On Second Person

Second person is a strange tense, but I like it. It has a forbidden air. The strictest teachers seem to feel that anything but third person has a tinge of the naughty. In an essay in the June 2008 issue of The Believer, Zadie Smith wrote about trying to settle on a tense:

Because I am an English novelist enslaved to an ancient tradition, with each novel I have ended up exactly where I began: third person, past tense. But I spend months switching back and forth.

Still, the tradition Smith describes has loosened up a great deal, and most people accept first person just fine. It’s only tenses like second person and first person plural that shake people up. I’ve been thinking about what makes a story right for second person, and have noticed a sort of second person subgenre. I’ve already referred briefly to one story in this group: Laura Madeline Wiseman’s “How to Measure Your Breast Size.” Tonight, I discovered another in The Pedestal Magazine: Paul Graham’s “Porn: A Memoir.”

Both of these stories use the second person with an instructional tone, as if the author is explaining to you how to do something. For example, from Wiseman’s story:

2) Bandsize. Okay. Now that you have the first number, if the number is 33 or less, add 5. If it is above 33, add 3. This logic may not make sense to you, but take heart that you didn’t invent it. It’s a rule and like many rules (taxes due April fifteenth, liquor can’t be bought after two am, green lights mean go) they are arbitrary, but should be followed. Write this new number on the mirror. This is your bandsize (e.g., 32, 34, 36, etc.). Maybe you knew this number before, maybe you didn’t. Think about how many bras you’ve owned that have not been that number, especially all the sassy ones purchased for cuteness rather than fit. Feel a little guilty for punishing your breasts. Wallow in breast pity. Then move on. Clothes aren’t meant to be lessons, right. Except the training bra. Whatever was that bra training your breasts to do?

But as the reader gets more deeply into these stories, it becomes clear that the “you” isn’t really instructional. It’s more of the “you” that substitutes for an “I” in certain types of conversations. It’s used for statements like: “You know how sometimes you’re just angry at people who don’t deserve it.” But what I really mean is, “Sometimes, I’m mad at you when you don’t deserve it, and I’m sorry, but too afraid to say so.” It is a “you” that signifies a frightened “I,” and so contains a plea for identification, an upfront assumption that you and I participate in exactly the same sins. From Graham’s story:

Years of recreational behavior to the contrary, you nonetheless understand: the girls in the magazines, the pictures you continue to download onto your computer, you see in the movies you can now buy, are not real women. They are not even the idea of women. They are the idea of sex, of commerce. College teaches you this. College teaches you that your habits are tailing off in the direction of the abnormal. College makes you uneasy with yourself. You recognize that you are of two minds, two lives. The girls you know describe you to their friends and parents as a nice guy, a little shy, respectful. They aren’t wrong, quite.

It strikes me when I put these stories beside each other that each deals with an intimate subject. I am so relieved when I read these stories, since they tell me I’m not the only one who wanders confused through the strange landscape of sexuality. I think “you” is the right tense for that landscape. Writing on these subjects is not an “I.” Because of the sensitivity of it, it becomes a “you,” since I am so aware of the “you” that will read whatever I write (or, at least, the narrator of the story would be this way).

This type of “you” story is an “I” story in which the narrator pleads for connection to the reader, as well as understanding from her. The instructional tone is another aspect that emphasizes the universal qualities of whatever the narrator describes. I think it’s an interesting thing about English that “you” can become a special way of saying “I.”


5 responses to “On Second Person

  1. I’ve never had any particular desire to write in the second person. However, “if” I were ever to experiment, it wouldn’t be for an intimate subject, as above, because I think, Who am I to put my reader (a stranger) in this role? How do I know what they feel about this?
    I can see myself using it, though, to generate suspense – something more along the lines of “You are walking through a dark ravine. Bats circle overhead. You hear footsteps behind you. You turn around…” Well, that’s not the best, but you get the idea.
    But it still seems strange to me to use the second person in writing. Have you used it at all?
    (By the way, your blog is interesting. I’m linking to it.)

  2. Hello again,
    I’ve used second person, though before I had really thought about the reasons for doing so. My experiments with it were a series of flash fiction love stories, so they did have the confessional tone. It’s interesting that you mention generating suspense — my husband was pointing out that many people are familiar with second person from “choose your own adventure” books. In that case, the second person seems to function to draw the reader into the story.
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and for the link. I’ve been checking out your blog, too, and will return the favor.

  3. Still enjoying the blog, Erica. Enjoyed this thoughtful post especially because I recently published a second-person flash piece. In it, the narrator starts as “I,” then briefly moves to “they,” before settling on “you” – the point really is to have the narrator try to distance himself from his own situation by casting it on someone else. Don’t know if it works tremendously well, but I enjoyed writing it. Here’s the link if you’re interested:


    I’m really enjoying your short story reviews – keep up the great work.

  4. Thanks, Jason! I’ll check it out. (Sorry for my late reply, I’ve been traveling like crazy and mostly offline).

  5. Pingback: Second Person, Second Post « Words, Words, Words

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