Today has been a long day. You leave work, that thankless retail day job; you return home; you open your laptop screen. You trawl your RSS feeds, searching for news, for entertainment, for anything: distraction. You are overeducated, lovelorn, a little insecure; you are in your twenties. When the New York Times writes of you, it is laughable; when the Huffington Post notices, it is absurd. You, you, you: you exit your windows. You close your laptop. You are exhausted.
- But it was never really about "you," was it?
A pox upon the second person, the point of view seemingly favored by so many Millennial bloggers – or perhaps simply promoted in particular by one blog, a purported voice of the Millennials. I am talking, irritatingly enough, of Thought Catalog, a blog that likes to think of itself as “in some small way…the future of journalism,” though if meandering personal accounts of breaking up with one’s college girlfriend or top ten lists liberally peppered with the word “twentysomething” are the genre’s future, maybe it really is time to let it die. No matter: for a true dose of narcissism, check out any of the posts that use the second person, that mark of self-obsession disguised as authorial immediacy.
Though at surface level it might offer a promise of human engagement, the “you” of posts such as “Sixteen Months in Sweaters” or “The Fear of Getting Hurt Again,” when scrutinized, is ultimately concerned not with the audience’s engagement but rather, their adoration. Why else hew so closely to the introspective personal? – “…You notice a vintage looking cable-knit sweater with a big, navy-colored felt ‘Y’ on the front…fuck it – you’re about to be a Yale graduate. The next day you go home and wear it for the next week because fuck it – you’re a Yale graduate…You’re wearing this sweater when you hear that one of your classmates died in a car accident.” Okay, okay, we get it, Vlad Chituc – you went to Yale. Good for you. But it’s a big wide Internet world, and how many audience members reading this could say the same?
And this is the failing of the second person: by imposing the particulars of its writer’s life onto the lived experiences of its readers, it forfeits all literary authority, perverting whatever message or point the writer might have been attempting into something juvenile and self-centered. Worse yet, in iterations such as the above, it forgets the complexities of the society reading it – when blogs like Thought Catalog, books like Fuck! I’m In My Twenties, and television shows like Girls present the Millennial experience as purely that of the upper-middle class liberal arts experience, they do a disservice to the moral capabilities of art. There is no transcendence in the above examples, no moment of unexpected and shared connection between the reader and the author; instead, any argument that the writer might make is instantly diminished by the very obvious fact that well, no, it didn’t happen to me.
Why exactly do so many writers of our generation seem so attached to this perspective? For one thing, it’s easy – creating an actual emotional bond with one’s audience takes work and talent, both of which can be hard to cultivate and nurture amidst the immediate gratification of digital publishing. The second person also emerges from a kind of self-consciousness – as the cliché goes, the Internet never forgets. What if we fuck up, what if we write something stupid, what if we make a mistake? It’s out there, waiting. The second person safeguards against any future embarrassment by placing the burden of connection on the reader, not the writer; ultimately, this results in lazy work. Truly effective writing, like all art, can only emerge from a place of vulnerability, a kind of exposure of the self that is possible in the first or third but utterly obscured in the second person. In short: it works to shield, not reveal.
All hope is not lost. There is a very simple solution, a very easy cure, to the problem of the second person: “I.” Or better yet: “he,” “she,” “they.” It shouldn’t be this hard to look outside of our selves, to engage in empathy with our readers. Only connect, wrote E. M. Forster a hundred years ago, only connect. But in an era of emails and anger, who will?
Rhian Sasseen writes and lives in Cambridge, MA.