If you are interested in blogging or want to promote your book next year, please contact E. B. Davis at writerswhokill@gmail.com

Our April author interviews: Perennial author Susan Wittig Albert--4/5, Sasscer Hill, horse racing insider--4/12, English historical, cozy author, TE Kinsey--4/19, Debut author, Susan Bickford--4/26.

Saturday Guest Bloggers in April: Heather Baker Weidner (4/1), Christina Hoag (4/8), Susan Boles (4/29). WWK Saturday bloggers write on 4/15--Margaret S. Hamilton and on 4/22--Kait Carson.

Julie Tollefson won the Mystery Writers of America Midwest Chapter's Holton Award for best unpublished manuscript (member category) for her work in progress, In The Shadows. Big news for a new year. Congratulations, Julie.

Congratulations to our writers for the following publications:

Warren Bull's new Lincoln mystery, Abraham Lincoln In Court & Campaign has been released. Look for the Kindle version on February 3.

Shari Randall's "Pets" will be included in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies anthology, which will be published in 2018. In the same anthology "Rasputin," KM Rockwood's short story, will also be published.

Margaret S. Hamilton's short story, "Once a Kappa" was published as a finalist in the Southern Writer's Magazine annual short story contest issue. Mysterical-E published her "Double Crust Corpse" in the Fall 2016 issue. "Baby Killer" will appear in the 2017 solar eclipse anthology Day of the Dark to be published this summer prior to the eclipse in August.

Linda Rodriquez has two pending book publications. Plotting the Character-Driven Novel will be released by Scapegoat Press on November 29th. Every Family Doubt, the fourth Skeet Bannion mystery, is scheduled for release on June, 13, 2017. Look for E. B. Davis's interview with Linda here in June!

Cross Genre Publications anthology, Hidden Youth, will contain Warren Bull's "The Girl, The Devil, and The Coal Mine." The anthology will be released in late November 2016. The We've Been Trumped anthology released by Dark House Press on September 28th contains Warren Bull's "The Wall" short story and KM Rockwood's "A Phone Call to the White House." KM writes under the name Pat Anne Sirs for this volume.

James M. Jackson's 4th book in the Seamus McCree series, Doubtful Relations, is now available. His novella "Low Tide at Tybee" appears February 7 as part of Lowcountry Crimes: Four Novellas, which is available for order.

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Sunday, September 18, 2016

Unreliable Narrators

The problem with unreliable narrators is that even when they are telling an important truth, you can’t quite believe them. Unreliable narrators have become quite fashionable of late. Jan and I were turned on to the television show Mr. Robot by her children. They told us we needed to see season one to understand the background and make sense of the current season two.

We watched the first season utilizing Netflix and now are working our way through recorded shows of the second season. [To avoid commercials and their phalanx of unreliable narrators, I watch almost nothing live.] I won’t give away the plot, but suffice it to say, there is at least one major character the viewer needs to treat with a salt lick’s worth of skepticism.

Back a couple of years ago, two “Girl-titled” books included largely unreliable narrators. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl told the story through the unreliable eyes of both Nick and Amy Dunne. In Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins created the unreliable Rachel and used her narrative for us to understand or try to understand what happened.

Unreliable narrators aren’t anything new. Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita is unreliable. So is Alex in Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange. Holden Caulfield tells us up front in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye that “I am the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.” I’d be willing to argue that even that is a lie.

I frankly don’t like unreliable fictional narrators. I feel as though the author is using a cheap device to trick me. Now that’s just me; the authors have won prizes and millions of satisfied readers, so I’m clearly the troglodyte when it comes to using the technique. (Gone Girl has over one million Goodreads ratings of “really like it” or “it was amazing.”[i])

I worry that we’ve become used to the technique in television and novels, and when it appears in real life, we just dump it into the bucket “unreliable narrator” and move on. Consider the two major party candidates for President of the United States.

As of this writing, PolitiFact has rated 253 Donald Trump statements[ii]. Only thirty-eight were “True” or “Mostly True,” leaving 215 as half-truths or worse. How much worse? They labeled fully 53% of his statements as “False” or “Pants on Fire.” (Pants on Fire statements are both false and make a ridiculous claim.) As I write this blog on Friday, Trump again uttered his claim that Clinton’s 2008 campaign started the (Obama) birther controversy. I’d be willing to bet that even the fictional narrators I labeled as unreliable would score better than Trump.

Hillary Clinton has her own unreliable narrator issues. Of the 252 Clinton statements PolitiFact has checked[iii], 127 or slightly more than 50% were “True” or “Mostly True.” That’s better than three times as many as for Trump. On the negative side, only 13% of Clinton’s statements were labeled as “False” or “Pants on Fire.” While that’s only a quarter of Trump’s fabrications, it’s still pretty bad: one of every eight statements test is untrue. If I had lied that often to my parents my butt would still be sore from my punishment, and justifiably so. Even with a (relatively) better record of telling the truth, it's hard to trust her when she can’t even fess up to having pneumonia.

We citizens of the United States shake our heads and tell pollsters we dislike both candidates (and Trump only a bit worse than Clinton). But we tend to take our candidate’s lies at face value and jump all over the other candidate’s prevarications. It’s just politics, we say.

The only beneficiary I can see in this whole mess is Congress. What? Yep, Congressional approval ratings, which had dropped in 2015 to a low of 11% (that’s only 1 in 9 people approve), have recently increased to 30%[iv]. Compared to the drumbeat of lies from the presidential primaries and race, Congress is starting to look good?

I still don’t like unreliable narrators. I don’t know what they are going to do. That may be okay for fiction, but in real life it’s a problem—and I am not a happy camper.

~ Jim



[i] https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/19288043-gone-girl
[ii] http://www.politifact.com/personalities/donald-trump/
[iii] http://www.politifact.com/personalities/hillary-clinton/
[iv] http://www.gallup.com/poll/195632/approval-congress-inches-september.aspx

15 comments:

Steve Liskow said...

Several other major works with unreliable narrators: Huckleberry Finn, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Heart of Darkness (people argue with me about this), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and, to some degree, Great Expectations. Maybe even Absolom, Absolom.

I think an unreliable narrator serves a purpose when you're writing satire--assuming people "get it," which is why Huckleberry Finn is often called a racist novel by careless readers--but it's becoming something of a cliche in mystery fiction. Since the investigator has to work on the assumption that everyone may be lying anyway, it can feel redundant.

I'm the only person I know who wasn't blown away by Gone Girl. The prose was exquisite, but the characters were so over the top that the book self-destructed under the weight of its own absurdity. When the technique is used well, it's very powerful and effective.

Jim Jackson said...

Hey Steve -- I had considered adding The Great Gatsby to my list; I had not thought about Heart of Darkness. I have to fess up to not reading . Based on what people told me about Gone Girl I didn't read it either, but I was underwhelmed by Girl on the Train.

I take you point about satire & agree investigators need to assume people are unreliable either on purpose or because of stress. I do appreciate when authors use multiple POVs to let us see how different characters with their individual backgrounds and prejudices view the same events in two different ways.

This hearing/seeing with different perspectives happens frequently in politics. Take Trump's 8/9/16 speech that included ". . . Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment. By the way, and if she gets to pick --if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don't know. But I'll tell you what, that will be a horrible day, if -- if -- Hillary gets to put her judges in."

The interpretation is not around whether Hillary wants to abolish the second amendment (she doesn't and can't even if she did it takes a constitutional amendment for that), but how one interprets what the "Second Amendment people" can do. Supports see that as a call to vote -- others see it as an oblique call to make sure Clinton doesn't serve by whatever means "Second Amendment people" might employ -- i.e. assassination.

I don't want to start an argument which is correct, I use it as an example of how two groups can look at the same fact (the video of Trump's speech) and come to opposite conclusions of his intent. Capturing those perceptional differences in story and dialogue can be great writing.

And as with anything great, a bit too much makes it bleck.

Julie Tollefson said...

Matching wits with a fictional unreliable narrator can be a bit of a thrill, but in real life they are draining and frustrating. Your point about each side taking their own candidate's statements at face value is valid and hugely problematic, made worse by the echo chambers we create by only hearing people who hold our same opinions. And then we get into a game of degrees of lies--"Maybe my candidate stretched the truth, but his/her lies are not nearly as bad/big/damaging as your candidate's lies." I'll take it in fiction, but in real life? Bah.

KM Rockwood said...

My favorite unreliable narrator book is The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter (a pseudonym.)

It's a memoir-style story of a Cherokee boy growing up in the Appalachian mountains, raised by his grandparents in a world that was not sympathetic to the plight of native Americans. It was released at three separate times, often to much acclaim and received many awards.

Turns out that not only is Little Tree himself an unreliable narrator, the actual author was Asa Earl Carter, a white supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan.

Margaret Turkevich said...

The Game of Lies! The perfect title for our current political process.

Jim Jackson said...

Julie -- not only are they echo chambers, they have a volume boost to them.

KM -- Interesting double twist on The Education of Little Tree.

Jim Jackson said...

Margaret -- LOL!

Donnell Ann Bell said...

What about Rebecca with Daphne du Maurier. Interesting post, Jim. I couldn't get through Mr. Robot, although I think the main protagonist is an amazing actor. I guess subtext is old news. It's all about an unreliable narrator. Ever notice when authors jump on the literary bandwagon. Hollywood eats it up as well.

Jim Jackson said...

Donnell -- With rare exceptions, Hollywood and publishing are both about jumping on a trend until it becomes stale and then complaining that there's nothing fresh -- having rejected all the fresh ideas that came their way while they pursued the same old, same old.

Kait said...

Good post, Jim. I have a serious problem with the unreliable narrator. I tend to look at the book with a jaundiced eye and never am able to get through the third wall. Silly, I know. That's not to say I don't read and enjoy the books, just that they don't seem to move me, or ever seem 100% genuine. I feel as if the author is performing slight of hand and winking at me at the same time. Very distracting!

Shari Randall said...

I haven't read Girl on the Train but did read Gone Girl. I'll admit that Flynn's sleight of hand blew me away so much that I ignored gaping plot holes. Did I feel like I wanted to wash my soul after reading it? Yes, yes I did. That visceral reaction was one a lot of readers shared and helped make that book such a sensation.
Am I tired of all the "Girl" books now? Yes, yes I am. Time for Boy books?
About all the political stuff - I am counting the days until Election Day!

Gloria Alden said...

One of my book clubs chose Gone Girl. I could only read a short bit of it before I stopped reading it. I haven't read Girl on the Train because I think it would be much the same way. I can't name any particular book - mostly mysteries - that I've read with an unreliable narrator, but I know I've read some and knew I wouldn't read more by the author. Like Kait, I'm counting the days until election day. I'm so tired of hearing of the outrageous lies being told and followers accepting it as being acceptable.

Cheri Vause said...

You forgot one of the most unreliable narrators of them all... The Media.

Merrily Boone said...

My first experience with an unreliable narrator was when I read the Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I hate unreliable narrators and feel like my trust has been broken, so I don't read writers who use them.
You're not alone. My husband and I didn't like Gone Girls.
Merrily

Jim Jackson said...

Kait, Shari, Gloria & Merrily -- It's nice to know I have some company. But again it goes to remind us as authors that no matter what we do, we can't please everyone one and shouldn't try.