the unreliable narrator

Here is a guest entry by Diana Spechler, author of the new novel, WHO BY FIRE.  I asked her to talk about the subject of her literary salon, which we called Write or Wrong:  The Unreliable Narrator Defines Virtue.  A short description of the salon was this:  One person’s morality is another person’s evil.  How do we know our principles are virtuous?  And how can we be so sure that people who seem evil are that different from us?


At Book Group Expo a couple of weekends ago, Susanne Pari moderated a panel (comprised of Andre Dubus III and me) about the unreliable narrator.  Before I was asked to be on the panel, I hadn’t really thought much about the word “unreliable” in connection with the three narrators in my novel.  I panicked a little.  I couldn’t believe I was being relied on to reliably present my narrators as unreliable.  What if I couldn’t deliver?  Fellow authors and readers would forever consider me unreliable.

I employed the sometimes-reliable Wikipedia.

An unreliable narrator, I read, “is a narrator whose credibility is seriously compromised…due to psychological instability, a powerful bias, a lack of knowledge, or even a deliberate attempt to deceive the reader or audience.”

Okay.  But doesn’t that describe, like, I don’t know, every person in the entire universe?

Perhaps not everyone suffers from psychological instability, but who doesn’t have biases?  Who doesn’t lack knowledge?  Who never deliberately attempts to deceive his audience?

Take me, for example.  While I was writing my novel, I suffered many episodes of psychological instability, like the time my computer crashed and I lost three days’ work, and I stood in my apartment in my bathrobe, my head thrown back, screaming and trying to yank my hair out of my scalp.

And bias?  Yeah, try telling me my nieces aren’t flawless.

Lack of knowledge?  Okay, I lack a little knowledge now and then.

And do I attempt to deceive my audience?  Yup.  At Applebee’s, where I was once a waitress, I was trained to “up-sell” by using “sizzle” words (i.e. “How about a nice, refreshing, frosty iced tea?” or “Wouldn’t you like a juicy, delicious glistening steak?”)  Look.  You can take the girl out of Applebee’s, but you can’t take Applebee’s out of the girl:  I am to this day a frequent user of sizzle words.

So.  Of course my narrators are unreliable.  How could I, the most unreliable of narrators, create reliable narrators?  By the same token, how could my mother, who often blurts in fits of emotion, “Diana,  you’re perfect!” and who has told me all my life that anyone who doesn’t like me is “just jealous,” have created a reliable daughter?

Unreliable begets unreliable.  We are a culture, a planet, a galaxy of unreliable narrators.  We push our agendas.  We avoid eye contact.  We screen our phone calls, dye our hair, guard our passwords, and wear slimming colors.  We say things like, “You’ve never looked better,” “I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love you,” and “I’ll call you right back.”

But I digress.

My point is that the Unreliable Narrator panel wasn’t scary at all.  It was awesome (I know: “awesome” is a sizzle word).  I loved every second of it.  But by now you don’t trust me, so I really shouldn’t bother to tell you what I think.


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