Don’t Read This: The Reader’s Role in Second Person Narration

“This is not for you” is, if you think about it, a very odd way to start a book. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves begins with this anti-epigraph, which functions as a sort of warning. The novel’s warning takes on a special significance given the narrative: it is suggested that if you read House of Leaves, you will become hunted by a sinister presence. At the same time, however, Danielewski’s direct address of the reader also encourages the reader to engage in a particularly active type of reading; to flip the page becomes an effort to assert one’s authority as a reader and to prove the text wrong. House of Leaves is not the only contemporary work that attempts to “discourage” readers from continuing on with the story. Daniel Handler’s popular children’s books, A Series of Unfortunate Events, begin with a similar move. In The Bad Beginning Handler greets readers with “If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book… not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.” In both cases, the use of the second person encourages readers to assess their own identities and reading practices. These warnings also foster a pleasurable sense of foreboding: How terrible is what’s waiting for me in the coming pages if the author is taking the time to warn me? In addition, even though Danielewski and Handler break the fourth wall, they don’t encourage the reader to view their texts as fictional. Especially in the case of House of Leaves, the thrill of being emotionally moved, scared, and disturbed is dependent on readers feeling not only as if the world of the story is real, but also as if that world is about to swallow them whole.

Although on the one hand, Danielewski and Handler’s warnings seem fairly post-modern, they also bear several similarities to the Gothic tradition; many Gothic writers began their novels with a preface that either fabricated or emphasized the way in which their horrific tales were rooted in reality. While these remarks did not necessarily “warn” the reader, they did attempt to incite fear and titillation by blurring the boundary between the real world and the fictional world of the text. For example, in his preface to The Monk, Matthew Lewis writes, "The Bleeding Nun is a tradition still credited in many parts of Germany; and I have been told that the ruins of the Castle of Lauenstein, which She is supposed to haunt, may yet be seen upon the borders of Thuringia.” Perhaps the most famous example of this tactic is the “found narrative” device used in Horace Walpole’s preface to The Castle of Otranto: “The following work was found in the library of an ancient Catholic family in the north of England… The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of Christianity.” Walpole’s story about “finding” the manuscript is entirely fictitious and was likely intended to encourage sales. Yet, like Danielewski and Handler’s warnings, this preface blurs the distinction between the real world and the world of the story.

What I think is pretty striking about all of the above examples is the way in which they use metafiction to simultaneously draw the reader’s attention to the text as text and to confuse the boundaries of this text. Instead of opening up a purely “critical” space, which I typically associate with metafiction, these texts open up an affectual space. As Patricia Waugh notes in Metafiction, “Metafictional novels tend to be constructed on the principle of a fundamental and sustained opposition: the construction of a fictional illusion (as in traditional realism) and the laying bare of that illusion.” Often linked with Burtle Brecht’s “distancing effect,” metafiction traditionally interrupts a purely affectual or sentimental relationship with a text. In his work on Roland Barthes, Graham Allen observes that such an effect creates a situation in which readers or viewers are not allowed to forget that they are engaging with “a representation of reality rather than reality itself... It [the text] seeks to produce an active, critical engagement in the audience.” Yet, instead of “laying bare” the illusion of fiction, the above contemporary and Gothic examples actually further encourage a fictional illusion.

I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about the different ways texts address us directly and about how this might speak to the relationships between authors and readers. In teaching my undergraduate lit course, I’ve been struggling with questions surrounding the making of textual meaning: Exactly who has authority in the act of reading, the reader or the text? What matters more, the author’s intentions or our own personal readings? Obviously these questions are not new; in fact, they pertain to some of the largest debates in literary theory and can be seen in the differences among Biographical Criticism, New Criticism, and Reader Response Criticism. While there is no single, obvious, right answer to these questions, scholarship on metafiction and second person narration has helped me to think through these issues.

In Phenomenology and Aesthetics, Robert R. Ellis describes the use of second person narration as a means of accurately expressing the “relationship between the author/reader and the object of his creation.” According to Ellis, the use of first person “disguises the alterity” of fictional characters by encouraging the reader to see him/herself in the “I” of the text. Third person, on the other hand, masks the sameness of the fictional world by creating distance between the reader and the "he/she" of the narrative. Second person narration bridges this divide, allowing readers to perceive the fictional world as simultaneously subjective and objective. By addressing the reader directly as “you,” texts that employ elements of second person narration encourage readers to think about where they stand in relation to the text. It is easy to see how metafiction can function in a similar way. If we return to Danielewski’s anti-epigraph, the focus on “this” and “you” highlights this subjective/objective act of perception, as well as the inherent tensions between the text and the reader: “This” may exist with or without the reader, but even the interpretation of what “this” is (the novel? the narrative? the book?) is reliant on readerly interpretation.

In thinking about this relationship, I have found Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s observations on impossible narration to be helpful. Impossible narration, or unnatural narration, violates the typical physical laws and logical principles that govern the limitations of knowledge. In writing about Christine Brooke Rose’s experimental novel Thru, Rimmon-Kenan writes, “The novel repeatedly reverses the hierarchy of narrative levels, transforming a narrated object into a narrating agent and vice versa… resulting in a paradox which the text itself puts in a nutshell: ‘Whoever you invented invented you too.’” Many instances of unconventional narration, including second person and impossible narration, as well as metafictional moments, seem to capture this sense of mutual invention: The text and the reader bring each other into being through a complex and dialectical relationship that takes place during the act of reading.

Rimmon-Kenan and Ellis’s remarks recall Rita Felski’s comments on the affectual nature of literature. In Uses of Literature, she writes that “reading is far from being a one-way street; while we cannot help but impose ourselves on literary texts, we are also, inevitably, exposed to them.” Though Felski does not explicitly discuss authors who directly address their readers, her comments offer a useful supplement to Ellis’s observations, since she links the power of literary affect with literature’s ability to simultaneously exist through the act of reading but also outside of it. Second person narration, the direct address of the reader, and metafictional elements facilitate this type of relationship and also embody many of Felski’s arguments about the complex psychological responses that literature can evoke. It seems like these forms of address can open up a personal, intimate, and often dialogic space in which readers assess their own relationship to the conversation taking place, without necessarily feeling removed from the fictional world of the narrative.

Allen, Graham. Roland Barthes. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

Danielewski, Mark Z. Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

Ellis, Robert R. "Phenomenological Ontology and Second Person Narrative: The Case of Butor and Fuentes." Phenomenology and Aesthetics: Approaches to Comparative Literature and the Other Arts. Ed. Marlies Kronegger. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1991. N. pag. Print.

Felski, Rita. Uses of Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008. Print.

Lewis, M. G. The Monk: A Romance. London: Printed for J. Bell, 1796. Print.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen, 1983. Print.

Snicket, Lemony, and Brett Helquist. The Bad Beginning. New York: HarperCollins, 1999. Print.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto, a Gothic Story. Parma: Printed by Bodoni, for J. Edwards, 1791. Print.

Waugh, Patricia. Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-conscious Fiction. London: Methuen, 1984. Print.

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