In Defense of the Second Person
Traditionally rejected in workshop spaces as distracting, or interrogative, the second person in fiction finds its defender in Grub Instructor Jonathan Escoffery. You can catch Jonathan in person on Saturday, June 17th, in his free workshop, Misunderstood: Inverting the Workshop Model (register here). This essay was originally published by The Writers' Room of Boston.
Lately, I’ve been questioning the use of the second person point of view in fiction. The you pronoun features prominently in my collection, but as I work on what I hope will be the manuscript’s final story, I’m finding myself overly conscious about choosing you over I or he. I keep stopping to ask, “Is this POV earned?”
I’ve long resisted the idea that using the second person requires more justification than other narrative strategies. If I interrogate my choice to use youover I, I’ll admit that on some level, it just feels more natural. When I wake for work after a late night of writing (or Netflix binging), and I glance sleepy-eyed into my bathroom mirror, I don’t say to myself, “I look like shit.” I say, “You look like shit.”
And I know exactly to whom I am speaking.
When I read novels written in the first-person—novels that haven’t troubled themselves with an invented occasion for my reading them—I sometimes wonder of the narrator, To whom is this story being told? What assumptions have the narrator made about the recipient of this story?
With third-person narrators, I might wonder, Who is telling me this? Is that you, God?
In second person narration, when you stands in for I—that is, when readers or secondary characters aren’t being addressed—we understand that our protagonist is both narrator and narratee; we are privy to a telling or retelling of a story handed off to, and received by, a psyche fractured by the passage of time and/ or an altered understanding of events. This fracture, I would argue, more similarly reflects how we experience the world: Subject meets stimuli and interprets then reinterprets to create narrative; we tell ourselves the story of what is happening to us as it is happening, and many times afterward. Similarly, our second person protagonist exists both within the story’s events and in the consciousness that orders and reorders the events to create meaning.
For those of us who exist outside of the dominant culture, this experience of psychic fracture is particularly salient. As a person of color and a first-generation American, I am tasked with mastering my own cultural references and white America’s. To succeed within the larger culture, to some extent, I must cultivate a dual consciousness that often sets me at odds with myself, as I view myself through the lens of the other. The second person POV uniquely allows a character reflection through the lens of a removed self, the distance created by you implying a second consciousness.
Perhaps third person feels too authoritative to me right now because my reality is constantly in flux. Perhaps first suggests singularity, and even in the plural gestures to a cohesion that I just can’t identify with. Because, even now, the voice in the back of my head is telling me, “Shut up and write your story.”
Jonathan Escoffery is the winner of the 2016 Waasnode Fiction Prize, a 2017 Somerville Arts Council Artist Fellowship, the 2017 Ivan Gold Fellowship from The Writers' Room of Boston, and a 2017 Kimbilio Fiction Fellowship. He earned his MFA in Fiction from the University of Minnesota where he was a DOVE Fellow, an Anderson Center Fellow, and the Fiction Editor at Dislocate. He is currently the Writer-in-Residence at Wellspring House artist retreat in Western MA. He has taught Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota, UMass Boston, the Red Wing Youth Correctional Facility, Roxbury Open Studios, and at GrubStreet. Jonathan's writing has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Prairie Schooner, The Caribbean Writer, Passages North, Salt Hill Journal, Solstice, Pangyrus, and elsewhere. For about Jonathan, visit his website or check him out on Twitter. Make sure you sign up for Jonathan's free workshop, Misundertood: Inverting the Workshop Model, on June 17th or his upcoming class at Grub HQ, Publishing Your Work: Strategies to Maximize Success on Your Submission.
Jonathan Escoffery is the author of If I Survive You, a collection of humorous and harrowing linked stories following a Jamaican-American family as they seek stability upon moving to Miami, navigating cultural dislocation, tenuous family ties, and the many, conflicting meanings of Black American identity, forthcoming fall 2022 from MCD/ FSG, as well as the forthcoming novel, Play Stone Kill Bird. He is the winner of the 2020 Plimpton Prize for Fiction, the 2020 ASME Award for Fiction, and a 2020 National Endowment for the Arts Literature fellowship. His writing has appeared in The Paris Review, American Short Fiction, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, ZYZZYVA, Pleiades, AGNI, The Best American Magazine Writing 2020, and elsewhere. Jonathan earned his MFA in Fiction from the University of Minnesota and attends the University of Southern California’s Ph.D. in Creative Writing and Literature Program as a Provost Fellow. He is a 2021-2023 Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. For a full listing of his publications and projects, please visit jonathanescoffery.comSee other articles by Jonathan Escoffery