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.

What Do We Mean By “Readable”?

Good times for meta-criticism. Following on from Daniel Green’s “cold takes” on Darker With the Lights On and Milkman, here’s a perceptive Twitter thread from Sam Byers in response to someone else’s earlier remarks on the “unreadability” of Finnegans Wake. First, the unattributed spur:

[The judgment of “unreadability”] invokes that style of “reading” which, encountering no obstacle, is hardly reading in the active sense at all, resembling rather, in Beckett’s dismissive words, the “rapid skimming and absorption of the scant cream of sense”.

Now, Byers:

Very struck by this, which feels relevant to current literary or “books” discussion. What do we mean by “readable”? Do we simply mean “encountering no obstacle”? Contrast this with “reading as interpretation or as provoking visions” which to me at least seems way more exciting. Also struck by “different kinds of attention”. It makes me feel that in our current near-obsession with “attention”, we misunderstand it, and then in turn misunderstand the things that demand it. If we see attention as a fixed and uniform skill or phenomenon, we naturally expect all art to appeal to that fixed attention in the same way, which is why we’ve ended up assessing novels against metrics of pace and accessibility more pertinent to TV than to literature. It makes me think we’re in a strange kind of mess where we demand that something captures and holds our attention, but don’t consider the benefits of applying varying types of attention to objects that seem not to ask for it, or which actively work to repel it.

From Criteria to Credo

In a new article at American Prospect, Benjamin Markovits has suggested that we can clearly articulate “What makes fiction good.” Daniel Green, upon reading the article, complained that Markovits made “not one mention… of the writer’s use of language. It’s all about various gradations of story. If a work of fiction isn’t first of all its style, what the writer can do with words, it’s literally nothing but a plot.” Finally, in response, Emmett Stinson argued against using language alone as the sole criterion for literary merit:

[T]here are great writers (even within a literary tradition that prizes style over plot) who are bad or inconsistent stylists. … Style is not an “element” [of literature]. Visual narratives, spoken narratives, and written narratives are not the same. There are great writers who are bad or inconsistent stylists… especially in genres outside the literary. … Writing can do many things beyond rhetorical mastery (style). Fiction can be deeply affective or ideational without rhetorical complexity. Science fiction is arguably conceptually more complex than much lit fic, though stylistically less masterful. Many options for greatness… [and no need for] a subordination of all categories to “the writer’s language effects,” which strikes me as an attenuation of the possibilities for literature — just as a narrow focus on only narrative forms is.

Now, with Philip K. Dick being floated as an exemplar of a “great” writer who is also a terrible stylist, I’ve waded in with some rough thoughts of my own.Read More »

In Memoriam, Ursula K. LeGuin

It’s the use of language, and the conscious, purposeful exploitation of the unique capabilities of language, that distinguishes literary fiction from genre fiction. That’s an article of faith for me. The distinction has nothing to do with the material of the story. Which is why The Left Hand of Darkness, in particular, is an outstanding work of literary fiction. Not because it proves that science fiction can rival conventional literary fiction by telling complex stories with equal sensitivity, but because it does mindbending things with language, specifically the use of gender pronouns, with all their implications. That, above all else, is what makes the novel unadaptable, unfilmable, irreducibly literary. Extract the story from the language and you have a compelling, philosophically provocative science fiction tale, but you don’t have literary fiction. It’s the language that makes the difference; it’s in the language that LeGuin’s genius resides.

Knausgaard’s Reinvigorated Realism

Karl Ove Knausgaard, "Some Rain Must Fall"Once again the publication of a new volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle has been met with a flurry of extremely well-considered responses, but none so incisive as Anthony Macris’ long essay in the Sydney Review of Books. Although it’s ostensibly a review of Some Rain Must Fall, it actually goes much further in order to extrapolate from commonplace remarks on Knausgaard’s style in order to articulate precisely the governing aesthetic of the entire My Struggle series:

Much has already been written about Knausgaard’s literary style: the plainness of his language, the massing of detail, the ostensible tendency to over-narration. Critics seem divided as to whether his writing is long-winded and sloppy, his talent failing his ambition, or whether it’s fit for purpose, admirably serving the drama without overly drawing attention to itself. At any rate, there’s more than enough praise to counter the negative view, with writers like Zadie Smith and Jeffrey Eugenides lining up to support his work enthusiastically. Whatever your view I would argue that, no matter what camp you fall into, it’s hard to deny that with My Struggle Knausgaard has pulled off something extraordinary, that he has to some degree, if not reinvented realism, then refreshed it for a contemporary literary readership that is perhaps growing tired of tightly scripted novels that resemble movie scripts, or maximalist fictions that rely on outlandish hyperbole. In turning his back on the trappings of standard conceptions of literariness — for example, the kind of high-blown lyricism and overweening self-romanticism that sank Harold Brodkey’s much vaunted autobiographical novel, The Runaway Soul — Knausgaard has effectively employed a cruder mimesis, one that refuses to engage with the kind of trompe l’oeil effects that can in their own way achieve verisimilitude.

Instead, his style is based in part on what I word term a naïve epistemology, one that harkens back to the Cratylic tradition of the word, a belief that there’s a natural correspondence between words and things, and that by naming things we can create worlds. Metaphor, simile and other poetic devices are virtually non-existent in the My Struggle novels. While comparisons to Proust abound in discussions of Knausgaard (a comparison he invites), his style couldn’t be more different to Proust’s filigree, hypotactical sentences whose sinuous lines, in the great tradition of modernist subjectivity, mimic the train of thought. Knausgaard, like Proust, may draw upon the great internal sweep of remembrance to generate his novel, but his conveyance of choice is made up largely of concrete images, dialogue and simple declarative sentences. Often, in paratactical mode, these sentences are strung together with commas, breaking every rule of ‘good’ grammar. It’s tempting to think this style is a new kind of rendering of consciousness, but I would argue differently. Consciousness in Knausgaard is a kind of extreme ossification of realism, a near empirical entity, gleaned principally from observation of the external world and thoughts narrated as statements of fact, which is easy enough to claim in first person, where the narration of thoughts and emotional states correlate with the authenticity of the narrating subject. Consciousness as a mediating factor, a substance that distorts reality and that must be shown to do so, isn’t evoked. Language is at the service of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sensibility, and it’s a sensibility that isn’t afraid to dwell on lived experience at length, a Stendahlian mirror that reflects not in a series of tableaux, but that is as vast as the universe it captures, and is somehow co-extensive with it.

This is a somewhat technical way of saying that Knausgaard’s realism is not the kind of realism we are accustomed to. In fact, while working in a realist paradigm, Knausgaard, in his desire to write rapidly and in volume (the near 700 pages of Some Rain Must Fall took, he claims, a mere eight weeks to write), has challenged the limits of contemporary realism. All the standard tropes of realism are there: concrete events plotted in chronological time (there is some achrony, but within the acceptable limits of realism); a hero narrator whose consciousness is the spoke of the wheel; carefully selected conflicts that drive the story forward; internal struggles with self, external battles with people and institutions. But the edicts of contemporary realism that Knausgaard chooses to flout are those of tightness and brevity, and of relegating description and ‘undramatic’ events to the background in order to foreground the ‘real meat’ of the narrative: heightened events, turning points, moments of conflict. There is instead a merging of foreground and background in order to create more vivid textures of lived experience.

Proof positive, as if any more were needed, of the extraordinary value of the Sydney Review, and a real enrichment of the experience of reading Knausgaard.

On Style

All works of art are founded on a certain distance from the lived reality which is represented. This ‘distance’ is, by definition, inhuman or impersonal to a certain degree; for in order to appear to us as art, the work must restrict sentimental intervention and emotional participation, which are functions of ‘closeness.’ It is the degree and manipulating of this distance, the conventions of distance, which constitute the style of the work. In the final analysis, ‘style’ is art. And art is nothing more or less than various modes of stylized, dehumanized representations. … Style is the principle of decision in a work of art, the signature of the artist’s will. And as the human will is capable of an indefinite number of stances, there are an indefinite number of possible styles for works of art. … To the extent that a work seems right, just, unimaginable otherwise (without loss or damage), what we are responding to is a quality of its style. The most attractive works of art are those which give us the illusion that the artist had no alternatives, so wholly centered is he in his style.

That’s Susan Sontag — who I could go on quoting ad infinitum — brought in here to speak to the takeaway paragraph in a great discussion between David Winters and Anthony Brown over at 3:AM Magazine. The subject is modernism, “then and now”:

David Winters: You mention Bernhard in the same breath as Lydia Davis, which I think is fruitful. What I mean here is that I read Bernhard for the same reasons I read some recent American writers. I want to say that I read for the style, but I don’t mean ‘style’ in the ‘superficial’ sense you astutely describe [in discussing “Peter Gay’s ‘modernism as style’ position”]. In the work of the writers I most admire, a style is always also a stance. That is, for them, a way of arranging words on the page is also a way of reaching a view of the world.