Point of Telling and the Implied Reader: Perspectives on Fiction You Can’t Unsee: The Most Abridged Version Yet

The following is a guest post by Soramimi Hanarejima, whose short story “Maturity” appeared in in issue 19 of Typehouse Literary Magazine.

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Or at least I can’t. Ever since Alexander Chee shared his thoughts on Point of Telling during a GrubStreet conference session, I keep thinking about it. Essentially, Point of Telling refers to the narrator’s temporal relationship to the events in the story—the answer to the question “From where and when is the story being told?” Helpful, sure, but when Alexander Chee elaborated upon the idea with the intriguing question, “Why is this story being told now?” there was no escaping the rabbit hole of related questions: What do the events of the story mean now, as the narrator is relating them? (Is the narrator reflecting on their significance decades later or relating the events as they furiously unfurl because they demand immediate expression?) Who is this narrator? Who is this person “speaking” to? And here, this line of inquiry brings us into the territory of the Implied Reader, the supposed audience of this story—the Ear of the Story as Rebecca Makkai calls it

Though some stories make the Point of Telling and Implied Reader explicit (as To Be Taught, If Fortunate does—to stunning effect by the novella’s end), fiction tends to most resonate with me when these two elements are somehow palpable in the narration, likely because they infuse the story with clarity and purpose (as is the case in Every Exquisite Thing). 

Here’s an example of how these ideas have infiltrated my encounters with storytelling. A recent episode of the podcast Everything is Alive nails Point of Telling and Implied Reader—or in this case, Implied Audience. The conceit of the show is that objects have consciousness, and in each episode, podcast host Ian interviews an object. So the Implied Audience is simply the (expected) audience of the podcast—or Ian and the object are audience to each other, both partaking in and of the discourse. In “Lillian, Song,” the Point of Telling is Lillian’s present predicament of being a song stuck in Ian’s head, which allows Lillian to relate in fictitious realtime her discomfort of being trapped in Ian’s mind—all through melodious vocals. This gives the episode a cohesiveness and a raison d’être. 

“Lillian, Song” is also spot on when it comes to another point Alexander Chee brought up in that conference session: a—or the—driving question of all literary fiction is, “Will the protagonist ever find out something important about themselves?” In this case, Lillian and Ian confront what a song in the mind is, with Lillian explaining, “You know that phrase, ‘Make a path by walking,’ you and I are making me as we’re talking.” And that ends up being (semi-spoiler alert) the key to getting her out of Ian’s head. 

How appropriate that I’m seeing a story about a song stuck in someone’s mind with the perspectives of Point of Telling and Implied Reader. These ideas have been stuck in my mind, but I’m nowhere near sick of them posing questions like, “From what temporal and psychological distance is the story being told? By whom and to whom?” And I’ll keep listening for answers as I read and write fiction. 

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Soramimi Hanarejima writes fiction that explores the nature of thought and is the author of Visits to the Confabulatorium, a fanciful story collection that Jack Cheng said, “captures moonlight in Ziploc bags and gives us the pleasure of opening them, one by one.” Soramimi’s latest work is forthcoming in Atlas and Alice, Vestal Review, GASHER and The Meadow.

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