We Need To Talk About First Person Plural
What stories by Ha Jin, Anthony Tognozzini, and Joshua Harmon can teach us about writing in the "we" voice
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Welcome to Read Like a Writer, a new series that examines a different element of the craft of fiction writing in each installment, using examples from the Recommended Reading archives. Each month, the editors of Recommended Reading—Halimah Marcus, Brandon Taylor, and Erin Bartnett—will select a few stories that illustrate a specific technique, style, or writing challenge such as how to write a story with only one character, use dramatic irony to create suspense, or write an ending that is surprising yet inevitable.
The Greek chorus—originally a performance of 50 men singing and dancing a dithyramb for Dionysus in the 6th century CE—evolved into a mostly passive group of tellers, offering moral and social commentary on the action of a play from the sidelines. Their role was to connect what was happening to larger historical themes, or other plays, but they generally did not engage directly with the actors. Overtime, the chorus has been adopted and adapted in contemporary fiction, sometimes being pushed right into the action of the short story.
John Gardner, author of The Art of Fiction, calls the first person plural point of view (the “we” voice) the “town POV.” Citing “A Rose for Emily” by William Faulkner, in which the townspeople of Jefferson, Mississippi investigate the life and death of a reclusive woman. Gardner suggests that these kinds of stories often foreground a secret. There’s something or someone “we” don’t know and “we” will get to the bottom of it. In this kind of story the choral POV is both the witness and the judge. The townspeople, speaking as one body, have their own motivations, and manipulate the story to their advantage. Because they are separated from the action of the story, their telling necessitates a lot of guesswork. This dynamic puts the writer in a tricky place: if the townspeople can only speculate on what is going on, how can the reader trust this narrative mob to tell the story?
They can’t really, and that’s part of the fun. Part of what builds tension in the first person plural story is that the reader can’t really trust the narrators—it’s an inherently uneasy perspective. A common pitfall in these stories occurs when the author constructs the “we” as an unknowable, omniscient teller. By making them anonymous, they absolve them of responsibility. Stories that pull off the narrative “we” shape the narrators as they would any other character. They engage with the limits of what the group can do and can know.
We the editors of Recommended Reading (Halimah, Brandon, and Erin) have selected three stories from the archives with first person plural narrators. From a pair of siblings, to a nosy neighborhood, to a production crew, they show, in different ways, how collective voices can create belonging and strength as well as alienation and conflict.
“Neighbors” by Anthony Tognazzini
As Halimah Marcus states in her intro, “Anthony Tognazzini’s ‘Neighbors’ is a story of watching. A group of undistinguished townspeople stalk a woman whose great sins are that she is unmarried and lives on the outskirts of town. Her base offenses are compounded by further peculiarities: Sheila does not work for a company (she freelances!), she has a cat (‘we are dog people’), and, according to the police, ‘she might be a lesbian.’”
One of the pleasures of a plural first person story in a story like “Neighbors” is that it creates an immediate tension. As in all stories of surveillance, there is a voyeur and there is the observed. What heightens this dynamic is that the voyeur is not one set of eyes, but an entire town of eyeballs tracking and judging the movements of one woman, an outcast. The story is relayed by this collective consciousness, giving it a sense of irony and menace because the reader has access to the blindspots and biases of the collective. We understand the information as relayed to be skewed, unreliable. This comes through via Tognazzini’s skillful use of tone and detail. For example, when the police confront the neighbors outside of Sheila’s house, they relay their plan and reflect, “We thought of ourselves as scientists, analyzing Sheila from a clinical distance, looking through her window as if through a microscope. We thought of ourselves as operatives, collecting intelligence for the sake of national security.” It’s a wonderful trick of a point of view, one that is active rather than passive. —BT
“A Tiger Fighter Is Hard to Find” by Ha Jin
In Ha Jin’s “A Tiger Fighter Is Hard to Find,” a TV crew has received praise from the government for their TV series Wu Song Fought the Tiger. If they can respond to one small criticism (“the tiger looked fake, and didn’t present an authentic challenge to the hero”), the show will be sent to Beijing to compete for a national prize. The TV crew—our collective narrator—is tasked first with finding a tiger. As the title suggests, finding an authentic tiger is easy. The authentic hero is the harder one to find. The actor, Huping Wang, looks like a great tiger fighter, but is actually a pretty wimpy one.
Perspective is doing so much work in “Tiger Fighter.” The charm of the story, in part, is what this crew, and thereby the reader, focuses on—where to sell tiger testicles, how much alcohol is enough alcohol to get a man to forget his fear, and what to do with a schizophrenic actor who looks the part but can’t play it. Told in first person plural POV, the themes of the story harmonize with the reality of the story. The yawning gap between collective artistic ideals and flawed human actors becomes a literal problem for the crew adapting a novel for TV: “In private, some of us — clerks, assistants, actors — complained about the classic novel that contains the tiger-fighting episode. Why did the author write such a difficult scene? It’s impossible for any man to ride a tiger and then beat it to death bare-handed. The story is a pure fabrication that has misled readers for hundreds of years. It may have been easy for the writer to describe it on paper, but in reality, how could we create such a hero?”
There’s a wink in that line. Ha Jin has written another great literary scene resistant to adaptation. And while Ha Jin might make it look easy to describe such a scene, he’s let the whole crew show us just how impossible it can be to get it right. —EB
“Rope” by Joshua Harmon
In Joshua Harmon’s haunting story, “Rope,” two siblings believe their older brother Jaime keeps a girl tied to a tree in the woods: “When we first found out that our brother keeps a girl tied to a tree in the woods, we did not think to tell anyone.” They speculate about his behaviors, his methods, and motivations, but they do not question their underlying assumption that there is a girl tied to a tree in the woods. Nor does the reader learn how they “found out,” that moment when their murky inferences crystalized into a belief.
An uncareful reader might take the siblings’ speculation as fact—might miss the hearsay, the lake of visual confirmation, the invention of detail—and misunderstand this story for one of violence rather than imagination. Harmon understands that it’s easier for young children to invent a fantasy than it is for them to come up with logical explanations. If their older brother sneaks out of the house to see a girl, the carnal mystery at the center of that action must be explained without carnal knowledge.
My favorite sentence in the story reveals the depth of the siblings’ compassion and longing to understand. It also exemplifies the layers of perspective at work here: “We think, sometimes, Mindy and I, that we would know the answers to all of our questions about the girl our brother keeps tied to a tree if only we could know her name.” The individual narrator of “Rope,” whose name and gender we do not know, is hidden within the “we,” the narrator and their sister Mindy. The way the “we” envelopes the “I”—the way the pair subsumes the individual—shows how integral groups, even small ones, are to entrenching misconceptions. —HM