Newwordsmiths' Blog

Craft based Analysis of New Yorker Stories

Imagined Audience and your fiction

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Flash Critique of Nicole Krauss’s “The Young Painters”
The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 Series

Let’s look at a piece that just appeared in the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” –Nicole Krauss’s “The Young Painters.” This piece is an excellent craft tutorial for several reasons: Ms. Krauss is an extraordinary wordsmith, she uses craft effectively to raise important questions about the role and responsibilities – if any – of the writer, the reader and the interplay of imagination, mystery and intrigue between the two. How much can we borrow from real life and what are the costs for doing so? This is a very real dilemma and in fact it came up for me in a conversation this weekend, but I want to focus again on craft and how one point of craft helps to put this issue to the fore, but also transforms Nicole Krauss’ story from just a ‘tell all’ to a morality play with no clear defining moral.

One craft technique Ms. Krauss uses to help accomplish this feat is the use of the ‘imagined audience.’ This is a technique that has been employed throughout history in a number of fictions, including by Boccaccio in The Decameron, where the imagined audience is a group of exiles escaping the plague. Many of Chekhov’s stories also use it by using an implied ‘you.’

As an author, it is immensely useful to have an audience in mind, sometimes even a specific reader so we can then write to the assumptions that reader holds. T.S. Eliot, for example, assumes an audience of ‘highly educated’ readers and therefore plants allusions in his poetry that well-read people will be able to identify. So the first suggestion I have is decide on the kinds of knowledge you want your imagined audience to have and then write to those kinds of ‘people.’

However, an audience can become a part of the fiction, as in The Decameron. This technique of placing an audience within the fiction offers an opportunity to complicate the fiction by layering a variety of predetermined relationships between the teller and the tale. In The Decameron the stories revolve around topics of social and institutional decay because the plague is asking everyone to rethink the institutions that supposedly hold society together. These stories can generally be described as either stories that support the moral authority of the social contract, or subvert it. That’s a broad sweeping example, but it provides the basis of the principle.

Let’s look at how Nicole Krauss does this in “The Young Painters.” I’m only going to focus on the four times Ms. Krauss brings her audience to the forefront – the opening sentence, the closing sentence and twice in the middle of the story. Please do note that the appeal to audience is used quite sparingly (a separate lesson) and by the end of the story we are surprised when it appears – and this surprise has great pay off.

“Four or five years after we got married, Your Honor, S. and I were invited to a dinner party at the home of a German dancer, who was then living in New York. (59)

The first sentence does so much, as great first sentences should. It clearly establishes the location (New York) the occasion, (an invitation) and a sense of the narrator’s own personal life (married four or five years beforehand). But it also identifies a very specific audience and by doing so, the terms of the story are elevated from mere ‘story’ to a story with a purpose to explain some complex legal or moral situation. We don’t yet know what that is, hence adding to the mystery (did she kill someone, did someone kill the dancer, is the husband, named only S. the murder, or something worse?). The reader is both properly off balance, and firmly centered in place and with characters and with a broad understanding of ‘why this story is being told.”

“Viewed in a certain light, that is the kind of work I do, Your Honor.” (59)

The next line appears about an eighth of the way through the story and proffers a defense of the act of writing. It follows a description of the process where the author takes someone’s experience, embellishes, replaces, and ultimately re-imagines that experience to create a story. This one line in this one place, ‘thickens the plot.’ The ‘trial’ is not because of a human legal transgression; rather it revolves around some aspect of a particular artistic process. The argument is not fully developed yet, but the inclusion of the imagined audience right after this line is the first indication that the reader is not pursuing facts, as one would in a mystery, but rather is reading about the very act of writing.

“In her work, the writer is free of laws. But in her life, Your Honor, she is not free.” (60)

The narrator then goes on to describe another fiction she created based on the life of her father; a piece of fiction that made her quite famous. This line follows a defense of the writers’ craft as being separate from any kind of moral compass, but then comes the twist. This use of audience is both an opportunity to reject the laws many people want to apply to writers, as well as an opportunity to acknowledge that the laws of the universe are not a part of these writerly laws. This sets up the following scene, where the universal law of coincidence, or even karma, brings our narrator back in contact with the dancer.

To follow this, you’ll have to put up with a short explanation of what happens next. The dancer runs into our narrator, and lets her know that he has read her story about his painting, as well as everything else she’s written. Upon their parting, he lightly touches the narrator on the cheek, smiling slightly, and then departs. He exerts no overt judgment but our narrator, when left alone with the gesture, begins a process of interpretation (an imaginative act itself and one that is tied to the very act of creating pieces of fictions). She finds in the gesture a sense of demeaning criticism she can’t shake. Then, she hears the cry of a child (her first story was about the death of a child), and this makes her begin to doubt herself, and her position on ‘writing.’ This sentiment is expressed in that final line.

“And slowly, Your Honor, I began to distrust myself.” (61)

This line is highly effective because the supposed audience has become a number of things. It is no longer static (and really, what court of law is going to listen to a writers’ confession). It is in point of fact a confession to one’s own ‘Honor.” The term serves as both a substitute for a judge, and in its final iteration, as an expression of an individual’s sense of honor. This distrust the narrator expresses toward the self is also distrust about motivation (notice that the stories are all about children and the story is fronted by the author’s discussion of how she does not have children). In short, the narrator is suddenly aware of the ways in which the ‘moral compass’ and the laws that govern the universe, apply to her and because of this, she’s also suddenly aware that she is not in control even of her fictions to the extent she assumed. We end the story with questions, but rather than vague (who’s on trial for what) they are much more specific – how can writing compromise one’s integrity? How much of the self do we put onto the page despite our belief that we are writing about someone else? Who, ultimately, is this all about?

Written by newwordsmiths

July 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm

2 Responses

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  1. Thank you for the thoughtful review of Ms. Krause’s piece. It often seems authors are writing to a lost lover though it seems they sometimes are writing to some lost part of themselves. The best pieces, such as this example, do both.

    Love the flash reviews!

    Susan townsend

    July 7, 2010 at 11:45 pm

  2. While I agree with you about Ms. Krauss’ piece, it clearly does not serve as a true short story. In fact, it is not – it is a small excerpt of her forthcoming novel, “Great House.” The very technique that you laud her for using – directing the narrator’s speech to an ‘audience’ in the form of Your Honor – is not thoroughly explored or explained. Why is she addressing this judge? What has she done to have an audience in a court of law, or in his/her chambers? The last line of the “story” is intriguing, but it is not the final line of the narrator’s story – that is saved for the novel – and therefore does not make it a complete, well-crafted piece.

    This is one of my pet peeves with the New Yorker overall – they present ‘excerpts’ of novels as short stories, never alerting the reader to this fact, despite the frequency of this occurrence. Most times the authors take these novel excerpts and attempt to reshape them into ‘complete’ short stories, but they are rarely successful and more often than not the result is a piece that feels unfinished or incomplete.

    Evan Goldman

    September 12, 2010 at 12:50 am

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