Switching Perspectives

By Marijn Koolen

When talking about books, readers often describe different experiences from different perspectives. What happens with characters in stories might be told from a third person perspective. Characters are mentioned by name first, then later referred to by ‘he’ or ‘she’. What happens to the reader during reading tends to be told from a first person perspective. They use statements like: “I really enjoyed the story” or “the main character made me laugh”. But many reviews also describe certain experiences from a second person perspective. For example: “It makes you feel what the main character feels.” Why do reviewers use this second person perspective and what do they use it for? And when and why do they switch from first to second person perspectives? To find out, we analysed hundreds of thousands of online Dutch book reviews.

Reviewers almost always use pronouns in the third person singular (‘he’, ‘she’, ‘it’). For instance, they refer to the author, the book, the story, or its characters. It is difficult to write a few hundred words without using such personal pronouns. When describing what happens to a character or what the reader thinks about a character, it would be tedious to refer to a character by their name over and over again. Once you start talking about a character, it feels more natural to refer to them using pronouns.

Some reviewers almost never refer to themselves. They use no first person pronouns. They only describe the story and the characters and provide general statements of judgement, like “it is well written” or “the plot is complex and has unexpected twists”. They completely remove themselves from these judgements.

Others refer to themselves a lot. Their reviews describe very personal experiences and regularly drop the perspective of the story and the characters to focus on how the reader felt and what they were thinking about during reading. When talking about personal experiences, it feels quite natural to use a first person perspective, as if these were the reviewer’s own experiences. Other readers of the same novel may have very different experiences. Verbs that are commonly used in combination with first person pronouns express experiences, like “I enjoyed this book a lot” or “the clunky dialogue really annoyed me” or “I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series”. 

But then there are situations where reviewers switch to a second person perspective. We found a few interesting patterns in this usage of the second person. First of all, reviewers who use the first person perspective a lot to describe their own experiences also tend to use more second person pronouns. They refer to a general you. We were intrigued to find out who this second person is. Are they addressing the audience of the review, that is, us as readers of the review? Or is it a generic reader, as suggested by sentences like: “The vivid descriptions of the village really draw you in”. Looking at examples and at the verbs commonly used with this second person, we found that these are action verbs like ‘to absorb’, ‘to engross’ and ‘to imagine yourself in’. It seems that readers who get fully absorbed by and drawn into a novel switch perspective, from themselves as an individual, to something other or more than themselves. 

There are various theories of reading, based on analysing thousands of interviews and surveys conducted with readers of fiction. One of these theories, called Transformative Reading, suggests that the reader’s sense of self can blend with that of story characters, such that it seems like the reader is directly experiencing what happens in the book. The person to which things happen in the story is neither the character of the book nor the reader of the book, but a larger entity that contains the reader’s sense of self and that of another (the character), which is not a first person perspective nor a third person perspective but something in between. In the responses to interview questions and surveys, people who had these kinds of blending experiences typically referred to these experiences from a second person perspective. The readers also described such reading experiences as transformative; i.e., it changed their understanding of themselves and others. 

So perhaps the use of second person perspectives in online book reviews is also a signal of blending experiences and a change in the readers’ understanding of themselves and the world. Of course, our findings so far are preliminary. We need to look at many more aspects of these reviews, and in much more detail, to establish if this is indeed why and when reviewers switch from first to second person perspective. But if it is, we have found an important type of evidence in reviews to investigate the impact of reading fiction. 

The content of this blogpost is based on our presentation at the 2022 Computational Linguistics in the Netherlands (CLIN) Conference.

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