in his art of fiction interview with the paris review, kenzaburo oe says:
i've cultivated the first-person style as opposed to the third person. it's a problem. a really good novelist is able to write in the third person, but i have never been able to write well in the third person. in that sense, i am an amateur novelist. though i have written in the third person in the past, the character has always somehow resembled himself. the reason is that only through the first person have i been able to pinpoint the reality of my inferiority.
in an interview [also] with the paris review, rachel kushner says:
i deliberated in a tortured and endless way over what the voice was going to be, whether it was going to be first or third person. the first year I was writing this book I hadn’t decided. i would go to friends’ readings and raise my hand at the end and ask, why did you choose to tell the story in third person? and people would look at me like, why would you ask such a basic question? but to me these basic questions must be asked and answered for every single book.
at this point in my life, i’m not that interested in third person. there’s a certain falsity when a character is given a full name and a set of characteristics and can be seen from outside. to me it speaks of a kind of realism whose artifice I have a hard time shaking, as a writer, in order to get inside what i am doing and imagine it fully.
one of jonathan franzen's 10 rules for writing as posted in the guardian is:
write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.
ishiguro, in talking about his recent novel, the buried giant (knopf, 2015), told the huffington post:
i did something i've been wanting to do for at least 15 years, which was to write a novel about that same question -- when is it better to remember, when is it better to forget -- but applied on a larger scale, to society, to a nation, to a community. i couldn't keep it as a first-personal narrative. this book wouldn't be appropriate as something that stays within the confines of just one mind. i had to somehow have a way of portraying a kind of a community as a crucial point of its development.
i'm curious about writers and voice, why they choose to write in the voices they do, and it's even more curious to me when i read books and find myself in opposition to the authors' intention/thoughts re: voice. like, for instance, i've never been that keen on kushner's first-person, whether in telex from cuba (scribner, 2008) or the flamethrowers (scribner, 2013) -- i loved her third-person in telex (which uses both first- and third-person) because i found it so much richer and vibrant, whereas i found the first-person in the flamethrowers to be rather flat, distancing, and impersonal, which made for an apathetic reading experience. while i didn't necessarily disagree with what she was saying about the kind of falsity of the third-person, i found that interview a little surprising, particularly because i couldn't ever quite get a grasp of who reno (the narrator of the flamethrowers) really was, in the frustrating way of a character (and, in connection, a first-person voice) who has not been fully inhabited.
the quote from ishiguro about the buried giant makes me wonder if the book would have fared better if written in the plural "we." now that i'm thinking about it, i really wish ishiguro had gone for the plural first-person because his singular first-person is extraordinary -- how much more (or how much differently) could he do with the plural? i thought the lack of first-person actually did the buried giant a disservice because the third-person lost all the nuanced, complicated richness of ishiguro's first-person, and the third-person felt so scattered and superficial, the questions of memory given a very literal, very flat study.
also, speaking about authors trying out different voices, i am massively curious about franzen's purity (FSG, 2015, forthcoming) because apparently part of it is written in first-person, which [i'm pretty sure] franzen has never done before. or, well, at least, the part he read at colgate university last autumn was in the first-person, though i suppose we'll see if it were edited out -- which i hope it wasn't because i really liked what he read -- given how natural franzen's dialogue reads, i wasn't surprised that his first-person would read with such ease as well.
that said, though -- i've said for a while that i think there are many authors who are good at first-person but very few who are great at it (ishiguro being one of the first authors who pop immediately to mind as one who is great), so i tend to be wary of them. i also wonder if i'm more critical with first-person voices? because i find that a weak first-person voice can seriously affect my engagement with the book -- and, maybe given my appreciation for great first-person, i'm not quite sure i agree with oe that a good novelist has to be good in third-person. give me the novelists who only write in first-person and do so brilliantly! but also give me the novelists who only write in third-person and do so brilliantly! and the novelists who do all the voices brilliantly! just give me all the brilliant writing!
a friend of mine has been developing a site-specific art called "graft art," in which art is created for an apartment and grafted into the space, so the apartment itself informs the piece. it's obvious to see how visual or performance art might be used in such ways, but, as a writer, it made me think how writing and places work, how you might create a piece of writing that is built upon and grafted into a specific space.
in some ways, writing and place integrate seamlessly because setting is a big part of writing. stories are situated somewhere, take place somewhere, and, sometimes, place largely informs a story, becomes a character almost, like how 1970s new york city and italy are integral parts of kushner's the flamethrowers or how the natural wildness of florida becomes area x in jeff vandermeer's area x (FSG, 2014). it also isn't uncommon for writers to inhabit a specific space over their bodies of work, like paul auster's new york or marilynne robinson's [fictional] gilead, so i wonder if writing isn't naturally an act of creating art in places, of weaving art into the metaphorical fabric of spaces, because we are the places we come from or, even, the places we long for. we write about the places that capture us; we revisit and recreate the homes we've lived in, the streets we've walked, the offices we've worked in; and we reinvent them in some ways, try to be faithful to life in others -- and it isn't that other art forms can't or don't do similarly, but, like i said, stories are situated somewhere, take place somewhere, and it's hard to separate that from writing.
but, then, i wonder how this would work physically -- how would you take a story and physically integrate it into a space? other than the obvious ways of prints or wallpaper or curated shelves and tables. it makes me think even of the title of my blog (and the story i wrote with the same title) because "the toilet papers" comes from the idea of reading on the toilet, which is a specific place in the home that serves a specific purpose. i know i'm not the only one who reads on the toilet; people keep magazines, papers, books in bathrooms to be read during toilet time; but we don't read for long periods of time on the toilet, hence the format of the story (a series of notes written from one lover to the other) and the title of this site (maybe a blog post is the perfect length for toilet time!).
today is the last monday of april, which makes this the last poem. today's part of a poem comes again from ted hughes' birthday letters (FSG, 1998), this time from "the lodger" (125).
efforts to make my whole
body a conduit of beethoven,
to reconduct that music through my aorta
so he could run me clean and unconstrained
and release me. i could not reach the music.
all the music told me
was that i was a reject, belonged no longer
in the intact, creating, resounding realm
where music poured. i was already a discard,
my momentum merely the inertias
of what i had been, while i disintegrated.
i was already posthumous.