Why Is Every “I” Also a Genius?


I am currently under threat of hurricane, and electrical power/internet access could be cut at any moment, so I will be brief: I recently attempted to write a short story in the form of the narrating character’s first-person blog. It was difficult, to say the least, largely because the narrator was a low-key software engineer approaching 30 and living in Maryland with his wife and child.

The main difficulty came from the fact that this character was in no way realistically allowed to be verbose. He could have some wisdom, and make insightful observations about other characters, but this was not a character who would ever use the words “ochre” or “mephitic” or “redolent.” This was not a guy whose paragraphs would run half a page long. He would use “like” a lot, though. I tried to give him a kind of knockabout vocabulary, and let him have a lot of solid-image type of similes and metaphors, but if you’ve read my other posts you know I tend to be a endless sentence, multi-clausal type of writer, and this guy was the opposite of that. I don’t think I got it right the first time, but I think I can hit the target in rewrites.

What got me about writing the story is that in so many of the first-person stories, the narrator is in the form of someone who gives the author the cover he needs to use a vocabulary as amazingly extensive as the author’s. Either the narrator is a scholar of European literature, or an unrealistically precocious child, or a brainy college student. It isn’t common enough to dominate first-person stories, but it’s enough to make me wonder where the line is between acceptably smart narrator and “of course the bouncer at the club my story is set at is also a reader of Proust. What bouncer isn’t?” I’m reminded of a summary I read about Ian McEwan’s Saturday, where there was some weird combination of the lead character being a surgeon who loves poetry who has a son who is a poet whose family is eventually held hostage by a persistent thug who also happens to love poetry, and so forth.

This issue nags at me because it is these types of novels that earn a great deal of praise, I think in some small part because they play on reviewers’ pride and intelligence. The narrator make an allusion to T.S. Eliot, and the reviewers feels good about himself because he gets it. I don’t have much more to say about it than that, and the fact that it’s something to watch out for, in my own writing and in the writing of others. Just because the writer’s smart doesn’t mean the characters should be.

-Aaron Weiner

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