I’m not going to write my second-person essay in the second person versus you’re not going to write your second-person essay in the second person. You tell yourself you’ll change it later. You’ll get a first draft done this way, because it’s easy, it feels right, flows better like this. Then I’ll change it back. She’ll change it back. You will. Or maybe no one will.
Recently it seems I can’t write anything that isn’t second person. It has caught my voice and won’t relinquish it; I begin everything with the gorgeous vagueness of you and then go back over it, painstakingly switching the you to she, or I, or whatever. And the fact that it could be whatever is what makes the you so alluring. You don’t have to make up your mind, or announce that you’ve made up your mind, with a you. It’s what writing can do that film cannot: introduce a character purely in terms of action, without giving them a face or body or gender. Even a bodiless voice-over in film has a gender. In writing, you can exist for pages, saying things, doing things, changing things, and nobody has any clue who you is. Sometimes that’s useful and sometimes it’s an easy way out of doing the hard work of creating character. Either way and both ways, I’m stuck on it.
I have written a book about the nineteenth-century author Elizabeth Gaskell throughout which I refer to her in the second person. The sections about her are interspersed with first-person narration of my own life. Mrs. Gaskell’s you felt like a gift I could give to myself: not, as above, the gift of genderlessness, but something else and just as lovely. The second person creates a space in which to be subjective, and indulgently, intentionally so. There’s no you without an I, and in my second-person writing about Mrs. Gaskell, I lurked behind the computer screen, enthusiastically stretching my limitations over every word: I am imagining you, I said to Mrs. Gaskell, you are doing this in my imagination, and this, and this, which is not the same as saying I know you actually did this, said this, thought this, because nobody can know that of a dead woman. It felt good to say this, without having to say so: whenever people write biographies with dialogue, and even, honestly, autobiographies, they’re making it up. They’re lying. But you are not a liar.
Why is this so comfortable for you?
Trawling the internet for anti-second-person arguments—because, as you know, we’re all supposed to hate it—there are surprisingly few to be found. Mostly, these arguments are buried in essays that aim to teach you how to use the second person correctly. There’s a moment in each of these when the author seeks to impress upon you how much people dislike it. Editors find it tiresome, they say. It’s wearying. It draws attention to craft and away from story. I alone can teach you how to do it properly.
It is hard to find second-person critiques that aren’t secondhand.
But it’s true that it’s annoying, the second person. Isn’t it? It annoys you. Your students write love poems about an endless array of yous and you tell them to step away from vagueness and into specificity. Be brave, you tell them, by being precise. We don’t care about anything unless it’s specific. “I want the ‘you’ to be the reader,” they say, but they never really mean it to be the reader. They always mean it to be themselves, the way they wish someone else would write about them. The students write love poems in the second person because they desire to be seen by someone who is as perceptive and profound as they feel themselves to be. I feel so seen, they write on the internet when someone says something specific and endearingly contradictory: Listening to Cardi B and screaming how men aren’t shit while I have a boyfriend who supports and cherishes me; I either hang up all my clothes neatly or there is a mountain of discarded outfits on the floor up to my thigh. You feel so seen.
The people who write “how to write a second-person story” pieces enjoy being playful with the second person as they tell you how to do it.
People say that Bright Lights, Big City is the only novel in the second person that works and they are wrong.
As a teenager, when you read James Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late, it astonished you; it energized you. It made the world bigger. You can do anything in the second person. You don’t even have to keep it up. You can lapse tellingly into he or I, it’s omniscient without the pretensions and archaisms of omniscience. Irvine Welsh. Ali Smith. What is evident is that Scottish writers know how to do this.
People say that Lorrie Moore is the only author who can get away with the second person and they are wrong. Lorrie Moore, you are one of the authors who can get away with the second person.
“Is it historical fiction?” somebody asked me when I explained my Mrs. Gaskell project, and I said no, it is a true account of how I imagine Mrs. Gaskell to be. Which—what else is historical fiction except a true account of somebody’s imagination, and yet it feels different enough to quibble over.
I’m not careful. Research doesn’t come naturally to me. This is why my PhD supervisor claimed to age ten years over the course of three: my inability to be accurate. “You make these incredibly detailed statements,” she said, “without backing them up. It’s not enough to say probably. It is not enough to say near enough. Citation needed. Citation desperately needed.” Precision and accuracy are, of course, not the same. You can be precise and entirely wrong. You can luxuriate in narrative-truth-but-not-actual-truth, in the rightness of emotion over factual accuracy. It’s a safety net that catches you like a hammock.
I feel emotion strongly and precisely: my love for Mrs. Gaskell is both of those things. That is why alighting on you when writing about her felt liberating. Finally, I could talk to her and not about her, write about love but not to my lover, hold forth on a dead woman without footnotes.
The second person is a way to talk about someone else and also about yourself, because my God you love to talk about yourself. (You do you, I guess, says somebody who does not like the second person.)
Maybe I like the second person because it’s queer is a thought I have had while writing this. Just leaving that here, a small idiotic idea that might have something in it, you decide.
You’re in love with a woman who writes short stories with you characters in them. They aren’t second-person stories, the protagonist is always an I, but the yous trip through her collection, genderless and charming, specific enough to be desired, vague enough to be universal. Youniversal, you quip, and she pulls a face and says she won’t marry you if you keep making terrible puns, and aren’t you the one that always demands things be precise. This exchange doesn’t happen, you’re just imagining it; you can play these sorts of games and I can’t.
You is very romantic. You are very romantic.
Why is this so uncomfortable for you?
I like to have imaginary spats with the kinds of people at book events who ask questions that aren’t questions. To clarify, these are nonquestions that have not yet been asked, or rather unasked. These are book events that haven’t happened and may never happen, in which my second-person Mrs. Gaskell is being scrutinized, not for precision but for accuracy.
A hand is raised, a microphone passed along the row, throat cleared: Thank you for your interesting talk, they say, (okay, who are you kidding, it’s he, he says—and notable, too, that in this fantasy you’ve given yourself a venue large enough to require a mic) but actually, by 1857 it was more common to travel from England to Italy via WHEREVER. Actually, the kind of carriage used in Manchester in 1862 would have been a WHATEVER. The tide in Whitby in November 1859 would not actually have been high first thing in the morning. Actually, the word “queer” did not come to mean “homosexual” until the end of the nineteenth century. Actually, whatever. Whatever whatever whatever.
I shunt forward to the edge of my seat. I look hard at the man who has not asked a question. What I want to say is, “But why do you care?” What I want to say is, “Why on earth does it matter, none of us was there, it’s all impressionistic, it’s just words making images, it’s just what if, dots of paint making a picture. The number of horses, the height of the tide, the moment when queer was allowed to mean queer: none of these things have anything to do with love, and why care about anything, if it’s not about that? The more I think about it the more it seems like the opposite of love, this cleaving to accuracy of detail rather than accuracy of emotion, and it makes me think I don’t like you, if you care about the opposite of love.” This is defensive, deliberately emotive, because, basically, I feel bad for having got things wrong, even the things that don’t matter. I tried to anticipate and avoid this critique by using the second person, which in this scenario, has failed, on a small scale and possibly a broader one.
Even in my fantasy arguments, though, I don’t quite do this. Even in my fantasies, I am agonizingly polite. I smile and say none of what I want to. I talk instead about texture, about the way that details rub against each other to make an image or a scene catch fire. I talk about the difference between biography and historical fiction and the thing that I have written about Mrs. Gaskell, my intimate, inaccurate text: a true account of how I imagine her to be. I talk about it coolly, not mentioning the thing about the opposite of love. I’m a people pleaser. I thank him for his comment.
I am in the first person. I am not the first person to rail against the straitjacket of Is, the narrow line. First, I feel self-conscious. Second, you can’t get past your own limited perceptions. Third, he will never know how irritating he is.
How wonderful instead, how expansive and free, to be you. You, who are exactly as I see you. You who feels so seen. You who can say precisely what you think, can be whatever, inaccurately, when I cannot.
So you cling to you, the opposite of the opposite of etc. You dispel the unasked nonquestions with a shake of your head.
You return to the world, which to you is real, has been imagined just for you.
You see you.
You love you.
Nell Stevens is the author of The Victorian and the the Romantic (US) / Mrs Gaskell & Me (UK) and Bleaker House (2017). She teaches creative writing at Goldsmiths University in London.