Not going to lie, I appreciate a book with an unreliable narrator. I don’t trust people anyway, and I love when books play to my biases. I suppose I should make a distinction here. The author and the narrator are different in fiction novels. That’s definitional. The author can be unreliable — even in his own world. I’m thinking about the loose ends Stephen King leaves behind or that time JK Rowling spent a ridiculous number of pages trying to patch an obvious plot hole in Chamber of Secrets. The fact is, writers sometimes forget what they’ve written. Last week I was working on a story and wrote about a half page before realizing that I had already recorded that tidbit earlier.
Fictional authors are usually trying to be reliable. They don’t always keep their narrators accountable to those same standards. I love it — whether it is Melville’s Benito Cereno where the narrator is unreliable simply because he is super racist or Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury where the narrator is severely disabled. (I’m about half-way through The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and still haven’t decided if the narrator’s autism makes him unreliable or the most reliable narrator ever.) These are aware unreliable narrators. That is to say, the author set out to create an unreliable narrator. This is what I like.
Contrast this to unaware unreliable narrators where the author created a narrator like him- or herself without realizing their own biases. Ayn Rand is jumping to mind, but most writers do it in some capacity. Some hide it well and some are just dumb about it.
Of course, if you’re a fan of the unreliable narrator you’ll find the average bookstore has several sections dedicated to them. Yes, that’s right, sections. Big sections too. I’m not 100% sure how many of these books are aware and how many are unaware. It seems that they’re masking that information, going as far as to make it sound like the narrator and the author are one-in-the-same.
If you haven’t figured it out, I’m talking about the “Religious,” “Inspiration,” “Self-Help,” etc. sections. They’re about 30% of my local Barnes and Noble, and there isn’t a single reliable narrator anywhere on the shelf. Oh sure, some of them think they’re reliable … like the author of “Self-Healing through Crystals,” but if your narrator has a fundamental misunderstanding of the function of the universe. Well, that’s an unreliable narrator. Most of these books have a different kind of unreliable narrator — a salesperson. It’s an entire book about buying the next book from this author, or the companion yoga set, or the recipe guide.
Honestly, most writers have agendas. Maybe they’re trying to prove a point. Maybe it’s all about mimicking an emotion. I find myself writing to deal with my fears. That’s all okay with me. Somehow I don’t see “selling” as quite that valid. Nor am I entirely sure proselytizing is a valid reason to write a book. Oh well, I’m just ranting again.