Extraordinary Man

Tell, Don’t Show

James Wood spoke to us about the use of detail in novels since Flaubert, which sounded pretty tedious, but struck a nerve with me right from the start. He jumped right on an a technical issue in writing that has often paralyzed me.

Here I am, trying to paint a lifelike picture for the reader using concrete detail, (“showing, not telling”). I’ll create these “ordinary” characters who aren’t particularly perceptive and would never notice their elaborate surroundings, much less have a sense of wonder about them. At some point, the description starts to seem intrusive and phony. Who is noticing what? Me or the character who’s supposed to be inhabiting the world?

The problem is that the writer is always there, “working very hard to obscure his labor;” to smooth together the chosen detail to create a something “real.” Meanwhile, the use of concrete detail is rife with commentary. What’s included is always an indicator, even the seemingly insignificant details. There is no “showing” without “telling.”

What’s left is hardly any subject, only style. James Wood said that since Flaubert, even a non-style is a style. And style is going to be self-conscious.

With this on my mind, today I read Miranda July’s irresistable story in the New Yorker. Its almost a monologue- openly self-conscious, only minimal details are included to advance the story. The return to exposition means she doesn’t try to bury her psychology in the telling.

I have the same reaction to her as I do to Hemingway or Bukowski. Like, this is fiction? Its such a relief to be addressed this way. As a reader, I hardly have to meet her halfway. And as a writer, I love silencing the inner instructor who’s chanting “show, don’t tell.”

Which makes me wonder…why is this the mantra in creative writing? What impulse are we trying to train out of storytelling? Don’t we just want to tell what happened, and what it reminded us of, what we mean and why it’s worth repeating? When I read July’s pieces, I sense there’s something snobby about training out the impulses of the chatty, confessional narrator. Like something very intimate and honest is being lost.


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