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Me, Myself, and I–With A Prologue

with 6 comments

Okay, I’ve had virtually no sleep, which is doing just what you’d expect it to do to me.  I’m way too old for  this.

But–something came up at the writer’s conference that I haven’t run into in a couple of years, and I still do not know what to make of it.

There are a lot of readers out there who will not read fiction written in the first person.  And I do mean a lot of them, so many that the category romance lines will not accept manuscripts in the first person.  It’s considered to be even more of a turn off for readers than a red headed hero.

No, I don’t get that one, either.

There are also a lot of readers who don’t read prologues.  Either they’ll not bother with a book with a prologue, or they’ll just skip it and start reading after it.

For me, this makes no sense, because not only do all my books have prologues–well, the Gregor series, anyway–but the prologue is where the murder takes place.  Nine times out of ten, all the clues you need to figure out the mystery are in the prologue, too, although I bring them out again and emphasize them later.

But–why would people want to restrict themselves this way?  First person narratiion is hardly an exotic literary device, and it has the virtue of posing absolutely no problem for the kind of people I complain about sometimes, the ones who can’t understand third person multiple viewpoint.  And yes, there’s also first person multiple viewpoint, but that’s not what I’m discussing here.

I’m put off by a lot of things in novels, but none of them is a broad category like first person narration or even books with prologues.  Bad writing bothers me, as does heavy handed lecturing from any side of the ideological spectrum.  Books about sports bore me, unless they’re written by John Logue (or it’s Bill’s Five O’Clock Lighting, but that doesn’t count, really, because I still read everything Bill wrote.  It always sounds like him.)

Even what looks like a dislike of a broad category tends not to be–I don’t like category romance largely because it is almost always badly written, and because it tends to be heavily (and repetitively formulaic), but I don’t like those things in any fiction, and I can read romance if it’s done well and with some originality.  And I’d try.

But–first person?  Really?  Speaking strictly as a writer, first person has its advantages and disadvantages–I always thought the identification with the reader came more easily, but that there wasn’t as much scope to develop other characters.  My first published novel was in first person, and that’s because it’s also much easier to write a novel in first person if you’ve never written a novel before.

But there we go, and I’m too tired to complain about the book I’m reading.

I think I’ll go home, have lunch and take a nap.

Written by janeh

April 16th, 2010 at 10:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

6 Responses to 'Me, Myself, and I–With A Prologue'

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  1. Until you mentioned it, I’d never heard of people disliking books because they’re written in the first person. What difference would it make? It wouldn’t even prevent the author from having the narrator be unreliable, or even the murderer – and you can’t assume that the narrator will survive to live happily ever after, like a movie heroine, because of that well-worn trick of adding a postscript beginning “The preceding manuscript was found by the body of the late Jane Smith by members of the Jones expedition….”

    I dislike some categories, but I’ll give almost anything a try. And a lot of my ‘dislikes’ are really my magpie personality asserting itself – I’ll read almost only cozies for a while; then go off them for a few years, maybe start dipping into them again, and so on for all kinds of categories.


    16 Apr 10 at 11:50 am

  2. Part of the first-person dislike may come from the fact that in a first-person narrative, the “voice” of the protagonist may be too strong to allow a reader to take over the story and put themselves into it. Speaking for myself, with many stories, that’s a major attraction, that I can imagine myself as one or more characters of the work.

    A really strong first-person voice, though, would prevent that. Third person may give more scope for that, oddly enough. On the other hand, where the character is really likeable, I get along just fine with first-person. When the character is creepy, serial-killer or psychotic, first-person becomes far too disturbing. Or when the character is clueless and stupid, of the “don’t go in there!” school of storytelling, then I just get angry.

    But I would never just categorically not read a particular type of fiction or author unless I’d tried it.

    The prologue thing puzzles me, though. Unless you’re trying to avoid the “if only I’d known” school of foreshadowing, which does piss me off. If you think that’s the purpose of a prologue, well, maybe. But I gotta wonder about people who have all these rules for themselves and the authors they read. Where’s the flexibility and the scope for creativity?

    My big puzzlement is people who read the last page first. Huh? Way to spoil the whole thing. I’ve been known to hold my hand over the right-hand page so my eyes won’t flash over and reveal details of the exciting scene I’m reading on the left page. I do not want those spoilers!


    16 Apr 10 at 12:23 pm

  3. In the ’70s when I was a grad student in English, fiction writing instructors disparaged first person point of view as too limited, too akin to personal memoir, and altogether inferior to third person limited–the POV recommended to MFA students. Most of the fiction I wrote then and continue to write is in first person. Huckleberry Finn, Lolita, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Ponder Heart, and To Kill a Mockingbird: excellent examples for this writer.

    I never encountered objection to prologues. Probably another bit of fallout from creative writing programs.


    16 Apr 10 at 3:27 pm

  4. Editors and publishers, like their cousins in the movie industry, navigate with an amazing collection of folk belief and outright superstition. You have to pay some attention to them, because they sign checks, but you don’t have to give them any credence.

    The movie people “knew” sound was at best a novelty. They “knew” the 1939 STAGECOACH was a loser, because the day of the big-budget western was past, and that STAR WARS was another loser, because the audience for SF was too small to pay for the special effects.

    Publishers “knew” there was no market for hardcover SF, then they “knew” the market topped out at 10,000 copies. They “knew” Tolkien was a money-loser from the day Allen & Unwin received the manscript. (Ought I to mention the publisher who sold Edgar Rice Burroughs back the rights to PRINCESS OF MARS, with the plates, for $500? It’s still in print.)

    And, sadly, the moguls may be the only people concerned with the facts of popularity. Writers and instructors are–mostly–only really concerned with what the nice people with money believe is true.

    As a general rule, “people won’t watch X” means the last two examples didn’t go well. When someone tells you “people won’t read X” they usually don’t have even that much to go on. Did anyone suggest a way of determining what percentage of readers read prologues, or describe a method by which he had come to the conclusion that they don’t? I didn’t think so.

    As for first-person romance, does “Reader, I married him” ring any bells? Not to mention the entire output of Mary Stewart. I make about 5% of my fiction holdings first-person. If I cared for noir, it would be substantially higher.
    Wait. Five years or so down the road, some desperate publisher will actually print a well-written first person romance, and do so well that publishers will push first person instead of discourage it.

    Which is not to say there are no rules. There are things you have to do or not do for a story to hang together properly, and they mostly haven’t changed from Homer’s day. But the people who say readers won’t buy a particular genre or a particular writing style or a hero (or heroine) of a particular appearance, even if the story is well written in other respects, ought to buy Powerball tickets instead of manuscripts.

    The redhead bit is actually more serious. The book you’re looking for is Marion Roach THE ROOTS OF DESIRE: THE MYTH, MEANING AND SEXUAL POWER OF RED HAIR. Read it yourself. If I discussed it, I’d be beaten like a red-haired stepchild.

    I ran my own shelves, and could only agree: the male redhead is not the hero, but the hero’s best friend. Exceptions are few, and none off-hand in romance. There seems to be a general policy in romance that the hero should be darker than the heroine, and in some ways of looking at such matters, redheads are lighter even than blonds. (Have you ever seen a tannable redhead?)
    But if the female redhead is perhaps a tad overrepresented in romance, over in fantasy and SF you’d swear the gene was dominant. There is a belief in the field that they’re all “descended” from Robert Heinlein’s second wife, Virginia, but I think she just reinforced the trend. Three of the most spectacular examples predate her.

    But my sample could be biased. Heaven knows I am.


    16 Apr 10 at 6:01 pm

  5. The first thing I thought of when Jane said people don’t like first person books was Mary Renault and “The King Must Die.” Enough said!


    17 Apr 10 at 12:14 am

  6. If I had a brain, I’d be dangerous. Try Meggin/Meg Cabot, THE BOY NEXT DOOR (2002) BOY MEETS GIRL (2004) and EVERY BOY’S GOT ONE (2005.) There’s at least one short story, too. They’re all epistolaries–the first I’ve seen in many years–which means they’re first person–indeed, multiple first person–throughout. The novels are stand-alones, though they have an overlapping set of characters. I don’t think the nice people at Avon went on buying and printing them because they couldn’t bear to hurt Cabot’s feelings.

    My advice to writers? Tell an interesting story. Don’t make it more difficult to read than the nature of the story requires. Where there are facts involved–historical, geographic, scientific or whatever–try to get them right. That won’t fill a workshop, but it doesn’t perpetuate any urban myths, either.


    17 Apr 10 at 9:25 pm

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