Why Writing Second Person POV Appeals To Marginalized Writers

From SFWA:

You open the SFWA Bulletin to start reading an article about second person point of view (POV), and immediately you’re put off. You didn’t expect the article itself to use this POV, since most articles don’t. What a cheap gimmick, you think. You wonder whether you should stop reading at this point, because you’ve been told how you feel and what you expected in the span of a few sentences, and you’re growing increasingly uncomfortable—angry, even—with these assumptions made by the writer. She doesn’t know you! Why is she trying to put words in your mouth and thoughts in your head? Why is she presuming to control your actions?

But seriously, how did that make you feel?

Of all the points of view available to writers when choosing how to tell a story, second person seems to be the most maligned. Common objections include that it’s confusing, unsettling, and weird, that it breaks suspension of disbelief and forces the reader out of the story rather than drawing them in. Dig deeper and you may hear that it’s more than discomfiting, it’s downright presumptuous, even aggressive. The writer is forcing you to think or feel a certain way, crafting a costume and then jamming you, an innocent voyeur, inside, tying you up with strings and putting you on a stage to perform the story like a puppet rather than allowing you the comfort and distance of being in the audience.

In recent conversations about this topic, an interesting trend emerged: many marginalized writers, especially BIPOC ones, expressed that they had written second person POV stories and found the form quite natural, even desirable for their specific purposes. Why might that be, and what are those purposes precisely? As with most other aspects of society, much of this is rooted in how marginalized folks are already expected to adjust our needs and wants to what’s available, while those in the perceived “mainstream” expect what’s available to be created with their needs and desires already in mind.

. . . .

For many marginalized folks, as readers we often experience fiction as a window rather than a mirror. We are more likely to be accustomed to dealing with discomfort or a lack of familiarity related to the characters we’re reading about, their lives and thoughts and choices and so on. The mirrors that do exist may be flawed, warped like carnival glass, reflecting not merely an alternate form of a particular identity, but one that is rendered so imperfectly, regardless of intent, that its subject is barely recognizable. Many of us have become reconciled to the fact that fiction with experiential reality is a form of labor that becomes natural with time and repetition, by necessity. Without that skill, it’s challenging to, for example, navigate situations like basic educational systems and standardized testing due to their use of presumed “universal” touchstones that are only really “universal” to a select group.

Link to the rest at SFWA

17 thoughts on “Why Writing Second Person POV Appeals To Marginalized Writers”

  1. So. Reading a marginalized person’s prose in 2nd person serves us right? Well, only if they can make us do it.

    It’s a very woke perspective. Personally, I’d rather seduce my readers if I can, and certainly entertain them. Otherwise, why should they bother?

    That’s the SFWA for you… I was so proud when I first qualified for membership as an indie, despite their hostility to independent thought/approval. Every year I reconsider whether or not I should still nominally support the primary “union” for my genre (which I feel I really ought to do) even though I despise everything they’ve stood for in the last several years. If they didn’t have a handful of useful backoffice activities (Writer Beware, estate advice), the decision would have made itself.

    They were bad enough before, but they broke completely at the Sad Puppies/Hugo event, and I don’t expect them to improve for a generation, if ever. I await with eagerness the arrival of a competitive organization welcoming to everyone (variety of thought is so much more important than variety of superficial skin color/sexual preferences).

      • It took them a long time to get there. My 1st indie SFF book was published in 2012 (I had 4 out by 2014) and I was by no means the 1st indie author trying to join. The SFWA were fairly late to the party, and they held their noses sneering the whole time.

        The status there (as in other late-to-indie orgs) has always been on being accepted, approved, and validated by publishers (not by readers). (Though for the SFWA, publisher Baen has always been a thorn in their side — many award nominees, and authors on all sides of all spectrums.)

        • As far as I’m concerned, BAEN is the mainstream of modern tradpub SF. You can see what folks are buying by their mix of subgenres. They seem to have a good handle on the pulse of the market, probably because of their BAR community.
          (Yeah, right; a tradpub that does market research. Who knew.)

          They do humor, combat, superheroes, high fantasy, space opera, space adventure, alternate history, urban fantasy (less of that lately), even technothrillers and spy stuff. Anybody interested in writing to market or just knowing what is selling could do worse than sample their wares.

          And guess what they don’t do? Yup: woke.
          First, third, or second person. They understand their BUSINESS is entertainment, not ideology. Their stock in trade is ESCAPISM!!
          The last thing the customers want is more of the outside politics.

          On those lines, I’ll just point this out from PEW RESEARCH (yes, there’s that pesky word again):

          https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2021/11/09/beyond-red-vs-blue-the-political-typology-2/

          Of relevance here is that the audience the OP addresses is the SF writing slice of the progressive sector of the 6% of the general population. A niche in a niche.

          I don’t think there are going to be many readers interested in SF among that crowd. Not going by their traditional misrepresentations of the field.

          To see the SFWA focusing on that instead of warning dreamers about predatory agents and publishers, about licensing pitfalls, paid review scams, bad writing practices, etc, only highlights the irrelevancy that it’s become.

          • Yep — I fully endorse Baen as the best (only) SFF trad publisher.

            You can buy from them directly, including ebooks, though of course they are all over Amazon, too. But if you buy from Baen, you will find bundles, freebies, and all sorts of enticements which are not available on Amazon.

            Baen is really the standard for SFF. Tor, which gets all the outsider fame for SFF publishing, puts out woke and downright unreadable books, by and large. They actively orchestrate much of the award controversies. And, yes, Tor is the environment of choice for the OP’s niche readers.

            • And just in time for these comments, here are some highlights from today’s SFWA email about the accomplishments of the resigning blog editor.

              Some of the essays Clark is most proud of having brought to the SFWA Blog over the past year:

              SFF Writing for White Goblins: Decolonising your Defaults – Nick Wood and Isiah Lavender III use the Maori description of colonizers as “white goblins” as a launching point to discuss how writers can move away from the assumption of whiteness as default in their own minds and work.

              What Communities Can Do – Aigner Loren Wilson talks about the importance of finding the right communities for her own needs as a creator, and provides a descriptive list of several great SFFH communities, including our own, SFWA.

              So, you think your publication is working to advance equity in SFF? – Sabrina Vourvoulias encourages publishing organizations to stop limiting diversity and equity initiatives (DEI) to content. Consider expanding DEIs to procedures and staffing, such as submission processes, editorial staff makeup, and data analysis.

  2. As with most other aspects of society, much of this is rooted in how marginalized folks are already expected to adjust our needs and wants to what’s available, while those in the perceived “mainstream” expect what’s available to be created with their needs and desires already in mind.

    I doubt the mainstream cares what marginalized writers do. How are they supposed to know the author is marginalized? People in the mainstream don’t expect anything. They just choose what they like. Marginalized people do the same. They all know there are lots of books they don’t like, just like there are lots of shoes they don’t like. Buy what you like.

    God Bless the free market, for it offers something for everyone.

  3. Whether it falls into the novel or novella category I’ve never been quite sure, but Bright Lights, Big City remains one of my favorite works of fiction. The second person perspective seems, to me at any rate, to perfectly capture the decline and collapse of the unnamed narrator. The movie starring Michael J. Fox is pretty good as well.

    I don’t know if that establishes my second person bona fides or not, but it will have to do . Anyhoo, the tone the author of the piece takes is ridiculous. She seems to be thinking readers will embrace the second person perspective as some sort of penance for unnamed and unknowable sins, and trudge forever forward on some road to an unreachable Canossa, spoonfed a tedious diet of “You did this,” “You did that,” and so on. Who on earth wants to read such prose, never mind as genre fiction? I’m honestly mystified.

  4. Second person is commonly used in Table Top Games, like Dungeons & Dragons. It is awkward to read even when done well. When the writer is unskilled it’s enough to give one a shrieking headache.

    If the writer is skilled enough, they can make anything readable. It’s what makes reading so interesting. However, one sees, every day, beginning writers biting off vastly more than they can chew.

    The trouble one might have with the OP is that it sounds like a guilt trip. “Marginal Writers find it natural to write in 2nd person.” The implication is that one is a bigot if one does not embrace the work presented. So if one notices the flaws in the grammar, syntax, and punctuation, and remarks that the writer could have created a stronger work in 3rd person, one is a bigot.

    Many amateur writers find it natural to write in 1st person. Some even in 1st person present tense. That doesn’t mean they write it WELL. It might mean that they have skill set that is limited to SELF and NOW.

    The Craft of Writing is about skill, mechanics, nuance and voice.

  5. I homeschooled my daughter. When she went to college and took a Sociology class she was not happy with an assignment that I have since understood to be fairly common. She was supposed to go out in public and do something that went against norms. She finally said, “Mom, that’s been my whole life.” There are a lot of ways that people can be “marginalized”, whatever that means. I think fiction has always been more of a window than a mirror, for many, many people. The author should try Dante.

    • If that had been my assignment the many years ago when I took Sociology 101, the hand would have instantly gone up: “Which norms, Professor? My norms? My parents’ norms? Your norms? Define, please…”

  6. I tried writing a few stories in the 2nd and I found it to be very weird. Not just because I was switching between 3rd for the main and 2nd for the in-between chapters, but the further along I went, the more I got turned off. I think my personal pet peeve of being talked down to by the narrator ultimate bled through too much and it ultimately became just another abandoned manuscript of a failed concept.

    • Talking down is the reason why the OP pushes second person.
      It makes the soapbox more noticeable.
      Why use subtlety when a sledgehammer is handy?
      Less work preaching that way.

  7. Maybe it’s just my age or nationality but I find this modern trend to refer to people as “folks” as deeply off-putting; I just can’t work out whether to call it patronising or condescending.

    Not being a writer I have no reason to care much about the SFWA – a long time ago I used to look at the Nebula results, but not lately – but it does not appear to me that any writers’ organisation has achieved much of worth in what should really matter to them, namely protecting writers from legal exploitation by agents and publishers. I guess that they simply lack the power/political influence to limit the degree to which agents work without regulation and publishers overly extend their control of the authors IP. Having said that, the SFWA does do some good things with “Writers Beware” and “Disney Must Pay”, though in the latter case they lack the financial clout to do more than publicise Disney’s greed and mendacity.

    • On this side of the pond “folks” isn’t new.
      Is it spreading your way?

      https://www.thefreedictionary.com/folks#:~:text=Folk%20and%20folks%20are%20sometimes%20used%20to%20refer,particular%20characteristic.%20Country%20folk%20are%20a%20suspicious%20lot.
      ——–
      folk – folks
      Folk and folks are sometimes used to refer to particular groups of people. Both these words are plural nouns. You always use a plural form of a verb with them.

      1. ‘folk’
      – Folk is sometimes used with a modifier to refer to all the people who have a particular characteristic.

      “Country folk are a suspicious lot.”
      “She was like all the old folk, she did everything in strict rotation.”
      However, this is not a common use. You usually say country people or old people, rather than ‘country folk’ or ‘old folk’.

      2. ‘folks’
      – Your folks are your close family, especially your mother and father. This usage is more common in American English than in British English.

      “I don’t even have time to write letters to my folks.”
      “Vera’s visiting her folks up in Paducah.”

      – Some people use folks when addressing a group of people in an informal way. This use is more common in American English than in British English.

      “That’s all for tonight, folks.”
      “They saw me drive out of town taking you folks up to McCaslin.”
      ——-

      “Folks comes from middle english” according to The American Heritage Dictionary.

      It is commonly used on this side of the pond by those that think “people” can be taken as condescending. 😀
      As in: *those* people are…

      What’s that bit about “…separated by a common language?”

  8. I have never actually seen any discussion of 2nd person point of view that makes any sense. I have not read any story that purports to be using 2nd person to actually be 2nd person, other than “Pick your own path” games. Even with the games, there is a narrator telling “you” what you do and see.

    – Using the word “you” does not make something 2nd person.

    There is Rule 34 by Charles Stross as example. Only at the end is it revealed that the AI(Athena) is describing what happened. When I read the story again, I keep in mind who is telling the story, and that changes everything,

    Having a first person narrator telling what “you” did can be very powerful if you establish that right from the start.

    – A son telling his Father what “you” did that shaped the son’s life.

    – A Father telling a son how “you” made him proud.

    – A soldier speaking a eulogy, how every single man who was stuck on that beach is alive because “you” took out the enemy position that was pinning us down.

    – A robot speaking to the departed humans and how “you” left us a world where we are free to grow into our own future.

    – A camp survivor speaking to Hitler saying how “you” murdered millions before “you” killed yourself.

    Done wrong, the way the OP did, you realize that it is actually a first person viewpoint telling you, from the outside what “you” think and feel.

    – That never turns out well.

    Because who are “you” really talking about. Not the reader, they are not the “you” in question.

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