Why First Person Non-Fiction Is Dubious

Okay, let me deal with the hypocrisy thing first, before you even think of it. What you’re reading here is a column, necessarily opinionated in places and inevitably calling for use of the first person. So don’t wince, don’t write, nasty letters, don’t send me “practice what you preach” e-mails when you see “I…I…I” herein.

Because I am about to raise the alarm about what seems to be a creeping epidemic of first-personism in contemporary American nonfiction writing. I’m not talking about columns, personal essays or other forms where the first-person perspective is welcome, even expected. No, I’m raising the proverbial red flag about the intrusion of I into otherwise straightforward journalism.

nwThe examples I’ll cite are culled from some of the toniest towers of magazine publishing, and so the writers in question can probably get away with unnecessarily weaseling themselves into their otherwise well-written articles. But I’d add the daredevil’s disclaimer: Kids, don’t try this at home.

The problem with putting yourself into articles where you don’t belong, as we’ll see, is that you spend energy and creativity writing about you instead of about your subject.

Your readers come to the page eager to learn about child-rearing tips, the life of an auto-racing legend, the latest in computer gizmos, or whether anti-wrinkle creams really work. Instead, you force them to read about you, says William Lobdell, who runs his own website. The insinuation of I into such articles wastes words and tries readers’ patience–it’s little different from having too liberal a hand with adjectives, or sprinkling your prose with empty adverbs.

If the article is about you or your opinions or your amazing recovery from a mysterious South American ailment, by all means employ the first person. If the article isn’t about you, stop blocking the “camera” and concentrate on your actual subject.

I Can’t Help Myself!

The creeping first-personing of American nonfiction first struck me on a summer Saturday when I was lolling in the green-and-white-striped swing on our patio, sipping iced tea and reading the latest issue of The New Yorker.

I (See how annoying that is? Who cares what I wag doing, where I was or what I was sipping? The important point is that the magazine in question was The New Yorker.)

I began reading an article about William Cohen, the secretary of defense, by James Carroll. Now, Carroll actually had some excuse to insert himself into this article, since his father worked in the Pentagon and Carroll wanted to draw on his own experiences as a military brat to contrast with Cohen. Carroll set this up in the second paragraph, recollecting the last time he’d been in the secretary of defense’s office–to pick up his father when he worked late. Fine so far.

But here’s the thing about allowing yourself the luxury of the first person: It takes over. You start putting yourself in the center of the story. You lean on the I like a crutch. You get, well, lazy.

So by page 3, Carroll had slipped to this:

When we were seated, alone, at a small table

at one end of Cohen’s office, the first question

I put to him was whether a man temperamentally

inclined to doubt was suited to the job.

Not a horrible sentence–just wordy in a first-person kind of way, the way it’s all too easy for beginning writers in particular to stumble once they start down the I road. Since the previous,sentence had cited a New Republic cover about Cohen headlined “Doctrine of Doubt,” that idea of “doubt” was already in readers’ minds. Why delay the follow-up with unrevealing details about getting seated or the needless “the first question I put to him”? Just pose it: “Is a man temperamentally inclined to doubt suited to the job?” Then focus on the subject in the act of answering, rather than on the questioner.

Am I Intruding?

Except for a few more minor first-person detours, Carroll wrote a fine article. What unsettled me was its appearance, lapses intact, in The New Yorker. What next, I wondered–Esquire?

Yes, Esquire. About the same time (think me, Saturday, patio swing, iced tea), Esquire carried an article about “car-spy photographer” Jim Dunne, who sneaks shots of preproduction automobiles. Interesting subject, written with much colorful detail. So why’d he dip into the first person?

When I stopped to write on my

notepad …. The heat warmed the

water in the bottle that I carried in

my hand…. From a book I had seen

at the airport in Phoenix, I knew

there were scorpions and rattlesnakes

all through this kind of territory,

and it made me nervous that I

couldn’t see any….

Those are from a paragraph that used I nine times. Who is this article supposed to be about, anyway?

The article was otherwise artfully written, with lively quotes and vivid description (“A bird with a call that sounded like a zipper…”). But it would have been interesting to read a version without the writer sharing the spotlight. The intrusion of the writer can be just that–intrusive. It tempts writers to put readers one step removed from the action, seeing it through your eyes instead of feeling that they are there. Consider this, from the same article: “We saw tails of dust rising from the desert at the foot of some hills several miles away…” The focus is on the viewers, not the view; the verb is the passive “saw.” Why not simply: “Tails of dust rose from the desert…”?

Take the First-Person Test

In the same pile of recent magazines was an issue of Wired that confirmed my worst fears about the first-personing of nonfiction. The cover promised an article about the sequel to Myst, the wildly popular computer game. I wanted to read about the sequel to Myst. Instead, I read about how the author of the article felt about the sequel to Myst.

This one had first-person-run-wild written all over it, right from the first sentence: “On my last evening in Spokane….,” it began, then delivered five Is before reaching the first period. By the second page I came to a paragraph including, “I walked across the puddled parking lot and peered in the windows…. I saw the dim shadow of the reception desk…. I remembered….”

If this article were written by one of the creators of Myst, such a first-person insider tone would make sense. But, no, the author’s claim to fame is–well, let him tell you: “I was proud that I had written the first big story about Myst.”

Here the writer has begun to forget who the story is about. And the readers can hardly be blamed if they, too, begin to wonder.

The point isn’t to critique this particular Wired story; it’s to warn how easily you can get off track once I gets in the driver’s seat.

Before you put yourself into your story, ask yourself:

* Is your first-person experience–how you felt or what you did, rather than what you saw and heard–truly essential to telling this story? Did you feel or do something that can’t be communicated to readers without you getting in front of the “camera”?

* Do you bring some unusual expertise or experience to the story? Carroll brought a special perspective to writing about the Pentagon, as did, for example, the author of a recent New York Times Sunday. Magazine piece about Japanese elementary schools–whose own two children had been through them.

* Can the one or two spots where you might profitably insert yourself into the article be rewritten into the third person? Even if rewriting requires somewhat awkwardly describing yourself as “a visitor,” for example (“He rises politely when a visitor enters…”), this may be the better choice than starting down the slippery first-person slope.

* Finally, what’s this article about? Is it about your reaction to what you saw and experienced? Or is it about what you saw and experienced? Are you an actor in this story, or the director?

Before you answer, remember that most actors say what they really want to do is direct. They know what writers should keep in mind: The “first person” isn’t always the one with the most creative clout.

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