Editing Analysis: Steven Millhauser’s “A Precursor of the Cinema”

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

One of Browne and King’s most critical pieces of advice for characteriziation and exposition is to cut narrative summary, otherwise known as the “telling” in the first chapter, and expand the “showing” of a protagonist’s psyche and attributes through actions. However, as with the previous analysis, these rules are made to modified and subverted in order to stimulate the reader’s interest.

Millhauser’s short story reveals that exploring a character’s opaque personality through almost exclusively narrative summary can bring about a wholly new way to characterize. In the case of protagonist Harlan Crane, we are able to glimpse his inner turmoil through his intricately detailed works and external interpretations developed by supporting characters and fictional newspaper publications alike. In a sense, we never truly get to understand Crane personally, but we expand what he might be like through the stories of others.

Viewers reported that, as they examined the dark painting, in the twilit niche, the prisoner stirred and looked about …. One journalist, who returned to observe the painting three days in succession, reported that the “escape” took place three or four times a day ….

Here we find that Millhauser abstains from describing a painting by Crane through a direct third-person omniscient perspective, but instead through the summary of “first-hand” sources. While in base terms this would be “telling” about the painting rather than “showing”, this painting could otherwise be interpreted as an indirect description of the painter’s own psyche or circumstances during its creation, and also “showing” that this man was never transparent enough for the author himself to describe directly.

Browne and King advise that one should avoid summing up characters in order to keep them unlimited in their characterization and development. Millhauser plays with this idea by hiding Crane’s inner thoughts from the reader and instead going into the intricate details of these paintings and subsequently making conclusions through audience and critic evaluations. One could interpret this narrative approach as a statement about critics “boxing in” creative works into its technical components or reductive themes. Whereas the author has summed up the paintings, Crane himself continues to be the real mystery.

Very little dialog is used throughout the story, and typically only occurred later when W. C. Curtis took up the responsibility to expound on his interactions with Crane. But even during dialog, a “scene” was not created to isolate from the usual narrative summary. This analysis finds that limiting the dialog maintains the stylistic choice to blend “telling” and “showing” together in order to include all elements of the story at symbolic character exposition.

In conclusion, the peculiar characterization of Harlan Crane can be derived from a type of fiction that is more in love with the aesthetics of its world than the protagonist. The detail in which Millhauser goes into the paintings of Crane and the reactions of the public are more nuanced and developed than that of any singular character. Perhaps the real “psyche” that was being explored in “A Precursor of the Cinema” was the late-19th century or a time period before huge media conglomerates, where legends were born out of word of mouth and titillating rumors.

Details about Millhauser’s short story here.

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