Wednesday, February 23, 2011

I doubt my readers will believe me when I say…

I am going to – for the first time ever! – get on board (rimshot) with this whole YA Highway Roadtrip Wednesday business. Finding a community – that's what growing up is about, right?

Well. Today's prompt was broad, about questions relating to writing and publishing, and so I suppose what I have been thinking about most in these last few weeks is, what kind of role is there for unreliable narrators in YA fiction these days? 

I don't think it's any secret that I breathe and bleed Russian lit, when I am not writing my YA/MG stuff, and that is a canon replete with unreliable narrators.
Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire, one of my favorite examples of unreliable narrator.

The POVs are inconsistent and impossible (to quote one reviewer, they are "less who-dunits as they are who-wrote-its"), and all the more so when the narrator breaks the fourth wall and speaks to his readers: that's when you know that nothing is going to be predictable, that the story is not just fictional but unreal, that you can't jump into it and pretend it is real life, because it just CAN'T be. Russian lit is escapism for a society that has to prove they're not doing any escaping at all.

So what about today's (especially American) YA? I love an unreliable narrator, and I would love to write my Russian farce redux with one – I already have the intro laid out:
Noble’s – ah, Noble’s. I myself have spent no little time there, and can personally vouch for the excellence of the service, the quality of the appointment, and the delicacy of the food: in all respects, Noble’s is, indeed, a fine establishment. But you, my dear readers, will perhaps not believe me – you will perhaps not recognize my opinion as authority. And little you should.
But I just don't feel like this kind of unreliable narrator lands in today's market – not even from a publishing standpoint, but just from one of readers' interest: I feel like why YA works is that it offers worlds that ARE just about real enough to escape into. We don't want a narrator that proves to us we can't.

Or do we? I am sure there are examples out there of unreliable YAs that just aren't springing to mind.



  1. There are definately unreliable narrators in YA, but they aren't of the Russian-ilk. What I think of when I think of YA unreliable narrators are people that are busy lying to themselves. Wintergirls by Laurie Halts Anderson is one example. The MC is actively dying of an eating disorder. She can't think straight and is actively diluding herself. There are lots of other less poinent examples. The self-aware teen is definately the norm, but the self-diluted and highly unreliable teen still comes in a healthy second.

  2. Interesting question...
    I worry about making the reader feel cheated or lied to by the unreliable narrator. It must be a fine balance to either let the reader in on the secret or stop them feeling ripped off.
    Could be a good challenge...

  3. There are a few YA titles with unreliable narrators. Catcher in the Rye and Liar come to mind. I am the Messenger isn't exactly an unreliable narrator, but I'd also be tempted to put it in with those.

  4. I don't know-- my brain is fried after a long day. I think Kate makes a good point-- maybe it's more common to see narrators lying to themselves (more of a teenage angsty feel). Many of Sarah Dessen's characters are like that. You watch them try to fool themselves, but it can't last forever. The same for the MC in Speak.

    So, maybe there is not a lot of that around, but that's no reason you shouldn't make it happen.

  5. Totes agree with Kathleen- Justine Larbalestier's Liar is a PRIME example of YA with an unreliable narrator. I think maybe Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson could fit in that category--oh and try Chris Lynch's Inexcusable.

  6. I have to say that the character must not know they lie. They must be true with the belief system they own. I have one character who is very religious - yet invites a demon - she preaches aginst evil yet allows it to suit her purpose.

  7. I must admit I've never really read a YA book that had an unreliable narrator, though I really like reading books like that in general. I guess Markus Zusak's books could be contenders for this category, but most of the YA literature I've read seems determined to convince the reader that what they're reading is real.

  8. I was going to cite LIAR too (although I haven't read it yet). It may be that the unreliable narrator is explored more on the paranormal side of YA, so you should definitely try it out and bring something new to the table.

  9. Cool take. I can't add any unreliable narrators to the YA list that others have composed here, but I like the idea of having more of them in YA. I'd certainly like to see a narrator who isn't simply lying to him/herself, but is intentionally deceptive toward the reader.

  10. LIAR is the only strong example I know of. YA preference for first person and likable protags the reader can route for make the unreliable character a hard one to pull off.

    Sounds like a cool challenge though...The approach would have to be as strong and unique as LIAR, and the reasons would have to be as compelling.

    Or maybe you could do it with a male protag...teen males are notoriously unreliable;)

  11. like anything, I think it can be done as long as it's done well. You face a challenge though, because so many teen readers come to think of the MCs as their friends, so if you have a MC who they don't want to be friends with... It's tricky. I struggled with this myself when I read I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER but it walked the line well enoug to keep me reading.

  12. "HowLynnTime said... I have to say that the character must not know they lie."

    On the flip side, I think that even if the character doesn't see themselves as a liar, there should be clues (even just small ones) that they're unreliable. Very few things annoy me more than reaching the end of a book only to realize that a narrator who I had no reason to doubt was withholding one small, key, peice of information so that there would be a twist at the end.

  13. Ooh! Good question. The only one that comes to mind is Catcher in the Rye, but I know there are tons more.


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