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Transparence auctoriale et postures pronominales dans The First Person and Other Stories de Ali Smith

Authorial Transparency and Pronominal Postures in Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories
Michelle Ryan-Sautour


The First Person and Other Stories (2008), tout comme les titres des autres recueils de nouvelles de Ali Smith, reflète le côté fantaisiste de son écriture. Dans ses nouvelles, des commentaires métatextuels interrogent les frontières de la fiction, et les pronoms fluctuants, créent l’impression de personnages incorporels. Ses personnages indéterminés rappellent ceux de Grace Paley, et un esprit joueur se dessine nettement. Smith met en scène des voix multiples dans des monologues et des dialogues saturés d’ironie et de références intertextuelles. Les nouvelles de Smith abondent en figures auctoriales, de récits à la première personne, de personnages-auteurs que le lecteur est invité à mettre en rapport avec l’auteur réel. Des apartés humoristiques sont liés à des analogies surprenantes qui intensifient l’effet d’un auteur transparent. Bien que les nouvelles de Smith semblent simples au premier abord, elles exhibent une habilité narrative frappante, et leur caractère équivoque pose défi au lecteur. Dans cet article j’aborderai les effets subtils de ces jeux métatextuels et des postures de l’auteur.

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1The First Person and Other Stories (2008), like many of Ali Smith’s collection titles, points to the playfulness at the heart of her writing. A self-consciousness that borders on the fantastic characterises many of her stories, as pronouns jostle in stories of incorporeal, author-like apparitions, revealing ironic, intertextually saturated monologues or dialogues with a plurality of selves. Jeannette Winterson has commented on Smith’s tendency to shy away from the public eye, underlining Smith’s belief ‘there should be no person between the reader and the book’ (Winterson 2003). Yet it is precisely her ‘person’ in her books that fascinates the reader. Her stories teem with authorial personas, first person, seemingly transparent writer figures whom the reader is led to link to the image of Smith. Witty asides and curious analogies abound, fostering an intense impression of naked honesty. The short story is whimsically compared to a nymph, and the novel to a ‘flabby old whore’ in ‘True short story’, the oxymoron of which hints at Smith’s characteristic tension between limpidity and fictional veiling. Her stories point to vague personalities, disembodied voices reminiscent of Grace Paley, voices that seemingly engage the reader directly with the characters.

2Smith’s stories indeed appear deceivingly simple, yet they propose clever manipulations of narrative modes with surprisingly complex effects. The reader is ultimately given an impression of intimacy that challenges his/her sense of fiction. In an interview for The Observer, Smith says ‘Stories can change lives if we’re not careful. They will come in and take the shirts off our backs. Tell the right stories and we live better lives’ (France 2004). Winterson underlines the importance of this process of ‘reskinning’ (Winterson 2003) in Smith’s writing. In this article I will study one aspect of Smith’s ‘reskinning’, that is her play with authorial postures; her stories simultaneously foster a sense of transparent immediacy while holding the authorial self out just beyond the reader’s reach.

3Ali Smith’s preoccupation with form and experimentation is well-adapted to the short story, where she has developed an ethical stance that places writing at the forefront. ‘I belong to the story and nothing else’ (Wilton 2011), she says. She indeed demonstrates an awareness of the metaphorical force of words: ‘I was brought up to believe that things could be different, and that what we look at might be more than itself, that bread might be both bread and more than bread, that nourishment was important on all the levels, and what looks like metaphor can be a force of world-changing, soul-changing potential’ (Wilton 2011). Such subtle transformation of the ordinary belies the tendency of Smith to meddle in the problematic territory of the fiction/nonfiction dichotomy.

4It is tempting to link such experimentation with the writing of other postmodern authors. Will Self, for example, plays with fiction in his 2010 story, ‘The Minor Character’ and in his novel/memoir, Walking to Hollywood: Memories of Before the Fall (2010), where his first person narrator, openly referred to as ‘Will’ (Self 2010a, 117) reinvestigates the gap between character and real author. Similarly, the performative authorial ‘I’ in Angela Carter’s story ‘Flesh and the Mirror’ corresponds to the seemingly authentic autobiographical ‘I’ in the afterword to the collection (Fireworks), ‘So I worked on tales. I was living in Japan; I came back to England in 1972’ (Carter 133). Smith’s stories engage with an age-old tradition of questioning fictional frames that has bloomed in the hands of postmodern writers. It is as if these authors are seeking to re-examine the experimentation with subjectivity that haunts the landscape of modernist literature by drawing new spaces for the author-subject at generic borders.

5Jeannette Winterson’s autobiographical novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1985) epitomises such mediation, as the authorial figure is placed at the aesthetic center, a posture Winterson has returned to almost 25 years later with a different genre, that of the memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal (2011). The contemporary reader is led to navigate the territory between the two works as they are suspended in different ways between fiction and nonfiction. As Winterson states in her memoir, ‘1985 wasn’t the day of the memoir—and in any case, I wasn’t writing one. I was trying to get away from the received idea that women always write about “experience”’ (Winterson 2011, 3). However, Adam Mars Jones points out how Winterson’s memoir brings fictionalised ‘truth’ to the foreground in a problematic way. He highlights a passage concerning Winterson’s mother:

No one reading such a passage could reasonably expect transcribed memory. It could only ever be fabulation—if this was a true-crime programme it would have the word RECONSTRUCTION at the bottom of the TV screen. But there’s so much adrift here, so much that is actively unreal, impossible to take seriously. It’s not just unreliable but ostentatiously unreliable.
(Mars-Jones 2012)

6Ali Smith is indeed writing at a time where the term ‘metafiction’, has lost its relevance, as the stability of the fictional utterance has been slowly undermined. Her stories, perhaps more than her novels, appear to posit a space of generic negotiation where the contours of fiction appear intermittently. Marilyn Abildskov has written about creative non-fiction and explains how the memoir author lies ‘to tell the truth’: ‘their ethical posture as storytellers lies in their aesthetic authority, in their ability to lie openly and artfully’ (Abildskov 26). Martin Ryle has underlined Smith’s interest in virtual mediation and representation (Ryle 2008, 116), an effect that appears to carry over into her short stories, as she indeed appears to propose ‘artful lies’. Yet, one cannot say Smith’s stories hover on the edge of essays or even creative non-fiction. A spirit of studied repetition and reiteration draws the reader’s attention to fiction as an unstable category that arises sporadically rather than resides in her stories. For Smith, everything is story, and her writing points to a porosity between text and life that cultivates a troubling sense of transparency. Fiction is therefore not dissolved, nor is it laid bare. It is highlighted as an event that occurs in the reading process.

7The fictional status of Smith’s texts is further undermined by her celebration of the fragment. As Winterson remarks, Ali Smith’s stories remind us how “how none of us ever can know the whole story. We see by glimpses, feed on fragments, and our love-affair with narrative is a kind of self-defence’ (Winterson 2003). Her short stories, with their spare story frames, open ended characterisation, and play with pronouns, allows a fiction ‘effect’ to emerge through various layers of reiterative segments, pointing out a special status that is akin to, but not identical to, the ‘imagined reality’ Abildskov associates with the creative memoir (Abildskov 26). Smith thus foregrounds the story genre as a means to connect with life and constructions of the self. She openly states: ‘The story form, it seems to me, in the century from which we’ve inherited it, is a discussion of what form is and how we are made. Not just how we make things but how we are made. And how we live. The dialogic element, the life of form and the form of life both become spotlit in the story form’ (Boddy 81).

8Fiona Doloughan underlines this self-conscious drive in Smith’s writing as ‘reflections on and a response to some of the thorny and problematic issues around the notion of creative imagination and what it means or might mean to be a creative writer’ (Doloughan 242). Smith sees Angela Carter as a model for this, as Carter is ‘self-reflexive within the bounds of the story’ and her ‘self-reflectiveness comes to be part of the story and is one of its prime movers’ (Boddy 81), and the titles of Smith’s collections openly flaunt dizzying authorial play: Free Love and Other Stories (1995), Other Stories and Other Stories (1999), The Whole Story and Other Stories (2003) The First Person and Other Stories (2008). Similarly, paratextual devices—Acknowledgements, thanks, dedications, and epigraphs—in The First Person and Other Stories, tie in cleverly with proper names in The First Person and Other Stories and challenge textual limits.

9Felicity Skelton has commented, for example, on games with the authorial signature in ‘True short story’ (Skelton 2011) and their resonance with the collection’s paratexts, as the proper name of Smith is present in the story along with the name of Kasia, a name that also appears in the thank you and dedication sections: ‘for Kasia Boddy (on the sunny side of the street)’. Kasia is a friend/character who is mentioned in the story as being a short story specialist met when Kasia spoke up in favor of Carson McCullers in a course at Cambridge (Kasia Boddy is indeed a short story specialist who teaches at University College London). The parallel with the ‘real’ story of these ‘real’ characters (Smith refers to this story in interview with Boddy as ‘our story’ [Boddy 81]) is flagrantly highlighted, as Smith explains: ‘Well, it’s autobiographical and it’s quite factual in lots of ways. I spoke to you and I wrote down things that we exactly said and the exact thing we said are transmogrified, if you like, and become the story. I don’t usually work autobiographically. It was like a debate with the selves about form, which then became a story act in itself’ (Boddy 80, emphasis added).

10Another element transposed in the text involves a speech made by Alex Linklater which appears in the acknowledgements section and finds an echo in the story. In a short piece for The Telegraph in 2006, arts correspondent Nigel Reynolds quotes Linklater, one of the organisers of the National Short Story Prize, as proposing the following provocative analogy:

The novel is a capacious old whore: everyone has a go at her, but she rarely emits so much as a groan for their efforts. The short story, on the other hand, is a nimble goddess: she selects her suitors fastidiously and sings like a dove when they succeed. The British literary bordello is heaving with flabby novels. It’s time to give back some love to the story. (Reynolds)

11Smith weaves this statement into a dialogue between an ‘older man’ and a ‘younger man’ the narrator encounters in a café and expands upon it in the story in a staged exchange with Kasia Boddy and her battle with cancer. Such faithful reproduction fosters a dizzying sense of strangeness in the familiar. Smith’s writing appears to echo a familiar sphere back to us in order to playfully pull it apart, creating a space where fiction does not already exist, but rather where fiction arises.

12The intertext concerning the Greek myth of ‘Echo’ is thus appropriate, as it underlines the importance of echoes for Smith’s flickering fictions. As Skelton observes, Smith’s mixing of modes and genres creates a mirror-like structure: ‘the section on Echo comes exactly at the mid-point, and . . . the pattern reverses itself afterwards. Rather like the surface of the pool on which Narcissus gazes, or perhaps like Echo’s voice, rebounding off the cliffs’ (Skelton 2011). ‘True short story’ indeed culminates with the aforementioned analogy: ‘So when is the short story like a nymph? When the echo of it answers back’ (16). The ‘truth’ appears in the story as a self-reflecting prism, and as an echo chamber that re-frames the non-fictional utterance to reveal its inherent potential as story. These echoes function as fragments of a semi-transparent world the reader is invited to navigate in its challenging incompleteness.

13The structure of the short story collection itself becomes the locus for such aesthetic discontinuity. The list of titles (‘True short story’, ‘The child’, ‘Present’, ‘The third person’, ‘Fidelio and Bess’, ‘The history of history’, ‘No exit’, ‘The second person’, ‘I know something you don’t know’, ‘Writ’, ‘Astute fiery luxurious’, ‘The first person’) invite the reader to draw connections, to link the pieces into a provisional whole, as Boddy suggests in interview with Smith: ‘And the short story collection form is a form in the same way as a Beethoven several-movement trio or sonata is, a combination of discrete parts and wholeness’ (Boddy 68). Boddy comments on the dynamics of not only ‘making connections’ but also ‘disconnections’ between the stories, underlining the ranging effects of concordance and discordance. Smith insists on the importance of ‘places of connection and disconnection’ explaining the surprising bonding function of the textual interstice in short story collections: ‘they’re like the stitches. Even the disconnections are the things that hold things together’ (Boddy 70).

14In The First Person and Other Stories the list of titles heightens this overarching sense of studied disconnection, as the three stories ‘The Third Person’, The Second Person’ and ‘The First Person’ are interspersed in the 4th, 8th and 12th positions of the table of contents, each separated by three stories. The titles of other stories indicate a reflection on writing with ‘True short story’, and ‘Present’ and ‘The history of history’ and ‘Writ’ and interact in many ways with the four quotations that appear in the epigraph. The word ‘true’, for example, plays off the epigraph from Katherine Mansfield, ‘True to oneself! Which self?’ and the reference to the title story resonates in relation to a Grace Paley quotation:

The first person is often the lover who
says I never knew anyone like you
The listener is the beloved She whispers
Who? Me?

15Formal incompleteness and the making of connections is thus clearly linked to a reflection on possibilities of continuity within the fragmented self. This is evident in a quotation from the 20th-century Scottish poet, Edwin Morgan, ‘So many pieces of me! I must hold tight’. It indeed appears as if Smith, as Morgan suggests, is staging the paradox of a postmodern authorial figure holding the self ‘tight’ by embracing fragmentation. The reader is led to engage with multiple configurations of self story, of narratives that propose shifting sketches of personhood that coalesce momentarily through the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘You.’ ‘Writ’, for example, involves a dialogue between the first person narrator and her younger, fourteen-year-old self: ‘I sit my fourteen-year-old self down opposite me at the table in the lounge so that we can have a conversation’ (153). ‘The First Person’ begins: ‘This, though, is a new you and a new me. In this particular story we are new to each other in the oldest way’ (191). ‘The Second Person’ foregrounds fabulation in relation to the self and other: ‘You’re something else. You really are. This is the kind of thing you’d do. Say you were standing outside a music shop . . .’ (121).

16Denise Riley in The Words of Selves: Identification, Solidarity, Irony (2000) has spoken extensively of the complexity of self-narration. Riley writes of the affect wrapped up in contemporary processes of ‘self-naming’ (Riley 16), and much of her work has been devoted to examining the tension between the personal utterance and the ‘impersonal’ of post-structuralism. Her description of self-description proposes an uncanny echo of the staged identities in Smith’s ‘True short story’:

What I have to say about myself is also a confession of feeling, which cannot help but sound as if, like a declaration of love, it’s soliciting a responsive echo. The gestures of adopting a self-characterisation, or demurring from it, may well sink into inadvertent self-description . . . . A furious will to be, as self-perpetuation, may be countered by a drive to an impossible authenticity or integrity, which, it’s suggested, comes to a head over some unrealised ethics of authorship. The urge to instead dedramatise the described self may induce a longing for transparency, to be without qualities.
(Riley 16, emphasis added)

17Riley is known for her mixing of the poetic idiom with philosophical discourse, and in her poetry her style is one of self-erasure. Smith’s story ‘Fidelio and Bess’ illustrates a similar effect in the form of a conversation between a storyteller and a narratee in a car, following a brief intertextual story segment that meshes Beethoven’s Fidelio and Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess:

Yeah, but, you say. Come on. I mean.
But what? I say.
You can’t, you say.
Can’t what? I say.
Culture’s fixed, you say. That’s why it’s culture. That’s how it gets to be art. That’s how it works. That’s why it works. You can’t just change it. You can’t just alter it when you want. You can’t just revise things for your own pleasure or whatever.
Actually I can do anything I like, I say.
Yea, but you can’t revise Fidelio, you say. No one can. (76)

18The play with ‘I say’ and ‘you say’, along with an overt discussion of ethics and re-writing, confronts the reader with a paradoxical impression of simultaneously perceiving Ali Smith, the corporeal (‘real’) author, and a ‘dedramatised’, transparent self. Smith indeed draws upon real conversations and pulls the nonfictional utterance into the frame of a story. Her practices thus make of fictional transparency (where the limits between fiction and reality fade away) and the transparency of the self, a space for negotiation.

  • 1 See my article, ‘Angela Carter as Fiction : Refiguring the Real Author as Performative Author’ (for (...)

19 It is also striking that Ali Smith’s extra-textual authorial performances should involve a refusal to name herself as writer, and a reluctance to perform. Louise France quotes Smith as saying, ‘You never know if you’re a writer. You can’t trust it. If you woke up and said, ‘I’m a writer’, it would be gone. You wouldn’t see anything for miles—even the dust would be running away’ (France 2011). Authorial, extratextual performance,1 is a concept of growing importance in a context where contemporary writing involves diverse forms of virtual self-representation for promoting one’s work, whether it be media events that celebrate the author, interviews, Facebook pages, or blogs. Extra-textual authorial identity has acquired a heightened importance as a framing device that affects both authorial postures (Meizoz 2004) and impostures (Lecercle 1998) in relation to the text. Smith, however, admits to hating ‘the celebrity side of publishing’ and ‘the “myth of Smith”’ that is intertwined with her name. She claims she ‘would prefer to lie low, to let the books speak for themselves’ (France 2011). Similarly, Winterson comments on how Smith, although lucid about the demands of author celebrity, refuses to assume such positions:

At a time when authors are expected to sell their books the way evangelists sell God—the tour, the TV, the newspaper column, Smith has no ambition to be known outside of her work. “Once your book’s finished and out in the world, it has to stand on its own. I can’t hold its hand, and anyway, I look like a troll. I’m not going to be a media celebrity.” (Winterson 2003)

20It is therefore not surprising that yet another interviewer, Caren Wilton, should describe her as ‘elusive’ and difficult to ‘pin down’ as if the ongoing erasure of the public persona she must by obligation assume in the world of British publishing is her public persona. Smith’s performance is one of non-performance, of a wilful transparency she appears to foster both within and outside her story collections.

It is therefore ironic that Smith’s proper name and the figure of the author should appear so prominently in her fiction. In the end, her presence could be perceived not as an alternative, fictional persona, but almost as a ‘non-persona’, a transparent film through which the reader is led to not see Smith, but rather see as Smith, to experience the insubstantiality of the self as part of the story, where notions of fiction fade away and the self is revealed to be a series of fragments contained in the multiple ‘I’s and ‘You’s’ of Smith’s narratives. An excerpt from ‘The First Person’ illustrates the dizzying nature of this effect:

Halfway through the afternoon I go into the back room and find you sitting in a square of sun in the window seat. You’re reading a book. You see me and you lower the book.
Just trying to catch up a bit, you say. You wink.
I get it, I say. I’ve finally understood. I’m imagining you. I’m making this all up. You’re not real.
Ah, you say. But what if it’s me who’s imagining you? (204)

21The reader is led to read through these fragments to experience a sense of self-hood that not only defies closure but also brings this transparency to resonate with the short story form. In our inability to ‘pin-down’ Smith or other characters, Smith’s ‘imagining’ of ‘you’ comes to life for the reader.

22In this sense, Smith spins stories out of the infamous post-structuralist scission between author and text underlined by Foucault as being intrinsic to the authorial signature:

It is well known that in a novel narrated in the first person, neither the first person pronoun, the present indicative tense, nor, for that matter, its signs of localisation refer directly to the writer, either to the time when he wrote, or to the specific act of writing; rather, they stand for a ‘second self’ whose similarity to the author is never fixed and undergoes considerable alteration within the course of a single book. It would be as false to seek the author in relation to the actual writer as to the fictional narrator; the ‘author-function’ arises out of their scission—in the division and distance of the two. One might object that this phenomenon only applies to novels or poetry, to a context of ‘quasi-discourse’, but, in fact, all discourses that supports this ‘author-function’ is characterised by this plurality of egos.
(Foucault 1969, 1631).

23Foucault’s text implicitly posits the ‘actual writer’ as a stable reference point, whereas Smith’s stories call to our attention that this ‘first self’ (as opposed to the narrator figure as a ‘second self’) is itself a story, suggesting that the writer/discourse boundary is an illusion. This supposed gap is submitted to formal exploration in Smith’s writing, as the disconnection Foucault identifies with the text’s ‘I’ is represented as deceiving transparency, leading us to wonder where self story and the story of self meet. Smith’s texts thus inadvertently engage us with certain aspects of post-structuralist thought. The ‘plurality of egos’ suggested by Foucault in the making of the ‘Author Function’ is the story.

24Judith Butler, in Giving an Account of Oneself (2005) also underlines elusiveness in stories of the self, as ‘There is that in me and of me for which I can give no account’ (Butler 40). The ‘étrangeté’ she highlights in her reading of Jean Laplanche, that is a sense of strangeness that emerges from the sensed, yet inaccessible, story present in narratives of the self, reflects the aesthetic effects of Smith’s formal experimentations with a ‘plurality of egos’:

There seems to be another at work in my desire, and this étrangeté disrupts any effort to make sense of myself as a bounded and separate being. I may try to tell the story of myself, but another story is already at work in me, and there is no way to distinguish between the ‘I’ who has emerged from this infantile condition and the “you”—the set of “you’s”—who inhabits and dispossesses my desire from the outset. (Butler 2005, 74)

25This disruptive strangeness is staged in Smith’s texts. The slipping between ‘you’ and ‘I’ in ‘The Second person’, for example, as the narrator engages in an exchange with her lover, allows the story to arise in the cracks of the tale-telling woven by and around their respective selves. The narrator has been creating a story to illustrate the characteristics of ‘you’:

God, you’re saying next to me now. This is what you’re like.
You say it in a voice like it’s supposed to be my voice, though in reality it’s nothing like my voice.
This is what you’re like, I say. I say it in the mimic voice you’ve just used.
You’ve really changed, you say.
No I haven’t, I say.
You’re so self-righteous now, you say. You’re so unbelievable that if it was you who went into that music shop you just invented for me to be made to look wasteful and whimsical and stupid in—
I never said anything about stupid, I say. Or whimsical. (125)

26The act of fabulation is highlighted with the word ‘invented’ and a playful engagement with the effects of the ‘echo’ evoked in ‘True short story’ is brought to the forefront through a complication of the narrative voice. The alternation of ‘I say’ and ‘you say’, along with the use of reiteration and italics to underline the notion of the ‘mimic voice’, undermine the identity of the narrator and character as a web of echoes.

27 In this sense, we are faced with a sort of simulacrum of ‘Ali Smith.’ Denise Riley uses Deleuze’s concept of the simulacrum to investigate the workings of reiteration and irony in relation to language and identity, and suggests how the very act of reiteration ironises, and opens up the power to ‘make strange that which it familiarly reflects’ (Riley 158). According to Riley, such repetition also fosters a displacement of certainties and stages provisionality rather than certainty as a dominant (Riley 165). The short story form, as Smith observes, accentuates this process: ‘The thing about the story form is that it is completely wide open. Its end is never an end, it’s always some kind of middle or beginning. It just is. It doesn’t trace an arc in the way that a novel does. It’s a different kind of journey’ (Boddy 68). Smith’s collection indeed proposes an arc, a reading “journey” that plunges the reader into a sense of fluid selfhood, where egos coalesce, separate and form new configurations throughout the reading of the collection. The First Person and Other Stories draws stories around these fluctuating configurations, weaving flashes of fiction into the fabric of self narrative. Her work thus echoes and builds upon a plurality of selves while reifying authorial presence as strangeness, in a studied play with the inherently open form of the short story.

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1 See my article, ‘Angela Carter as Fiction : Refiguring the Real Author as Performative Author’ (forthcoming in Short Story in Theory and Practice, 2012).

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Michelle Ryan-Sautour, « Transparence auctoriale et postures pronominales dans The First Person and Other Stories de Ali Smith »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 44 | 2013, mis en ligne le 29 novembre 2013, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Michelle Ryan-Sautour

Université d’Angers — CRILA, PRES UNAM
Michelle Ryan-Sautour is Maître de Conférences (Associate Professor) at the université d’Angers, France (PRES UNAM) where she is director of the short story section of the CRILA research group and Associate Editor of Journal of the Short Story in English. Her research focus is the speculative fiction and short stories of Angela Carter and Rikki Ducornet with a special emphasis on authorship, reading pragmatics, game theory, and gender. She has published in Marvels and Tales, Journal of the Short Story in English, Études britanniques contemporaines, and in several edited collections.

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