I stole that from Laird Barron, the horror writer whose new crime novel Blood Standard is a blast. It started with a tweet (rather like the upcoming world war) where he said it amused him that readers assumed that his protagonists would survive, when he writes about them in the first person.
You might assume this as well. I wrote a story in high school set during the Civil War, possibly inspired by "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," where a deserter tells us his story as he dies, impaled on a cavalry saber. It wasn't very good, I'll admit, but the only feedback I received from my English teacher was "you can't kill this character and write in the first person." Her reasoning was that he was telling the story, so he had to have survived to tell it, write it down, pass it on.
But the character isn't telling the story. The writer is.
Now that I think on it, I had recently read Grendel by John Gardner, which flips Beowulf and tells the story from the monster's point of view, and he of course dies at the end. The Viking hero tears his arm off and he bleeds to death, staggering across the countryside:
They watch on, evil, incredibly stupid, enjoying my destruction.
"Poor Grendel's had an accident," I whisper. "So may you all."
Now, I am not defending my story, which was crap, but the use of the First Person Posthumous. We've seen it in film plenty of times. Sunset Blvd., Double Indemnity, D.O.A., Carlito's Way off the top of my head. I remember a wonderful Lawrence Block story (I remember many of them, that fellow has a knack) titled "Miles to Go Before I Sleep" about a man who cannot rest in death until he solves his own murder. It's in his collection Enough Rope, which you should read anyway. It's a doorstop of a collection, full of delights. A few of Mr Barron's stories that are in first person are "More Dark," the finale in his excellent story collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All, and the title novella in the collection The Imago Sequence, about art that is too terrible to contemplate. I'll leave it to you to figure out if the protagonists live happily ever after.
What are your thoughts on this? In another tweet, editor Jim Thomsen said that he finds it hard to feel concern for series protagonists when he knows there are 23 more novels after the one he's reading, or if he's convinced that the author won't kill off the series character this early on. Who has done a two book "series"? You'd have to be a well known author to trick readers who expect a trilogy and kill off the guy in book two. I can't imagine a publisher going for it. Perhaps Tana French could get away with it, since her Dublin Murder Squad series jumps protagonists? I haven't read them all, so I don't know if she's done it yet.
David Morrell argued in The Successful Novelist that first person is not as easy as it looks, and you should have good reason when using it. Others like Lawrence Block almost write novels in it exclusively. Almost all I've read by Octavia Butler is in first person, and she creates such empathy for the character with it that I recommend her as a lesson for any who prefer that point of view.
Do you have strong feelings about this? Let's hear it.