Editors are not all-powerful goddesses, even though we look the part. ;) We have bosses, just like any other person working a job. I'm the managing editor, and my boss is the publisher, and part of my job is enforcing the publisher's rules across the entire acquisitions and editing process.
Sometimes I get to make some rules, and sometimes I get to influence some rules, and sometimes I do what I'm told without having any influence on that mandated rule. Part of being an effective employee is knowing when to hold and when to fold. The first time, the very first time, I asked my boss about her rule banning first person narratives, the tone in her voice made it clear that this was not a hand I wanted to play. She has strong feelings on the subject, and I trust her editorial sense. If she says these don't fit our house style and mission, then they don't, and that's that.
I might ante up on other topics, and at different times, I've played my cards on a wide variety of subjects. Don't ask for details, though, because another part of my job is to be a good public representative of the company. This means that, win or lose, I don't air our debates in public. We present a unified front because we are, in fact, unified in our mission of making this company strong and positive and supportive and successful.
Some battles have been hard fought and hard won, but never in the sense that my boss and I are adversaries. We play on the same team. She's my leader, and I am her enforcer. We might disagree in the course of making decisions, but in the end, once the decision is made, I implement it without further debate. And to the best of my ability. Because that's my role, and it's one I embrace willingly.
So. We don't publish first-person narratives because our publisher said not to, and she means it. I've never tried to change her mind on this topic because I know how to pick my battles, and because, even though I enjoy reading first person stories, the slush pile has convinced me that the publisher is probably right about this.
First Person Pitfalls
It surprises me to say that because I enjoy first person narratives. I read plenty of them -- in fact, right now, I'm working my way with great pleasure through the Tasha Alexander books, which are first-person historical mysteries. Before I came to work at Red Sage, I handled plenty of first-person narratives as a freelance editor, writing instructor, agent, and so on. I have no bias against this form of pov.
But our books are erotic romances, which means there's a higher than average (and more explicit than average) amount of sexual content in them. Human sexual behavior tends to be highly personal (with some commonalities, of course), and pov might influence the way we read a sex scene more so than it influences the way we read other kinds of scenes. That is, it's one thing to read about someone else doing something that we might not do. It's entirely another to read about "I" doing it. And all it takes is one little detail, one thing that the reader might not personally relate to, and the reader bond is weakened. Maybe even broken.
I kissed my way down his broad, strong back, admiring the planes of his muscles as I lingered here or there. When I reached his ass, I pulled apart the round globes of his cheeks and then I licked his asshole. (Reader: OMG, I would never do that.)
She kissed her way down his broad, strong back, admiring the planes of his muscles as she lingered here or there. When she reached his ass, she pulled apart the round globes of his cheeks and then she licked his asshole. (Reader: Euw, but okay, if you think it's fun, go for it and I'll watch and wait until you start doing things I like better.)
Yes, there is the third option, the one in which a reader thinks, Yay! Yummy! and eagerly reads for more asshole licking, regardless of the pov of the narrative. As a house, we can choose to cater to this reader, perhaps by including notes on the product page about particular fetishes. Or we can choose, as we have chosen, a more mainstream approach which focuses on character, premise, plot, conflict, etc., and references the sexual content as it relates to those elements. This better fits our house style and mission.
There are other common pitfalls to first person which are unrelated to sexual content. Just listing them off the top of my head --
- Uneven voice. It frequently happens that the author can sustain the first-person narrator's voice during exposition ("telling") or interior monologue, but completely loses it during action and dialogue.
- Too much exposition. An inexperienced author sometimes tries to compensate for this uneven voice by relying more on exposition than on scenes. This makes for a boring narrative, no matter how lively the character voice.
- Drowning in I. Too many I pronouns can make for a claustrophobic and repetitive narrative.
- Failure to leverage. This is one of my pet peeves. The main reason to choose first person pov is to provide a consistent filter through which the reader perceives the action. First person narrators are often unreliable because their perspectives color their interpretations of the narratives. It's that filter in action. Bridget Jones was wrong about Daniel Cleaver and wrong about Mark Darcy, but we initially saw these characters through her eyes, so we wandered down the wrong path with her. Would that story have been as entertaining if Bridget was always right?
*I don't ask for changes that would weaken the story. Duh, right? There have been extremely rare instances (Alicia will remember one) when we've had first person narratives that were exactly right as first person narratives. The action was vivid and strong, the voice was consistent and interesting, the amount of exposition was appropriate, the narrative frame was relevant to the story, and the sexual content was both hot enough and mainstream enough to work within the context of erotic romance as we publish them. But these are extremely rare manuscripts, and we handle them with caution. More likely, as we ask for revisions to a first-person narrative, we're also discussing other changes we want to make, like a shift in narrative focus away from telling and into actual scenes.
This is in danger of turning into a ramble now. Instead of continuing to get deeper into detail, I'll turn it back over to the commenters who prompted this post. Does this answer your questions? Does it raise more questions?