Kendall Walton suggests that the inability of the reader to act within the story is part of the power of the work of art: “The convention that prevents Harry… from leaping to the defense of a damsel in distress may result in his reflecting more deeply on her predicament; he does not interrupt his reflections to intervene, nor do worries about whether he should (fictionally) intervene intrude. Since the game is such that it cannot be fictional that he intervenes, it is likely to involve a richer collection of fictional truths about his thoughts and feelings.” It could be, then, that by calling attention to the reader’s presence by direct address the narrator causes her to feel obliged, if not actually to take action, at least to feel as if she should take action. If Walton is right, when the narrator addresses the reader, she may impede the development of the reader’s reflections and alter the depth and quality of feelings she would otherwise have experienced.
If this were the case, though, how are we to respond to entire fictional narratives written in the second person? “You asked the baker for the almond croissant, your favorite, but he gave you the plain one.” Or “You have just glanced out the window and noticed that the engine is engulfed in flames. You scream but no sound is forthcoming.” Will the reader reflect more, or less, deeply on what is fictionally her own predicament and not that of another fictional character? Will she empathize with her fictional self as convincingly as she would with other fictional others? In my experiences of reading novels in the second person, I start thinking of the “you” as someone other than me, almost as if “you” were a name for a third person. Even with such an unintentional shifting of the referent of the “you,” I remember not engaging emotionally very well with this “you” character.
But what if, instead of finding oneself as a reader inscribed in a fictional narrative as “you” or as “reader,” one found oneself addressed directly, by first name, by a narrator? This is just the sort of completely original (to my knowledge) way of presenting fictional narrative that Marie Laberge, prize-winning novelist and playwright from Québec, is now employing in her project, entitled Des nouvelles de Martha [Martha’s News]. Laberge presents an epistolary novel in installments sent out to subscribers via conventional post. Subscribers receive 26 letters (in French) across a twelve-month period (January to December of 2009), from her narrator Martha. In a recent (January 22) radio interview with Radio Canada’s Christiane Charette, Laberge explained that each letter of three or four pages will begin with Martha greeting her subscriber by first name. Then, Martha, a woman with grown children and young grandchildren, who is making some important realizations about herself and her life, will present the world from her perspective. Two different letters will be created for each mail-out, one for female readers and one for male readers, although the essentials narrated will be the same. Laberge has already received subscription orders from approximately 36,500 readers from around the world, of whom about three quarters are women, and one quarter men. At present, Laberge has not decided whether the collected letters will later be published as a novel. Those interested in the project or in subscribing to receive Martha’s news should check out Laberge’s website, www.marielaberge.com. The deadline for subscribing is soon: March 1, 2009.
How might reader response be influenced by this unique method of narrative presentation? First, we may be less likely to believe that the narrative is unraveling toward a conclusion already known and recorded by the author – and this is so whether or not Laberge has the plot planned out. When one reads a novel in book form, even an epistolary novel, one can flip to the end and read the end of the story at will. Not so in this case. And if I believe that the author does not know what is going to happen, I, as the reader, may experience more or less thoughts, feelings and memories than I otherwise would have. Second, there is that personal address at the beginning of each installment of Martha’s story. How might it influence empathy and sympathy for Martha and her family and friends? How might it influence the degree to which readers experience other emotions and memories associated with the narrative? Will readers experience more insight or less when reading a novel presented in this way? Kudos to Laberge for offering readers the chance to find out.
Denis Diderot (1951/1773-1775). Oeuvres. André Billy, Ed. Paris: Gallimard, p. 475. The translation is mine.
Kendall Walton (1990). Mimesis as make-believe. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, p. 228.