Oh You!: A Taxonomy of the Second Person
I’ve heard it called experimental. I’ve heard it called a gimmick. I’ve heard it called bossy and obtrusive. Distracting. Annoying. Yet second person is a natural story-telling voice, one often dropped into casual conversation and a hallmark of oral story-telling.
The problem, perhaps, is not the second person but the under-complicated discourse that surrounds it, collapsing and reducing. In class,1 when her peer complained that not everyone could see themselves in the story’s second person, my student Abby Musgrove clapped back with “It’s not about you!” The second person is bigger than that. I want to give serious consideration to the kinds of “you” and the different effects each creates.
The You Character: Choose Your Own Adventure.
Like many readers, my first experience with second person came through Choose Your Own Adventures. I consumed these books as a child, reading them first to see what terrible fates resulted from each choice and then, after having read my way through a few different adventures, paging through to find an ending that I liked before tracking back to find out what choices I needed to make to get there. I wasn’t alone in my obsession. Jen Doll’s history of Choose Your Own Adventure books, written for The Atlantic, tallies the numbers: “Over 250 million books were printed in 38 languages, making Choose Your Own Adventure the fifth best-selling book series of all time. Only Harry Potter, Enid Blyton, and Goosebumps have sold more books.”
I suspect a great deal of the fascination was rooted in how much agency the books give their young readers — an agency that, as a child, I craved. The books are about cause and effect, but each option offered is full of surprises. A morally upstanding choice is as likely to lead to a bad outcome as a good one, so the books seem less about prescribing ethics than they were about experimentation. I found them fascinating and addictive, not least because the second person asked me to inhabit the character. That is, rather than feeling pushed around by the second person point of view, I felt invited to participate and be in control of the narrative.
The fiction focuses outward: situation, conflict, scene, image. Character is more incidental. Take, for instance, the first page of Journey Under the Sea:
You are a deep sea explorer searching for the famed lost city of Atlantis. This is your most challenging and dangerous mission. Fear and excitement are now your companions.
It is morning and the sun pushes up on the horizon. The sea is calm. You climb into the narrow pilot’s compartment of the underwater vessel Seeker with your special gear. The crew of the research vessel Maray screws down the hatch clamps. Now begins the plunge into the depths of the ocean. The Seeker crew begins lowering by a strong, but thin, cable. Within minutes, you are so deep in the ocean that little light filters down to you. The silence is eerie as the Seeker slips deeper and deeper. You peer out the thick glass porthole and see strange white fish drifting past, sometimes stopping to look at you — an intruder from another world.
Its imagery, combined with present tense verbs, act on the reader like a guided visualization. Whereas in traditional fiction, we learn a lot about people by their actions and choices, in Choose Your Own Adventure books, readers are asked to lend pieces of their own personalities to the main character, an otherwise genderless, raceless you.
Ironically, what drew me and so many young readers to these novels is what some readers cite as a problem: “I don’t like being told what to do,” or “This person isn’t like me at all and so it takes me out of the story.” The CYOA second person doesn’t try to recreate its reader. That is, it does not care if you are not, in actual fact, a sea explorer or an astronaut or a cowboy. Rather, readers pour their personalities into these roles like water in a well-shaped jug. In return, it offers the power of decision making. The form is a give and take, a heightened version of the collaboration at the heart of all working fiction.
The Imperative You: How To
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, at the same time that Choose Your Own Adventure books were coming onto the market, a specific genre of short story was also gaining popularity. Lorrie Moore’s Self Help is often credited as the creator of the how-to form, though Margaret Atwood was also playing with the form, as we can see in her story “Bread,” as were poets like Galway Kinnell (for example, in “Wait”). In these, the second person is often sublimated. Rather than putting the you at this front of the sentence, the point of view is implied by the commanding, imperative verb form. Unlike CYOA books, these stories command the action and choices. Atwood’s story opens with the words “Imagine a piece of bread.” Lorrie Moore’s “How to Become a Writer” starts, “First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It’s best if you fail at an early age — say, fourteen.” In both stories, the word you is initially implied, as the imperative form allows. In these stories, the second person leans into the idea of bossing the reader.
Or not. Here’s the thing: I don’t really believe Moore wants me to try to become President of the World any more than I believe she wants me to fail miserably. While Atwood’s story might ask me to do something more reasonable in imagining a piece of bread, her story, like Moore’s, will include details that she does not expect to be true of my life, details that create a fictional character who is entirely distinct from the reader. She writes, “The bread knife is an old one you picked up at an auction; it has the word BREAD carved into the wooden handle.” The you who’s being instructed seems, simultaneously, to be the narrative voice doing the instructing, as if the older self is telling the younger self how to behave, presumably after the history of actions is already complete. In Moore’s story, you/Francie is both speaker and spoken to. When Moore writes, “Decide that you like college life” or “you spend too much time slouched and demoralized,” we understand that these are done deeds for her character rather than suggestions for how to behave. The how-to story quickly reveals the command to be a ruse, but I don’t resent that because, I mean, isn’t all fiction a ruse? We go in, knowing someone is going to lie to us. We suspend disbelief anyway because there’s something else we get out of the experience. Perhaps humor. Perhaps beauty.
In the how-to story, the command we cannot follow often reveals the lack of choices in the POV narrator themselves. Lorrie Moore’s you will become a writer in spite of trying anything else. Pam Houston’s you will talk to a hunter, will date him and sleep with him, in spite of her better judgment. Junot Diaz’s you will adopt a variety of dodges and façades to appear less impoverished, more powerful, though none will actually alter his circumstances. “Imagine a prison,” Atwood tells us. In how-to stories, gender and race and income level and other demographic and cultural markers reassert themselves and power dynamics bubble to the surface. The how-to story, by nature, is not about comforting readers or offering olive branches or participation. Second person in the how-to story is the CYOA book’s inverse, a second person that insists on the powerlessness, the choicelessness of its central character.
You as Language Bridge
Several years ago, Pam Houston visited the university where I teach and, while chatting with students, she suggested that the second person was “the point of view of the American vernacular.” Listen, and you hear it all the time, the shift from first to second person. I just did it. “You know how it is,” someone says, and I feel the speaker extending the possibility of empathy and common experience. You in conversation is often offered as a kind of language bridge, a way of joining the speaker’s experience to listener’s. “The light was orange!” my cousin might tell me. “You don’t stop for that, and you sure as hell don’t get a ticket. The officer musta had to meet his quota.”
Hanif Abdurraqib does this beautifully in his essay “‘My Heart Will Go On’ Turns 20.” Setting up the circumstances under which he will first watch Titanic, he asks us to put ourselves in his situation at the time:
In the era before Netflix & Chill entered the cultural consciousness as a practice, having a movie night in with someone meant there was work involved. You would, for example, have to find a Blockbuster Video and then scour the racks for several exhausting minutes, picking out a film with a person who may have vastly different tastes than your own. You would pay to rent that VHS, which you then had to get into a car and drive to return twenty-four hours later — just enough labor to make watching a movie on a couch all the way through worth it.
Though he soon reverts to first person, he shifts his use of the second person again later in the essay. This time, rather than asking the reader to identify with him, he uses the second person to stress his own identification with the characters in the film:
I’m haunted by what it must be like to watch death come for everyone around you and know that your number is soon to be called. A night sky wrecked by screams as you wait for the inevitable. I don’t know if death is freedom, but I know that waiting for it isn’t always, and waiting for it while everyone around you dies can’t be.
His first you asks the outside reader to identify in, to imagine their way into Abdurraqib’s experience, and the other shows the inside speaker identifying out towards the characters in the film. Each slide into second person POV happens as seamlessly and effortlessly as it does in conversation. The bridge has been extended. We cross.
Yet we train the vernacular you out of young writers — and do a very good job at this. In my first real job as a middle school English teacher, I watched my students slide into second person constantly in their essays. “This makes an assumption of your reader,” we would tell them. Or “It throws your reader out of the essay.” Or “It weakens your argument.” By the time they reach college, the strongest writers hardly ever use you, though it still rears its head in some comp classes. As a graduate student teaching assistant, I remember reading one essay about cheating in which the student wrote something like, “Everyone cheats at some point. You get busy, and you don’t want to fail. You know how mad your parents will be.” Like other composition professors, I advised her to remove the generalization and the second person and work towards more moderated language, words less easily disproven. Looking back, I see my stance then as too simplistic, relying too heavily on received wisdom. It’s not that I regret the lesson — this bias is so firmly entrenched, she would benefit from being aware of it — but, as a writer, I see exactly why the move to second person in this argument is effective. It asks us to step into her experience for a moment, to feel its pressure and sympathize with the motivations behind a less than upstanding action.
The “You as Language Bridge” often does this work. Researching for this essay, I read several websites that suggested that the American you forms the same function as the British one. This is partially true — like one, our you creates a generalized instance — but also incomplete. In American English, in British English, one suggests not what anyone would do but a kind of ideal person’s activities. One should use the correct fork. One should bow to the queen. One does not jump into traffic. Conversely, in American English, you suggests what people often do even though they shouldn’t. It begs identification. If there is shame, the you helps to subvert it. The you creates a common space where forgiveness is possible, accessing the part of us that we will acknowledge to be true even though we would like to distance ourselves from its impulse.
You as First Person Once Removed
In a graduate class we were in together, the poet Danielle Pafunda once remarked that there were three kinds of second person in poetry: you the reader, you another person, and you as a stand-in for the first person. The first two of these imply a first person, even if that first person does not appear in the poem, because we understand someone speaking to the you. This last, however, is perhaps even more common. We can see it in Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Phillipsburg”:
You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Here, the speaker seems to be addressing himself as much as inhabiting the role of the you. My student Kalie Pead remarked that this stance allows the second person/first person once removed to sometimes feel like a letter to your younger self.
In both nonfiction and poetry, this you is similar to a lyric I, though it adds an inch of emotional distance between the reader and the speaker. In fiction, where the writer seems more absent, we might imagine a fictional speaker creating a similar emotional distance between the story and their heart. This character is often well defined by the story. Where the CYOA you often keeps personal details vague, allowing readers to pour themselves in, the implied character in the first person once removed story, even more than the imperative you, is distinct. The you has gender, age, race, social class, and other defining traits, not to mention more specific characterizing details. We often come to know their family or co-workers, their homes, their desires and, perhaps most acutely, their suffering.
In Chris Gonzalez’s beautiful flash fiction “Dress Yourself,” I feel this kind of you at work. The story’s point-of-view speaker is a man trying on clothing. As he does, he’s intensely conscious of his weight and of his blunt but loving abuelita’s advice on how to select clothing, both in terms of quality but also in of finding cuts and patterns that will flatter his body:
This shirt is O.K., she says, draping it over her ironing board, because the vertical lines pop out. They’re brighter, so you should be fine. But how can you believe her? You’ve worn this shirt at least, what, forty-seven times now? You know how the fabric struggles to contain your body. You adjust and readjust yourself while wearing it, about eighty tugs and tucks an hour, but the vertical lines always wiggle and slant as they groove over your shoulders and slope down your back, the right and left-side patterns meeting at the base of a wide V. You’ve spotted this in tagged photos of yourself online, avoiding the comments every time just in case.
The you here stands in for a first-person speaker. The rich details and quoted language imply a singular experience. My student Braden Aguiano suggests that the second person here feels similar to the mirror in the story, allowing the character to look at himself from the outside. This semi-out-of-body experience removes the speaker, if ever so slightly, from the pain he’s feeling.
The small distance created by this first person once removed stance feels like an act of self-protection, as if the subject matter is too hot for the speaker to discuss it in first person. In Amber Sparks’s story “You Will Be the Living Equation,” the point-of-view character is coping with the loss of her friend:
This is your first death, and it will slightly separate you from your mind. It will turn you and your mind into cordial neighbors. At first, your mind will try to give counsel, will say things like: Come on old girl, stiff upper lip and all that. And: Now then, mustn’t carry on so. Your mind has always been embarrassed by excess.
Your body will ignore your mind. It will learn new tricks all on its own, tricks like: curling up into a ball at the foot of the bed. And: betraying you utterly in front of absolute strangers. It will become desperate to telegraph your grief.
The distancing function of the point of view is reflected in the psychological state of this speaker. The you here is fractured and compartmentalized, creating space between the aspects of the speaker’s identity. This need for distance from painful experience is reinforced by the past tense. “This is your first death” makes it explicit that others will come, and perhaps have come by the time the speaker is relating this story. The story is emotionally hot, but the point of view and tense create the tongs with which the speaker can handle and shape it.
The Schrodinger’s You
I love this term, the Schrodinger’s You, which was coined by my student William Maxwell to describe a moment when second person both is and is not you. In other words, in some instances, the you seems to ask readers to imagine themselves into a specific situation, similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure you, but at others, the you seems to attach to a more specific experience and we suspect a lyric I behind it, or some other variant of you.
In her book Citizen, Claudia Rankine blurs her yous, touching on this possibility in layered and complicated ways:
You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
Why do you feel okay saying this to me? You wish the light would turn red or a police siren would go off so you could slam on the brakes, slam into the car ahead of you, be propelled forward so quickly both your faces would suddenly be exposed to the wind.
Here, the voice is similar to the CYOA you, placing the you character in a car. At the same time, knowing that Rankine is a poet and a professor as well as a woman of color, I also read this passage as first person once removed, feeling her lyric I presence behind the you. I imagine Rankine in the car, but feeling somehow distanced from herself, a distance created by pain and discomfort. I hear in this second person a request that readers identify, as if we’re being asked the hypothetical: if you were in this car, being told you were being hired because of your race, how would you respond?
The third stanza throws another complicating curve ball, posing a question that suddenly flips the you, projecting it onto the man in the car as a lyric I emerges. Why do you feel OK saying this to me? she asks, and the previous yous immediately drop away, as you here becomes a direct address to the person in the car. In this short passage, we experience an incredible layering of yous, yet we follow this instinctively, understanding the shifts because these shifts are familiar to us from conversation. Because they are human. Because they are revelatory.
This is only the start …
Any taxonomy is incomplete when its subject is evolving. Only by using the second person — by thoughtfully playing with it — do we discover what it does. What is already clear though is that this point-of-view is not any one thing. Rather, the second person is a natural and complex story-telling voice, a multi-purpose tool capable of opening any number of options whose uses will expand as writers continue imagine its possibilities.