James Holden: Some thoughts on Somerset Maugham and his (mis)use of “I”

MaughamI’ve just finished reading the second volume of Somerset Maugham’s collected stories, an author who appears to have fallen somewhat out of fashion (maybe I’m wrong, and in reality he’s as venerated as Raymond Carver). I think in part it’s because his attitudes to race and gender, or at least the terms he uses to describe them, don’t sit so well with modern readers. It’s also the case that the world many of his characters inhabit –weekends in the country, society dinners and colonial experiences – doesn’t really exist anymore. Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against reading books about rich people, or life in the colonies. For me the big problem with his stories is the way that he uses “I”, and I think there is a lot that the writer can learn from looking at how he does it.

It was a criticism that he was in part alert to – the book opens an introduction that is a defence of writers who use the pronoun. As he points out, it is a technique that is “as old as the hills, and he writes that: 

“It’s object is of course to achieve credibility, for when someone tells you what he states has happened to himself you are more likely to believe that he is telling the truth than when he tells you what has happened to someone else. It has besides the merit from the story-teller’s point of view that he need only tell you what he knows for a fact and can leave to your imagination what he doesn’t or couldn’t know.”

So far, so good. I can’t imagine there are many readers or writers (or people who dabble in writing like myself) would disagree with Maugham’s sentiment.

The problem I have with his stories is that way that he uses “I”, because he doesn’t do it to present his tales from the “story-teller’s point of view”. In using “I”, Maugham really only creates one character, a short story writer who moves in fashionable circles. This “I” sometimes meets other authors (for example in “The Creative Impluse”) attends the wedding of one of his friends’ sister-in-laws (“Jane”) or ends as a go between an estranged relative and the rest of his family (“The Alien Corn”).

Many of the stories in the book are then told to the “I” in the stories and not by the “I”.  He tells the tales from a story teller’s veiw, but it is not the person to whom the story happend, depriving us of the first-hand point of view that he was defending in his introduction. The interjections he makes as a narrator also limits your ability to make your own mind up about the story as presented.

The overall impact is to make Maugham seem like an exceptionally well-paid racconteur (at one point he was reckoned to be the highest earning author). Because it does come across that the character is closely aligned to Maugham, despite his protestation in the introduction that “…the author is not drawing a fanciful portrait of himself, but creating a character for the particular purposes of his story.” But when that character is continually a successful author, it is hard to avoid the impression that the “I” is anyone but Maugham himself.

Some may say that we do get the stories from the protagonists point of view, as many of the stories are told to the “I” through reported speech. But Maugham would have done much better to have cut himself out as a middleman, and tell the stories direct from the point of view of the person the story happened to so that we can properly inhabit the characters that pass through his stories.

Maybe it really worked for him at the time to try and trade on his fame in the he presented his stories, and that he genuinely believed it was adding authenticity. Now, it all looks a bit unreal, a bit unimaginative, and at times does a disservice to the sometimes-cracking stories that he was trying to tell.

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About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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