Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The First Person Narrative Problem

I've known for a while now that I don't like first person narratives, I was just having trouble accepting it. Logically I can find no reason not to like them, so I tried to force my enjoyment. I thought if I just made myself read some FPNs, I'd get over my issue and would have even more books to love. So I gave it a go, bit back the inevitable groan upon discovering a book was an FPN, and put up a valiant fight.

I lost.

So in an effort to determine exactly what my dislike is stemming from, I've been pondering the issue of late. And, by golly, I think I've got it figured out.

This all came to a head recently when I happened to read three FPNs in a row. In the past, my FPN reads had big gaps between them filled with bunches of third person novels, so I'd never before noticed differences between my FPN reading experiences. It wasn't until I read these three stories back-to-back that I realized it wasn't as simple as disliking the FPN style across the board. In fact, I've discovered that I actually do enjoy FPNs depending on certain factors.

Tense: Present vs. Past
For me at least, present tense has a sense of immediacy to it -- this is happening right now -- whereas past tense reads more like storytelling -- this has all happened already, and the narrator is telling you the story. Logic tells me that I should enjoy present tense more because the narrative style should make for more compelling reading. But logic fails me in this case: I just don't like present tense. I prefer the storytelling feeling I get with past tense, and more often than not, present tense just irritates the hell out of me. I can't really explain it; I just don't like it.

Genre: Romance vs. Everything Else
But tense isn't the only problem I have with FPNs. A lot of it boils down to which genre the book is in. As I've been pondering my apparent dislike of all books first person, I realized that there are a number of books that I've really liked that are FPNs. Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, and Megan Hart's Tempted are just a few of the books written in FPN (past tense) that I've really enjoyed. And they all have one thing in common: they're not romances.

Thinking back over the FPNs I've read, I realized that when I'm faced with an FPN in a genre other than romance, I don't care about the narrative style. It's only when it comes to romances that my dislike for FPN rears its ugly head. I finally recognized that my preference is all tied up in whose story is being told. For me, a romance is always the story of two people, and I want to know what's going on in both of their heads. I get enough of having just one person's POV (mine) in real life romance, so fiction romances provide a gratifying opportunity to know what both the main characters are thinking and feeling. I love that. When it comes to mysteries, women's fiction, or any other genre for that matter, I view it as one person's story, so FPN works for me.

Me: Present Me vs. Past Me
What about those few FPN present tense romances that I've read and enjoyed? What about Dancing Shoes and Honky-Tonk Blues by LuAnn McLane? Or Just One of the Guys by Kristan Higgins? I'll be honest: I liked them, but I didn't like them enough for it to make an impact on my dislike of the narrative style. I read them at a time when I was so hungry for romances of any kind that I was eating up any and every romance I could get my hands on. But I've yet to read another Kristan Higgins, even though so many people rave about her, and every time I pick up a LuAnn McLane my reading experience includes an internal battle over the narrative style.

Nowadays I have a monstrous TBR pile that continues to grow every week, and I also have less free time for reading. So basically I've become pickier about what I choose to spend that time reading. When I say "pickier" I don't mean to imply that FPN romances aren't as "good" as third-person romances. What I'm saying is that there are so many romances out there to choose from, and so little time with which to read them all, that I'm done trying to force myself to enjoy a narrative style that just doesn't work for me.

The positive side of all this is that I believe I've finally made peace with my dislike of the first person narrative style: I'm giving myself permission to not read them. I also think my future reading experiences will be all the more enjoyable for having a better understanding of when FPN can work for me. Does this mean I'll never again pick up a first person romance or first person narrative in the present tense? Not at all. (Although it remains unlikely.) It just means I'll stop forcing myself and let it come naturally.

What about you? Do you have a preference for first person or third person stories? Does past or present tense make a difference to you? Does genre impact your preference? Have your preferences changed over time?


Kristie (J) said...

I much prefer third person and for quite some time avoided all first person books. If I saw it was first person, that was it, I put it down. But then I started reading the Stephanie Plum books and really quite enjoyed them. And then came Linda Howard's To Die For and I adored Blair's voice. And then following TDF, I was equally crazy about Drop Dead Gorgeous. So that really opened the gates and I was now open to reading them. But Lisa Kleypas first two books, Sugar Daddy and Blue Eyed Devil really convinced me that I CAN have keepers that are first person.
The one thing I do miss though is the hero's 'voice'. But if the author is a very talented one, like both Linda Howard and Lisa Kleypas, then we still get quite a look into the hero anyway.
But first person, present tense. That one is a lot harder for me to warm up to.

AAR Rachel said...

I quite like 1st person generally. I also like 3rd pretty well, and have read some really good books with the omniscient POV lately (esp. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak). I think it's how convincingly original the author makes each character's voice and whether that voice is pleasant. With 1st person, you've got to be able to tolerate the main protagonist, because you're in her mind ALL the time.

I know a lot of readers don't like 1st, but I guess that's not my problem. I've got a real grudge against head-hopping and at least with 1st person, you don't have to worry about that. I really don't care for 1st person multiple narrators, though, mostly because the voices wind up being not so convincing in their differences. I refer to these as the Four Friends books because they always seem to be about four friends who are women and one of them is dying of breast cancer while they other three are reacting and learning to appreciate life more.

Either that or they share the same one pair of jeans.

Katie Mack said...

Kristie - I have Sugar Daddy in my TBR (bought it before I knew it was first person), and since I already own it I'll probably read it one day. Maybe.

Rachel - LOL. Been reading much chick lit lately?

Not liking the narrator has been a problem with FPNs in the past for me -- MaryJanice Davidson's Undead series, for example. I couldn't stand the heroine, and just wanted out of her vain/spoiled head.

I just wish I did like first person romances, because then I'm sure I could really get into Kristan Higgins' books, among others.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Katie Mack. First person narrative is too narrow, like trying to see an entire field through a pinhole, especially if the narrator is one of the central characters. By its nature, fpn is both incomplete and too centralized; the constant repetition of first person pronouns tires the ear just as the monologues of the egotistical do.