Beginnings and Woes
For many moons, I railed against the first-person point of view. That might have been influenced by Beverly Cleary, who used it to great effect in the children’s books that filled my youth. I associated first-person narrative with books directed at kids … and Victorian gothic tales, which are in many ways similar to children’s literature. (Don’t @ me. I specialized in Victorian Lit at university and I won’t be swayed in my opinion that those books are basically great, sweeping, gory morality tales. And I love them for that.)
When it came to what we’ll call popular modern adult fiction, though, my experiences with first-person POV were disappointing. What I read of it felt “shove-y”, like a teenager in desperate want of attention. Characters who wouldn’t shut up in their own heads, telling me what they were feeling all the damn time. In my own attention-grabbing behavior, I ended up throwing more than one book across the room because of it.
I realize now I was simply reading the wrong first-person POV books. Bad first-person POV books. Really, really bad ones.
Around 2010, I became interested in detective stories. I’d always enjoyed police procedurals, and I’ve always wanted to write a detective story. The problem is, I’m not smart enough to come up with a crime to baffle a detective who’s reasonably good at their job. So, I started watching – and reading – the books on which some of my favorite TV detectives were based. At the time, that was Longmire and Inspector George Gently.
Craig Johnston (Longmire) and Alan Hunter (Inspector George Gently) are wonderful writers. It’s no wonder A&E (later Netflix) and BBC picked up their stories for televised popularization. Their writing is lively, witty, and, at its best, capable of lifting the reader out of their own self and into the lives of the characters on the page. And many of Hunter’s and all of Johnston’s stories are written in first-person! Due to my enjoyment of those series, I actively sought out other detective stories in the same vein. That’s when I discovered perhaps the greatest first-person crime novels of all time: Ross Macdonald and his weary but dogged private detective, Lew Archer.
It didn’t hurt that Lew was played onscreen in 2 films by the greatest actor of all time, Mr Paul Newman.
My life as a reader and as a writer has not been the same since.
Macdonald’s prose practically sings off the page into my head with every line. I’ve caught myself laughing aloud to Archer’s snappy repartee. Lew feels like a real man with real desires, hang-ups, and ambitions fulfilled and lost. The stories make me love being a reader, being able to enjoy a master – undisputed in my mind – working their craft. As a writer, the books inspire me to examine what I put down on my own pages, to write with clarity and purpose but never by sacrificing honesty and genuineness in the characters. I’ve found myself going back and re-reading all of the Lew Archer books multiple times, not just for the enjoyment factor but because each reading offers me new insight into craft, skill, and the characteristics of the first-person perspective.
When I read Ross Macdonald, I want to write as well as Ross Macdonald did. That’s not going to happen, but it’s a worthy goal. And every time I pick up my pen or open my laptop, I take that challenge to heart and try to put my best work forward. I’m even thinking of giving my own first-person noir a try.
What’s your take on first-person POV? Do you have a story that changed your mind one way or another? Let me know!
This post was inspired by Kourtney Heintz’s list of the Best 100 Novels, a challenge initiated by Nathan Bransford, on his own blog.
I’ve been in need of a fun activity, just to get my head into a healthier place than it’s been over the last several weeks. Sure, I wrote a story based on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 novels, because I enjoyed them so much, and that was certainly fun; and, I’ve been getting back into the rewrites of my own sci-fi adventure story. But some of the latest disheartening events on the global stage had really been wearing me down. At those times, I can take some refuge in my own creativity, but it’s even more comforting to bask in the light of others’ creativity, especially when those others have inspired, enlightened, or simply just entertained me.
Kourtney stuck to the hard rules of this challenge, which I’m sure was hard. I took an easier route, because I wanted this to be fun, not an assignment.
Now, I’ve read hundreds of novels over the years…but I knew any “Best” list would have some classics which everybody knows: Don Quixote, Sense and Sensibility, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, yadda yadda. Those are definitely great books, mind you, but I wanted to do something a bit different, here.
For my version of the challenge, I looked at only those books I’ve read in the last ten years or less. This would disqualify any book I read only for a class and vowed never to pick up again (such as On the Road or Catcher in the Rye; don’t get me started), while still offering some insight into how my reading tastes have changed over the years. As it turned out, not a whole lot.
My 100 Best – or, rather, Favorite – Books of the last 10 years
As for ranking, I would list them as:
- Ross Macdonald (18)
- Elmore Leonard (8)
- Douglas Adams (9)
- Craig Johnson (11…and counting; there’s a new one I haven’t gotten, yet)
- Edgar Rice Burroughs (4 – specifically, his John Carter of Mars books)
…with the rest of them falling into an ever-shifting heap, where, on any given day, Barker might leapfrog Allingham to take Maguire’s position while Glukhovsky choke-holds Sapkowski for a higher slot, and Mankell sits back to watch.
I admit: I cheated. Still, it was a fun diversion for an hour or so, to look at my favorite books over the last 10 years. As a side note, that third shelf represents most of my reading material from the last 3 years, minus the Glukhovsky, Hammett, Sapkowski, and Abdul-Jabbar.
A few interesting points about this group:
- I was never much of a Stephen King fan growing up – he was too much horror for my sci-fi favors – but on a cross-country trip, I found a tattered copy of IT sitting on my cousin’s Venice Beach bookshelf. In search of something to read one night during my California sojourn, I asked if she wouldn’t mind me borrowing it. She said, sure; she couldn’t even remember whose it was or how it got there. I read it on the entire flight back to New York and barely put it down for the next week until I’d finished it.
- Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always has remained on my annual re-read list for the better part of 20 years. It’s a much shorter novel than his others, and it’s written for a younger audience than his usual fare, but it has such charm and magic, it will probably forever remain my favorite from his pen.
- After finishing Elmore Leonard’s Killshot, I started a new book…then stopped, picked up Killshot again, and read it through a second time.
- Ross Macdonald. Many folks praise Chandler and Hammett for their contributions to the genre, but if you like crime stories – especially noir crime stories – and you have not yet read Ross Macdonald, correct that.
I hope Kourtney doesn’t take too much offense that I changed the nature of this challenge to suit my own parameters. Wuthering Heights is a beautiful novel, and it should be on this list…but I haven’t read it in at least a decade. ;)
Were you offended by my version of the challenge? If you were to put together your 100 Best Novels list, how do you think you’d do it? What would definitely be on your list?