You are aware that some people don’t really appreciate essays or stories written in the second person. Most people will acknowledge the greatness of Lorrie Moore’s collection Self-Help—particularly “How to Become a Writer”—but in general, these same people say, the choice to employ “you” so prominently in a creative work seems “gimmicky,” a narrative trick designed to mask a lack of substance with a “style” that’s no longer quite revolutionary or bold. You have heard others argue that the second person is a particularly inappropriate choice for an essay, as its use creates a sense of distance between essayist and reader. It’s as if the essayist is trying to disavow her own ideas and experiences, sublimating the “I” with a manufactured “you” that prevents the reader from fully encountering the author’s mind on the page.
To some extent, you have often agreed with these critiques of the second person. Yet the truth is, you are an essayist who has employed the second person in your own work, more than once. Your essay “Dislocated”—about your own mental health problems—was written in the second person in an [End Page 185] effort to illustrate how far apart you felt from your own identity and experiences. Your essay “What the Wedding Photos Don’t Show” uses a second-person appeal to construct an idea of an audience—the “you” in this case is your wife—for the essay’s “I” to interact with, the way a song like “I Want You to Want Me” or “When You Were Mine” suggests one half of a conversation. Most recently, you wrote an essay that employs the second person in order to provide yourself instruction, to remind yourself of certain truths.
In the introduction to You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person—one of the two debut collections from Welcome Table Press—editor Kim Dana Kupperman addresses some of the objections people voice to the use of the second person in nonfiction writing. “The second person is too trendy,” one writer told her. “I’ve never read anything in the second person that I liked,” another said, leading her to wonder,
Was you some kind of renegade pronoun, sanctioned in writing only for song lyrics, posters, or the occasional aside in a literary work? Perhaps you seemed too experimental—a way to replace with a surrogate the essay’s expected first person narrator (although one might consider you a kind of persona, a mask that the narrator wears), which is a hallmark of the essay? (9)
As you immerse yourself in the collection, you become more firmly convinced that those who turn their nose up at the second person on general principle are a lot like the people who try to dismiss memoir as a form for narcissists or for people too limited in imagination to write fiction. There have been any number of dull, self-serving memoirs written in recent years, but—you have often argued—that’s no more an indictment of the genre than the popularity of Dan Brown is an indictment of literary fiction. It is unfair to judge a genre based on the bad habits of its worse practitioners. So, too, is it unfair to judge an esthetic decision like point-of-view based on the work of authors who get it wrong.
In You, Kupperman (with assistance from Heather G. Simons and James M. Chesbro) has assembled a collection of some of the best and brightest working on the essay today—that’s one of the reasons you volunteered to write a review of the book, in fact. You took a look at the list of contributors—among them Jenny Boully, Steven Church, Mimi Schwartz, and Marcia Aldrich—and felt with some certainty that this book would be, at [End Page 186] the very least, intriguing. Certainly more than an anthology structured around a...