To See With New Eyes

Caleb Klaces’ Fatherhood is one of the most vibrant novels I’ve read all year. I reviewed it this week for Splice, in my final review of 2019:

Fatherhood isn’t about [the narrator’s] pursuit of [his life plans] plans in any conventional sense. It is, as above, about the ways in which the travails of raising a newborn child make a glorious, hilarious mockery of a parent’s pretensions to personal dignity. In practice, this means that Klaces surveys two parallel pathwayss and sets out to follow both of them, alternating from one to the other as the novel unfolds. The first path leads him closer to his wife, the second to his infant daughter, so Fatherhood preoccupies itself with both the comedy of post-parenthood intimacy and the profundity of watching an entirely new identity come into being.

Don’t “Show, Don’t Tell”

Earlier this week, on Twitter, I saw an interesting “demolition” of the conventional wisdom that informs no shortage of creative writing classes: “show, don’t tell.” And, being glad to see the conventional wisdom demolished, I thought I’d share the advice I prefer to give my students…

“Show, don’t tell” is, like most creative writing “rules,” bullshit — not to mention a vestige of Cold War-era propaganda and orthodoxies. But, crucially, rejecting it doesn’t mean you’ve got a license to do the opposite and just “tell.” These are the binary extremes of a whole array of choices you’ve got in front of you, and it’s your job, privilege, and responsibility to make your choices freely, knowing what you intend to achieve with them and knowing also what alternatives you’re forfeiting.

So, yes, you can absolutely show instead of telling: you can observe the materiality of an environment, construct characters with intelligible psychologies, set scenes, orchestrate action, depict events cinematically, etc., and thereby immerse your reader in a particular moment. Or you can tell instead of showing: summarise events, enumerate thoughts and feelings, explain motives and consequences, and generally move through time — or back and forth through time — at a faster clip than if you show the nitty-gritty of all this stuff. When you show, you risk losing pace, momentum, and to some extent the significance of details, in cases where significance might come from a freezing of time, or a telescoping of chronology, to dwell on them in-depth or to observe their ripple effects from afar. When you tell, which is to say summarise and/or explicate, you risk losing the immersive capabilities of full-scale depiction, and therefore some of the emotion that readers tend to invest in characters whose stories they experience up-close, in something approaching real time.

(Sidenote: “telling” can also be “showing”, because at least when a first-person narrator tells a story, you are showing them in the act of telling, which overlays a new temporality on the events they’re telling the reader about. And “showing” can also involve “telling”, because when you’ve got an externalised, third-person depiction of a scene in which a character tells a story, you can show others’ reactions both to the telling in the moment and the tale itself. Othello does this really well.)

Anyway, ultimately, it isn’t a binary choice, is it? Page by page, line by line, moment by moment, you’re going to make that choice over and over again, and every time you make it you’re going to fall somewhere on the spectrum between them. The artistry isn’t necessarily in showing or telling, but in oscillating between them — in the degree to which you do it, and the frequency with which you do it, and your strategies for modulating the oscillation, gently fading with a nice segue or giving your reader whiplash. And the artistry is also there in having a sense of the effects you can generate by choosing one instead of the other, as well as a sense of the effects you’re not generating — but could — if you went down a different route. So, in rejecting the binary choice, don’t reject it at the outset. You may well want to “show, not tell” at some stage, or “tell, not show.” It’s a choice to make continuously in every moment of the process, depending on what’s in front of you at any given instant.

Expanded Horizons

This week, I reviewed Linda Mannheim’s This Way to Departures for Splice:

Linda Mannheim’s second collection of stories, This Way to Departures, is appropriately titled. All the stories in Mannheim’s début, Above Sugar Hill (2014), were bound to a specific site: the ethnically mixed, economically deprived neighbourhood of Washington Heights in Manhattan, hemmed in by the Hudson River on one side and the Harlem River on the other. Set mostly between the 1970s and 1990s, Above Sugar Hill is an assured evocation of a very particular time and place — the streets of Mannheim’s youth, in an era of “squalor” and “brutality” — although it lacks the dexterity of style with which it might have offset the feeling that some of its stories are hobbled by the limited horizons of the locale. In This Way to Departures, however, Mannheim embraces a broader canvas and takes a bolder approach to the form of the short story. Although the new book still retains connections to Washington Heights, the action here extends across the United States, down into South America, and even briefly overseas to Europe, and there are comparatively more formal innovations and provocations. As a whole, the collection reads like the work of an increasingly ambitious and confident writer, striking off in a range of new directions.

Samizdat Goes Mainstream

In Time Lived, Without Its Flow, Denise Riley embarks on an exquisite, excoriating investigation of her own mourning in the wake of the sudden death of her son. The book was more or less self-published several years ago and passed around like samizdat from one small press aficionado to another. Now, though, it has been republished by Granta in a beautiful new hardback edition with an introduction by Max Porter, and I had the pleasure of reviewing it this week for Splice:

What is radicalism in literature, but a redrawing of the usual boundaries of the readable? Find the zone of moderation, which is to say convention, then strike off in one of two directions. Push the boundaries outwards, claim liberties beyond those taken by the average book, and churn out a thousand-page treatise on melancholy or a doorstopper that makes room for every known fact about cetaceans. Or make your space more cramped, more pinched, and draw the boundaries inward. Forgo certain allowances; let your possibilities atrophy. Write a book in chapters of exactly one hundred words each, or in sentences that all take the form of a question. Use only phrases culled from other books, or refuse to use words containing the letter e. And then, if you really want to indulge your radicalism, choose a subject whose emotional freight tilts it in one of these two directions — excessive or aloof — and force your style to take the alternative. Go maximalist, go gargantuan, with a story about office boredom. Or else go minimalist, be ascetic by an act of will, with a counter-intuitive approach to a harrowing situation like the one faced by the poet Denise Riley.

New Perspectives on an Old World

I have cherished the essays of Kathleen Jamie for the better part of five years now, so I was very gratified to be able to review her new collection, Surfacing, for Splice — and to use the occasion to look back at her earlier volumes:

Here, then, is a typical essay by Kathleen Jamie: an off-kilter line of sight is traced and extended by speculative means, and allows for an apprehension of things that otherwise escape the eye. Sometimes, as above, the escape is spatial. A locus of interest might have a position so far above human affairs, or so far beneath, or at such a distance from them, that its very place of being evades any one person’s embodied vantage point. At other times, the escape is temporal. A locus of interest, deeply embedded in the past, makes a mockery of our immersion in the urgency of the present, so that, in effect, we are blinded by the here and now and unable to pierce the surface of the times we dwell in. In each case, though, an essay by Jamie will always find a way for the author to place herself just so in relation to her surroundings, at which point — like a key with a clean cut sliding smoothly into a lock — the author’s eyes align with some aspect of the world that radically expands the horizons of her perception. [Jamie’s first collection of essays] was blurbed by Richard Mabey, while [her second] was blurbed by John Berger, and Jamie’s work often comes across as a synthesis of theirs.

 

Against the Takedown

New on Splice this week, there’s a vexed review of Helen Phillips’ The Need by J.S. DeYoung. I’m proud to be able to publish it. It articulates a mixed-to-negative response to this novel, running against a lot of other responses (eg. The Guardian: “one of this year’s most necessary novels”), but it’s no single-minded takedown. I know that Jason wrestled with it a bit, I think his discomfort comes through, and I’m glad that it does. It’s a mark of respect to an author’s labours and intentions to seriously think through the issues they raise, and to seriously consider one’s own limitations, even if one finally finds something lacking in the work. I also think Jason gives the book a fair hearing, showing sympathy to its premises and appreciation for Phillips’ other work; and his misgivings are sober, on-point, and reasonable.

How to write a generous negative review? I’ve been thinking about this question intensely for the better part of two years now, which was when I first started writing the review of J.M. Coetzee’s Late Essays that I published in April 2019. Last December, the question arose for me again when I published Alec Dewar’s unfavourable take on Bragi Ólafsson’s Narrator.

It’s such a difficult thing. I don’t like to write negative negative reviews, because I think that at bottom I really only write reviews and essays for myself. Doesn’t matter if they end up being published elsewhere. I am my own audience, and I use the essay or review format to clarify my own thoughts on whatever I’m writing about. In fact, I often don’t have any thoughts on what I’m writing about until I start writing, or talking it out. All I have, to begin with, is an inchoate feeling that gradually assumes the form of expressible thoughts. Which means that if I have a negative negative reaction to a book — if I just flat-out dislike it — then I feel like I’ve made a loss on the investment of my time. So I wouldn’t write a negative negative review, because ultimately I just want to cut my losses and move on. I’m not against negative stuff per se, and I’ll happily dole it out in conversation, but if I’m going to put my energy into writing about something, then I’m pretty much in an exploratory frame of mind, not an advisory one; hence, no pressure to warn other readers away from a bad book.

But occasionally there are books that I don’t like, or I don’t admire, even though I value in some other way — for the contrast they provide to still other books, or for their unrealised potential, for the suggestions of what they could have been. That’s the territory on which I feel comfortable writing a negative review, because it still allows me to work my way into the book deeply and give respect to some part of it. A la Coetzee.

This year, some months ago, the question of the value of negative reviews arose anew when Bookforum published Andrea Long Chu’s incandescent takedown of Bret Easton Ellis’ White. We all had fun reading it, didn’t we? I did, at least, and I happily agreed with most all its conclusions. But I felt rotten afterwards, greasy, and both Jason and I wanted to make sure that his review of The Need didn’t have that effect on its readers, didn’t come from the same fierce and declamatory place as the Bookforum essay. Writing a negative review is always something of a tightrope walk, and Jason’s is one that maintains its balance — even when Jason holds up a mirror and wonders whether his misgivings aren’t more a result of his position. Obviously I’m hoping other readers agree with this! But even if not, I think this is a good example of how to make a less-than-positive review work well. Don’t be afraid to come to a negative judgment. Do be aware that the credibility of the judgment — to not be written off as anger or snark — rests on careful thought, and a clear identification of where the problems lie, and why they are problems on the book’s own terms. Which might require a slower, more in-depth reading than a book that gratifies with pleasures you can pinpoint easily.

On “Expert” Taste

In a new article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Michael Clune takes aim at the humanities’ unwillingness to pass judgment on potential objects of study, and the consequent inability of humanities scholars to assert or defend the value of anything. There’s a lot of food for thought in his cri-de-coeur, which for me hits the sweet spot between literary criticism, aesthetic evaluation, and pedagogy. But on the pedagogical side of things, strangely enough for an article that thoroughly digs into the losses we incur when we make assumptions about how to treat “value” in the classroom, there’s not much questioning of assumptions about pedagogical dynamics.

One problem is that Clune just jumps onboard with I.A. Richards:

In the early 20th century, the critic I.A. Richards already perceived the tension between equality and judgment. “The expert in matters of taste is in an awkward position when he differs from the majority,” he wrote. “He is forced to say in effect, ‘I am better than you. My taste is more refined, my nature more cultured, you will do well to become more like me than you are.’”  By the waning years of the 20th century, professors concluded they needed to reframe their expertise in order to align it with egalitarianism. Therefore, they bend over backward to disguise their syllabi as value-neutral, as simply a means for students to gain cultural or political or historical knowledge.

But is this actually true? Where does the superiority complex come from? I think part of it is that we still regard teachers as authority figures, who speak authoritatively, who therefore hold “superior” views, but it doesn’t have to be this way. It’s entirely possible to run a dialogic, democratic classroom in which the teacher has more sound reasons for his/her value judgments, or may be able to articulate them more persuasively, simply because he/she has spent more time than most people doing these things, day in and day out; ie. he/she has had more practice.

But such a teacher is still exposed to rebuttal, dissent — and should be, and should invite it, to give students the practice they need in order to form and defend their own judgments. In other words, Richards’ “expert” may rather say, in effect, “I’ve had more time that you to hone my ability to justify my judgments, and more time to survey the field so that I have a wider range of points of comparison than you do, but this is an effect of time (age) and practice (labour) and it has nothing to do with the privileges of institutional authority, or some absolute grounds for the formation of value judgments.”