’. He doesn’t care that a reader (me!) might reasonably ask ‘How could your narrator possibly know all this? He decides that the problem isn’t a problem at all – the writer as God again, but by a different route.

But if the question isn’t side-stepped in this way, we will wish to know how the narrator comes by his information. In the old days, a popular approach was, ‘These papers first came into my hands.’ Nowadays, the narrator might come by a stream of emails, texts or voicemails. And other characters, who have observed events which the narrator has not, will pass their information on. When writing in this way it will always be wise for the writer to ask, ‘How does my narrator know this?’ There should be an answer, explicit or implied.

Sometimes, writers – even famous ones – can be indecisive in this matter. When Patricia Cornwell began her Kay Scarpetta series, the novels were written in the first person. However, when she came to write Blow Fly, she changed to the third person. Then, seven years later, she reverted to the first person in Post Mortuary. This wouldn’t call for comment but for the fact that these books are part of the same series and might be expected to conform to one style of writing. (Bear in mind that she has also changed from past to present tense in this series).

Cornwell was sufficiently established to get away with this, but for authors starting out and wanting to build up a readership, conventional wisdom would be as follows. 1) Write within a specific genre 2) Write a series of books within that genre 3) Write the books in your series with a consistent style. (I am not advocating this advice, simply reporting it).

Then there is the interesting case of John Irving. As published, his novel Until I Find You is in the third person. But Irving wrote it in the first. However, on the advice of his wife he changed it to the third. Given that the book is unduly long, this was a major task which took him nine months. (I believe the couple are still married). So getting this decision correct at the outset can save a lot of time and effort. And while it is perfectly possible to change a first person narrative to a third, going in the other direction would be difficult in the extreme.

But writing in the first person isn’t just a matter of information. Since the narrator will be a person, the author must decide how that person speaks and/or writes. The narrator will have a voice and the writer should let us hear it. This is potentially more difficult than adopting a competent, third person prose style which any one of a number of authors might use.

Fortunately, we don’t have to choose one person or the other – we can use both. The novel I read most recently, Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd, does exactly that. The main character, Lysander Rief, is urged by his shrink to keep a journal as part of his therapy. So, though the book is mainly third person, the narrative is intercut with first person extracts from his journal. Using both first and third persons is not uncommon and can work very well.

Ringing Endorsements

There is an assumption that endorsements are a good thing. From the reader’s point of view it may help them to decide what to read next: from the writer’s point of view that they will help move copies of their books. Both of these assumptions may well be true. Going by the space devoted to endorsements in books these days, I have to assume that publishers are sitting on evidence that they are effective.

Critical acclaim can come from several different sources. One is newspapers and magazines, and  we will form a view over time of their reviewers, as Gore Vidal did concerning the New York Times.  Another source is online reviews from sites such as Amazon or Goodreads (now a branch of Amazon). And the third is critical acclaim from fellow authors.

Online reviews can be dreadful, but they can also be excellent, so those who read them must judge for themselves. But they can’t  in those cases where a review is written by the author under an assumed name – either to praise himself or do down a competitor. There have been several high-profile cases of this and no one can be sure how pervasive it might be.

The area which interests me most is where authors are endorsed by other authors. This might happen for several reasons. The first is that one author genuinely admires the work of another. If they do, and they say so, that is surely a good thing. But what if two authors share the same publisher? It must have occurred to the marketing department that their authors might usefully endorse each other. And even where this is not the case, there is always the possibility that mutual back-scratching is taking place.

The first time I considered this subject was when I bought a copy of Underworld, by Don Delilo. I have since given this book away, but it contained several pages of praise from various sources. I made two attempts to read it, giving up both times.

I recently read The Blue Book, by A L Kennedy. On the back cover was a quotation from Richard Ford. Since I have given this book away too I am going by memory here, but I believe it said, ‘This woman is a profound writer.’ And those were the only words on the back cover.

My first assumption is that Richard Ford meant what he said. But was he right and, if so, why? It has been suggested to me that he must be right because 1) he was a novelist himself and 2) he was such an accomplished novelist that he had won a Pulitzer Prize. I have problems with this, none of them having to do with Richard Ford or the quality of his work.

Do we have to be a writer to evaluate the work of a writer? Plainly not. But perhaps being a writer gives us added insights we can bring to bear in our review? That’s obviously possible, but with at least one caveat: a writer will have certain working prejudices (a good thing) lighting his way along the path as he works. But these may, on occasion, skew his reaction to the work of others. Tolstoy was a writer but had a low opinion of Shakespeare. Do we accept his unusual point of view because he wrote Anna Karenina?

Is there any way through all this? Yes. The conclusion alone it is not enough. To enable us to test it, we need to know how it was arrived at. I have no doubt that Richard Ford, if asked, would tell us exactly why he thinks A L Kennedy is a profound writer. But this information was denied us. So the prospective purchaser of The Blue  Book was left with a back cover occupied by a mere assertion in solitary splendour.

Even if this assertion had been made by a literary Pope speaking ex cathedra (or possibly ex libris) we should not accept it. We must insist on our right to think for ourselves.