Just because you don’t personally understand a story’s narrator does not make them “unreliable”. Being an asshole does not make a narrator “unreliable”. And a narrator presenting as female in a way you don’t think is “valid” doesn’t make them “unreliable”.
It’s becoming fashionable to throw around the term “unreliable narrator”, to make lists of stories someone thinks has one, and those lists generally feature the same inaccurate cast of suspects. In House of Leaves Navidson is simply an asshole and “Johnny” a damaged mama’s boy, both confronted with a Lovecraftian geometric dilemma. Gone Girl is a good mystery with a psychopath at its core. Rebecca’s narrator is nameless and naive, not unreliable. Haruki Murakami’s protagonists function on the logic of dreams, not unreliability. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time has an autistic narrator, and conflating that with unreliability does both the book and neurodivergent people a grave disservice. Atonement’s narrator is not unreliable, she’s simply a nasty lying child caught in English class war. Joe Goldberg in You is simply a very charming serial killer, Ted Bundy with a higher IQ, some luck, and a bookstore. The Bell Jar’s narrator is entirely honest and reliable about her own breakdown. Lolita’s Humbert Humbert has a very fancy prose style, but he is not unreliable, he tells you flat-out what he is and how repulsive, and his cry “but I loved her!” deceives neither us nor him. The Secret History’s narrator is a grubby class-climbing gold-digger we are forced to find queasy sympathy with, not unreliable even if his “friends” lie to him.
And before you start to hiss that I’m just a jealous little hack, I’ll have you know I love every single one of those books. But their narrators are exceeding reliable indeed, even when the reader cannot or will not like them. And The Yellow Wallpaper’s narrator is not unreliable, she’s driven fucking mad by her awful husband and misogyny.
A story’s narrator is unreliable when they are lying both to themselves and to the reader. Very late in the story–usually on the very last page–the lie must be revealed unto the reader (though not necessarily the narrator), with the shock of a bomb exploding. This is mostly why “unreliable narrator” is such a hat-trick to pull off, and why so many stories attempting one fail, generally in “asshole” mode.
Sarah Waters pulled it off in The Little Stranger, Dan Simmons in Drood, and Shirley Jackson in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Stephen King did it in my very favorite short story of his, Strawberry Spring, from the Night Shift anthology. This list is not exhaustive, since it comprises only the books Yours Truly has read with truly unreliable narrators, but it is also smaller because the trick is so difficult to perform. The craft necessary to make the reader complicit and then whisk away the curtain at the very last moment, to provoke that blinding earthquake moment of realization, is immense. And often books that could have had honestly unreliable narrators run up against the wall of editorial, “but readers are stupid, you must hold their hands, alter this story to make it more palatable!” Or bean-counters with, “this won’t sell, readers want pablum instead of difficult books with bombs at the end, change it or you’ll starve.”
I realize I am shouting into the wind, but my writing partner sent me a link to yet another list purporting to be of “books with unreliable narrators” and we both had a moment of “Jesu Christ, words mean things, people, just stop it”–or rather, I had that moment because she knows it is very easy to put the quarter in me, yank my arm, and get a lecture on this very subject.
I am exceeding reliable on that particular count.
Anyway, this will make no difference, nobody cares what I think about the matter and inaccurate listicles infect every corner of Beyoncé’s internet. But Hermes as my witness, my friends, a true unreliable narrator is a joy to read, an almost insurmountable trick to pull off, and while I will not precisely die on this hill I will reliably splutter about it at length to my writing partner.
And now, to you. Have fun.