Unreliable narrators: a pet peeve

In this post I talk about unreliable narrators in works by various authors, some of whom are or were very prolific, and some of whom are famous for only one or two works. I don’t name any of the books, but in some cases it won’t be difficult to work out. I also discuss the career choices of characters in Little WomenThe Princess Diaries, and the Chalet School series. I’d advise you not to read on if spoilers particularly bother you.

I am also more opinionated than usual, and don’t apologise for it, though I respect your right to enjoy books that I don’t, or not enjoy books that I do. This is, as ever, implied.

Here follows a picture of some street art to give you a chance to escape.

"I thought it was love"
“I thought it was love”

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I enjoy writing unreliable narrators. I enjoy reading them, too. I like to see convincing human beings with their own little biases and weaknesses, who think they’re being ever so objective but are in fact revealing their assumptions and prejudices on every page.

What I am not so keen on is the recent trend for malicious, self-consciously unreliable narrators, the ones who turn on you when you get to the end of the book and say, ‘oh, sorry, did you believe me? MORE FOOL YOU! I’m WRITING A BOOK, you know, and I can write LIES if you like!’

There are two reasons why it annoys me.

Firstly, it breaks the fourth wall and, with it, the implied understanding between author and reader.

I’ve never been particularly interested in reading about writers. I remember getting annoyed by the number of heroines of children’s books who wanted to be, or indeed became, writers. There are an awful lot of them, starting with Jo March in Little Women and stretching all the way to Mia Thermopolis in The Princess Diaries. Almost certainly further, in fact. Joey Maynard in the Chalet School was particularly irritating: she was in a school story, writing school stories. How far down did it go? There are good reasons for this, of course, like the dearth of respectable careers for women in the nineteenth century, but I always felt it betokened a certain lack of imagination.

Something of this irritation has carried over into my reaction to unreliable narrators. I don’t want to be reminded all the time that I’m reading something that’s been written. If good prose is like glass, allowing you to see through it to the story, then reading about writers writing is like a frosted bathroom screen – and getting to the end of a story that turns out to have an unreliable narrator is like walking through a plate glass window. Dramatic, but not actually something you want to do all that often.

Which brings me to my second objection. It’s a bit overdone, and I think it could do with a rest. It’s not just the thriller writers who are at it: big litfic names like Ian McEwan and Lionel Shriver have produced knowing, irritating, unreliable narrators in the last decade or so, and there are only so many times that I can enjoy reaching the end of a book to find that everything that came before is basically meaningless. Apart from anything else, a character who’ll pull that on you is probably not a character with whom you want to share too much headspace.

So far as I’m concerned, you get one free pass on that trick. Not one free pass per author, either. One free pass per reader. And Agatha Christie took mine, years ago.



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