The Almighty I

First person perspective has changed a lot over the years. When I was in high school, I read a lot of very old books. For a while, I was on a big Edgar Allen Poe kick. My English teacher pounced on this and had me do all kinds of coursework on it. I re-wrote The Cask of Amontillado from Fortunato’s point of view. And she found a college textbook with Poe assignments and articles. (or whatever you’d call them)

In one of the latter, I remember reading an interesting observation on Poe’s usage of first person. The viewpoint character is rather a mystery. A conduit rather than even a storyteller. It could be supposed that it is meant to literally be Poe, but when information is given, it is clear that this is a fictional character.

There are no mirror-aided scenes of clichéd description. No condescending lectures on how to pronounce the viewpoint character’s name, or constant repetitions/corrections of his nickname and its origin. At times, so little focus on self that the effect is eerie. Here is a person speaking to the reader as if in confidence, but we never know his name or much of anything else about him.

Contrast that with the general usage of first person now, especially by inexperienced writers and those who write YA novels. There is a heavy focus on self. The concept of the unreliable narrator is either uncommon, misunderstood, or mishandled. Countless young ladies must detail their wardrobes and hairstyles for us, while desperately trying to win our sympathy with various tactics.

It’s all gotten so self-absorbed and emotional.

Maybe it’s just the difference in who the characters are. Poe’s “Almighty I” as the article I read called it, was a grown man with dark spots in his past or present. The new crop of “I”s tend to be young and are often female. But does that really explain why they are more “MeMeMe”s than “I”s?

Perhaps it’s culture. Self-examination and self-love could be said to be at all-time highs these days. With Twitter, blogs, Youtube, and countless other ways to aggrandise oneself into that glow of meaningless attention that people value so much, of course all the fictional characters are similarly obsessed with the spotlight.

I think what I mean to say with all this is that I don’t blame anyone who puts down a novel if it’s written in first person.


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