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.

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.”

On Poetry

Yesterday, the New York Times offered a nice surprise: an eloquent little essay by Matthew Zapruder on learning how to read poetry. It begins in the classroom, with Zapruder describing a problem that any teacher of literature will be familiar with:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? … [I]n school we are taught that poetry is inherently “difficult,” and that by its very nature it somehow makes meaning by hiding meaning. So our efforts at reading poetry begin to reflect this.

“But,” Zapruder goes on, “it turns out that the portal to the strange is the literal. As a teacher, I’ve found that regardless of how open or resistant my literature students initially are to poetry, real progress begins when they get literal with the words on the page.” That’s my experience too, and it’s refreshing to find someone else saying it. Continue reading

Literature and the Classroom

I’m at the end of a week in which I’ve taken to using Medium to sketch out some notes on strategies for teaching literature to upper secondary and first-year undergraduate students. The result is a six-part series of posts focusing on student engagement outside of the literature classroom — one of the hardest nuts to crack, in my experience — and how teachers can facilitate engagement in some unconventional ways. If you’re interested, here are the links to the various topics:

I last wrote about student engagement back in September, building on an essay by Gary Saul Morson in Commentary. That post was more idealistic and aspirational than these more recent ones, establishing the target I aim for in the classroom. This past week has given me a chance to address some of the nuts and bolts of the attempt to keep a true aim and hit the target bang-on.

All Over the Place

Gary Saul Morson has an essay in Commentary entitled ‘Why College Kids Are Avoiding the Study of Literature.’ It’s a real piece of work. He begins by taking a few pot-shots at Martha Nussbaum’s familiar concerns about declining enrolment in literature courses at colleges and universities, then he identifies himself as the teacher of “the largest class at Northwestern University, with an enrollment of about 500 students. The course is about Russian literature.” He continues:

I speak with students by the dozens, and none has ever told me that he or she does not take more literature courses because every moment at school must be devoted to maximizing future income. On the contrary, students respond by describing some literature course they took that left them thinking they had nothing to gain from repeating the experience. … What can students learn from literature that they cannot learn elsewhere? Why should they bother with it? … For understandable reasons, literature professors assume the importance of their subject matter. But students are right to ask these questions. … To teach anything well, you have to place yourself in the position of the learner who does not already know the basics and has to be persuaded that the subject is worth studying. You have to subtract knowledge and assumptions you have long since forgotten having learned. And one of those assumptions is that literature is worth the effort of reading it.

That sort of stuff is music to my ears. I teach literature partly because I love exactly that aspect of the job: challenging myself to approach the familiar from an outsider’s perspective, dismantling my own assumptions about literature at the beginning of the academic year, and finding new and creative ways of introducing students to the discipline without ever taking for granted their interest in it. But then Morson drops this paragraph: Continue reading