Unreliable narrators. A term describing a certain literary technique. If you’re an English Literature student, you hear it thrown around all the time.
What is it? According to Wikipedia: ‘an unreliable narrator is a narrator, whether in literature, film, or theatre, whose credibility has been seriously compromised. The term was coined in 1961 by Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction.‘ It often leaves readers wondering ‘how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.’
I’m not discrediting it. The concept makes sense and it’s an apt explanation.
Stevens in The Remains of the Day (Ishiguro) is an unreliable narrator. So is Kathy H. in Never Let Me Go (Ishiguro). We mustn’t forget Saleem Sinai in Midnight’s Children (Rushdie) too. Fight Club (Palahniuk). American Psycho (Ellis). Time’s Arrow (Amis). Gone Girl (Flynn). Even films such as The Usual Suspects and A Beautiful Mind.
Last month, Kazuo Ishiguro did a live webchat interview on The Guardian website in promotion of his upcoming novel, The Buried Giant. One commenter asked him a question about unreliable narrators:
BabyH: Many of your books depend on a self-deluding or otherwise unreliable narrator. What is it particularly that interests you in this device?
And his answer just blew me away. Or rather, made me realise just how stuck I was in the academic mindset (emphasis mine).
There are a few questions in this chat about unreliable narrators, and so this is in answer to some of the others as well. When I started out, I never really thought specifically about ‘the unreliable narrator’. In fact, that term wasn’t thrown around back then nearly as much as it is now. I just wrote my narrators up in the way I felt was authentic – the way I felt most people would go about telling a story about themselves. That’s to say, any of us, when asked to give an account of ourselves over any important period of our lives, would tend to be ‘unreliable’. That’s just human nature. We tend to be ‘unreliable’ even to ourselves – maybe especially to ourselves. I didn’t think of it as a literary technique. That’s kind of how I think of my narrative voices now, today. I wouldn’t want my narrators to be any more unreliable than the average person would be in a similar context.
Profound, insightful and oh so true. This is why I love Ishiguro, because he is so down to earth and genuine, humble and sensitive, and such a fine, talented author.
Though I doubt my examiners would be pleased if I wrote that as an answer in my exams…
(The entire interview is fascinating. I recommend reading the whole thing. He briefly talks about writing Japanese dialogue in English, something I personally struggle with. He says:
[I]n my early books, I was obliged to create the impression that the characters (even the narrator, in my second book) was speaking not in English, but in Japanese. But the book was somehow reaching the reader in English. So I had to create a kind of subtitles effect. I couldn’t let loose with Japanese people going ‘cor blimey’ or ‘what ho’. So I had to invent a kind of careful, ‘foreign’ language.
I would have loved for him to elaborate more on this particular topic, but unfortunately he ran out of time before I could ask my question. But I do have his first 2 novels set in Japan sitting on my desk waiting to be read. I’m excited to see what secrets and techniques I can glean from them!)
- A Beautiful Mind
- American Psycho
- Bret Easton Ellis
- Chuck Palahniuk
- English Literature
- Fight Club
- Gillian Flynn
- Gone Girl
- Kathy H.
- Kazuo Ishiguro
- literary technique
- Martin Amis
- Midnight's Children
- Never Let Me Go
- Saleem Sinai
- Salman Rushdie
- The Buried Giant
- The Guardian
- The Remains of the Day
- The Rhetoric of Fiction
- The Usual Suspects
- Time's Arrow
- unreliable narrator
- unreliable narrators
- Wayne C. Booth