Narrator-Slant and Pronoun Games


It’s all about the point of view (and the viewpoint).


It’ll never be known how this has to be told, in the first person or in the second, using the third person plural or continually inventing modes that will serve for nothing. If one might say: I will see the moon rose, or: we hurt me at the back of my eyes, and especially: you the blond woman was the clouds that race before my your his our yours their faces. What the hell.

—Julio Cortázar, Blow-up (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn in Bestiary)

As introductory paragraphs go, explicit indecision about point of view comes high on my list of attention-grabbing gimmicks. Especially when stated so honestly. The last thing a narrator wants to do from the onset is state their own ineptitude.


Unless the clumsiness, the cluelessness, the fracturing of character is a game of deception relevant to the message. And boy do I want to hear that message! It’s likely to be bold, deep, and disruptive—otherwise it wouldn’t survive the bruising journey through opaque linguistic waters.

It screams metafiction.

But before you get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

But before we get all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, let us consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

But before one gets all outraged about this ludicrous pronoun game, one should consider the dilemma all writers face occasionally.

The pronoun game is real even for the puny blogger.

Each version slants the statement differently: you addresses you, dear reader; we puts me, the author, and you, the reader, on the same side; one tries for neutral and formal.

If blogs have the freedom of choice, other specialised areas have accepted norms. For example, scientific texts mostly eschew I, as too personal and biasing, and often resort to we, which can mean we, the author(s) of the text, or we, as in me, the author, and you, the reader.

Of course, an ocean or two separate Cortázar’s we hurt me at the back of my eyes and the convenient swapping of you-we-one-I every few paragraphs, but it’s worth remembering that even prosaic texts have to resolve this issue (and often do so unsatisfactorily).

Before moving on, I’d like to sort out a possible confusion in terminology: point of view, shortened to POV, and viewpoint (character) are not the same thing to a writer.

(Sloppiness, or editing for elegance and word count, often equates the terms. I’m as guilty as the next person.)

It’s easiest to demonstrate the difference.

Situation: a mother is buying her young son a treat at an ice cream stall.


You can write in first person (a point of view) from at least four different viewpoints:

  • Mother: I think he’s been a good boy, he deserves an ice cream.
  • Son: I’ve been a good boy, I deserve an ice cream.
  • Vendor: I’m glad the strawberry ice cream is selling so well, the new recipe is definitely an improvement.
  • Ice cream: Why was I so lovingly made, only to be torn to scoops repeatedly? Oh, Food Gods spare me!

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Cortázar in First-Person Plural,_1910-11,_Deux_Nus_(Two_Nudes,_Two_Women),_oil_on_canvas,_92_x_66_cm,_Gothenburg_Museum_of_Art,_Sweden.jpg

Jean Metzinger, Two Nudes (1910-11)—she, she, we? The soul-splitting of a narrator in first-person plural.

Stories are usually written in first-person singular (I vomited a rabbit) or in third-person singular (He vomited a rabbit), where I and he are the protagonists.

Occasionally, the disconcerting second-person singular makes a showing, like in Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, or more popularly, in confessions where the reader is requisitioned as judge or jury, like in Albert Camus’s The Fall (here there’s an overarching narrator I, and a second, quasi point of view: you).

If you haven’t thought about how a story in second person would sound, try writing You vomited a rabbit and spinning a narrative therefrom. Then try getting someone to read it; it’s an intrusive, and often grindingly repulsive, experience.

(If you’re wondering why anyone would think of cuddly rabbits in such emetic terms, see Cortázar: Where Bunnies Come From.)

What remains? There’s the first-person plural (we), the second-person plural (you), and the third-person plural (they).

Remarkably, Cortázar’s Bestiary runs the gauntlet of viewpoints (and points of view) and their tangled variations, but his story The Faces of the Medal is consistent: it is written in first-person plural.

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Where Bunnies Come From


I wouldn’t confess my secret either.

I have never described this to you before, not so much, I don’t think, from the lack of truthfulness as that, just naturally, one is not going to explain to people at large that from time to time one vomits up a small rabbit.

—Julio Cortázar, Letter of a Young Lady in Paris (translated from the Spanish by Paul Blackburn)

If Jorge Luis Borges is the literary scientist who excels at exhibiting impossible geometries in miniature, Julio Cortázar is the long-winded, mussy-haired standup act with something direly unsettling about each of his stories, something you really want to pin down, but—no matter how closely you listen—you never will.

When I feel that I’m going to bring up a rabbit, I put two fingers in my mouth like an open pincer, and I wait to feel the lukewarm fluff rise in my throat …


For those unfamiliar with Borges, perhaps I should be playing on a comparison with another short-piece writer closer to the Western ear who was also Cortázar’s contemporary: E. B. White.


Julio Cortázar (1914–1984) was an Argentine writer, and part of the flourishing Latin American literary scene of the 50s and 60s.

E. B. White (1899–1985) was na American writer, known for his contributions to the The New Yorker all of which are firmly grounded in reality. (Although, of course, there’s his fiction for children, such as Charlotte’s Web.) My literary-minded readers will know him for the Strunk & White writing manual that contains such classical advice as Omit needless words, Be clear, and Place yourself in the background.

Now for the comparison.

Within the bastion of brilliant writing, Cortázar is the polar opposite of White.

Let me spell that out:

  1. Cortázar does not omit needless words,
  2. Cortázar is not clear,
  3. Cortázar does not place himself (or, rather, the narrator) in the background.

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Morality and the Multiple Choice Test


On the continuum containing dictionaries with tiny margin-side illustrations and full-blown comics, where would you put a novel in the form of an exam?

An exam with pictures?

No, no pictures. But at least it’s multiple choice.

Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice published in 2014, is a novel-exam hybrid which I’ll refer to as a novexam. It is divided in five sections according to the types of questions he asks of the reader. Section I contains the following instructions (translation from the Spanish by Megan McDowell):

In exercises 1 through 24, mark the answer that corresponds to the word whose meaning has no relation to either the heading or the other words listed.


  1. manifold
  2. numerous
  3. untold
  4. five
  5. two

How would you answer?

Manifold is almost a synonym for multiple, as is numerous, as is the first meaning of untold. But what of five and two? They’re related to each other (as numbers), and they’re both multiples, even if two is smaller than five. The dilemma may appear trivial, or subtle, or indeed unsettling depending on how you see it.

To my US readers: who just had a flashback to an SAT nightmare?

To everyone: if I were giving out instructions on how to read this, and any other, novexam I’d say: before and after reading each “question” remember—remember!that this is voluntary and no one will grade your answers. Otherwise you may not progress past the first few questions, or you may find your blood pressure needs medical attention.

A unique reading experience is undeniably Zambra’s intention, so you shouldn’t completely anaesthetise yourself from the emotional impact, but if you’re unused to challenging books, beware.

— Mini spoiler alert: I will not reveal the plot of the stories, and there are plots and stories in the book; however, I may reveal the moral of Section I, and therefore possibly part of the overall message Zambra wishes to impart—

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Storytelling in Space and Time


Remember, remember, The Last Jedi that came out in December?


There’s the conventional text, rows of inky print on ivory.

Then there’s the audio book on one side and the graphic novel on the other. Audio books replace the visual aspect of reading with an aural one, whereas graphic novels introduce additional visual elements at the expense of words.

Occasionally, the internet debates whether consuming either of these counts as reading, so let me first state my opinion—it depends how you define reading, and in any dialogue I’m willing to be as liberal with the terminology as is needed so long as it’s consistent—and now let me move on.

It’s more interesting to consider how different means of storytelling combine our senses into a coherent experience. After all, we hear in time, but we see in space; to my mind this affects the chosen medium and the experience more so than most other aspects.

Let me explain why.

In storytelling, written words convey both sounds and pictures. You hear that gunshot, you see the victim sprawling. Of course, words can make you cringe or break out in goosebumps; they can make you laugh or teach you a lesson. Like any story.

But it’s also true that sounds—spoken words, music, noise—convey pictures (and words) and more.

Indeed, pictures—moving, stationary, on the page and off, fine art, doodles—convey sounds (and words) and more.

So audio, illustrated, and written mediums, whilst not interchangeable, lend credibility and imaginative capacity to each other like a set of connected siphoning chambers in the reader’s mind.

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Beginning with A

The start of a new year is like the start of spring: you’re full of hope and projects and dreams of summer, albeit due to calendric conventions rather than mating calls and increased sunlight. The newness implies a clean beginning, all metaphorical buds and blossoms, unencumbered by preceding dead leaves. Like the first page of an unread book, or the first sentence of that first page.

But that’s still thinking in generalities.

I wanted to open up this year’s literary adventure with something truly fundamental, yet protean. And what is a more fresh and clean embodiment of potentiality than the first letter of the alphabet?

So I celebrated the 1st of January by flipping through the word-entries under the letter A in a copy of the 1976 Webster’s dictionary.

I would not recommend it as light gym reading: it weights as much as a three-month-old baby (six kilos), it’s markably more oblong and unwieldy than a baby, and is a tad more knowledgable at two-thousand-plus pages. Instead, I would recommend laying the dictionary on a desk, opening it wide, then remaining standing up and looking down at it, from a position of power. Otherwise it may threaten to make you feel diminished.

It’s also an excellent flat paperweight for pressing warped watercolour artworks, crumpled diplomas, or curling old photos—but that’s beside the point!

Here’s a glimpse into the fun I had with the letter A.

We all know the first word of the A section. Can you guess the last, or at least, how close can you get to guessing the last word?

(I tried azalea. Then Azerbaijan. Lastly, azote—which is on the final page of the section, but I couldn’t do any better.)

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Holiday Fragment: Opening up Chinks



A writer has to open up chinks in the walls of cliché that surround each scene. Sometimes the walls are lead, sometimes they’re paper. Reading good books thins the walls or at least tell you where to look for the hairline fissures.

When stuck, apply books to walls (heads tend to get headaches).




This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are based on excerpts and thoughts from my literary diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Ad Nauseam.



Holiday Fragment: The Microcosm of Your Next Story



Repeating words in a description indicates a poor vocabulary or a poor imagination. Of the latter: the real world does not repeat itself because it is infinitely rich, this too should be the apparent case of any fabricated world.

Fictional worlds are often found ballooning at the edges of other work. While editing one piece of writing or reading something entirely different, capture those tantalising ideas that pop up—as iridescent and evanescent as foam-bubbles—they could form the microcosm of your next story.




This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are based on excerpts and thoughts from my literary diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Startled, the Armchair.


Holiday Fragment: Motivation


As an independent unit of life, man faces two limits: that of body and that of mind.

Any instance of human activity ceases either because of a hard biological limit (I broke my arm therefore I cannot paint), or because the discomfort becomes too great (no one is buying the paintings therefore I shall not paint).

The latter is a soft limit that can be stretched through training (perseverance can be learned: maybe I should continue painting anyway?).

However, if the soft limit stretches so far it meets the hard limit, you get the bodily smack-down of madness or illness: you will go no further.

The difference between the soft and the hard limit is measured in effort.

A personal anecdote

A long time ago my high-school sociology teacher delivered a blow to my pride that set me in my place for life. I had asked him for a reference. He wasn’t too worried about keeping what he wrote a secret, indeed, he encouraged me to look at the form, right there, in front of him.

Only one point surprised me: he’d scored me 4 out of 5 on “General Effort”.

Tell me my facts are wrong, tell me my form is poor, but how dare you tell me I didn’t try to the utmost of my ability?

I brought this up in diplomatic tones, and I witnessed the first and so far only instance of someone’s eyes glinting.


Then a grin.

Then he said: “Well, if you’re honest with yourself, do you try as hard as you could be trying?”

You only get so many of those self-searching moments where circumstance, mood, and honesty join in a bitter-sweet union. This was one of them.

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Holiday Fragment: New Year’s Resolution



Welcome to 2018.

May you spend today, and every other day of the year, full of good cheer.

Quiver Quotes resolves to continue diverting its readers and even, occasionally, inciting moments of divergent-thinking. The word continue belies reality: this is no proposal of stasis because each hard-won, minuscule writing improvement in one post incentivises my next post like the head of the ouroboros chasing its own tail. But unlike the ouroboros, I daren’t let one end catch the other, so the circle never completes but instead is a dense, slow, and shallow-inclined spiral that eventually goes up and up and up. (Or so I imagine; do let me imagine.)

What is your New Year’s Resolution?



This is part of a series of short holiday posts that are based on excerpts and thoughts from my diary. Here is what a “usual” post on Quiver Quotes looks like: Charged With Eternity: Quirks and Perks.