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Most writers do everything they can to block out interruptions and distractions when they work.  They find a room at the back of the house where no one comes.  They put their desks up against a blank wall.  They pull down the blinds so they can’t see out of the windows.

I, on the other hand, work in a sunroom.  I don’t like interruptions, so I get up early before everybody else is awake–but I have two walls that are solid with windows, and I really like the feeling it gives me of not being shut up and claustrophobic.   I was once in a house where there was a screen porch in the shape of an octagonal gazebo, attached to the house by only one of the eight sides.  All I could think of was that it was a perfect place to work, if I could only replace the screens by glass and have the thing wired and air conditioned.

My office makes me very happy ten months out of the year, but for the first two months of any summer season, I’ve got a problem.  For reasons having to do with the type of windows in my office, it happens to be the one room in the house that lets in serious pollen.  And short of having the windows replaced wholesale, I can’t change that.

That means that for those two months, I can’t sit at my computer for longer than about an hour or a time without incurring really nasty allergic reactions, mostly in the form of bizarre stuff happening to my eyes.

So, on days like today, I work in here for about an hour.  Then I go lie down with ice cubes on my eyes for about an hour. 

Fortunately, most of the work I’m doing at the moment can be done longhand on my manuscript and then transferred to the digital copy all at once and reasonably quickly.  I’m a fast typist.

Right now, though, I’m in here writing the blog, and also because I like spending time in my office, which has lots of books in it and the computer.

And I’m thinking about a Rule We Must Never Break in writing, because it came up in e-mail from a friend a few days ago.

The rule is this:  fiction should be “show” and not “tell.”

I will say that, when it comes to my own work, I tend to take this rule to be unbreakable, too. 

It’s certainly a reason I have given, often enough, to explain why I think a novel is well or badly written.

I wonder though if it is, in real life, as unbreakable rule as we all think it is.

In a way, this goes back to a bigger problem that I’ve blithered about at other times:  how surely can we trust the reader to “get” what the writer is doing?

The answer that is usually given to this in creative writing classes and writer’s workshops is that we just have to trust the reader, and readers who aren’t able to handle it will just have to fall by the wayside.

I’d like to point out that I’m not talking, here, about fancy-ass experimental techniques, but about simple and straightforward ones.  Every time I have a book published, I spend a few days on this blog complaining about the number of people out there who don’t understand how to read third person multiple viewpoint–who don’t understand that just because a character thinks or believes X, it is not the case that the writer herself thinks or believers X.

Historically, there has always been a lot more tell in fiction than there ever has been show.  Even relatively sophisticated forms like that of the drama of Classical Greece exhibit writers’ deep distrust of their audiences’ abilities to “get” anything at all.

The chorus was not some academic exercise in indicating the difference between the ideas of the People and the ideas of the individual characters.  It was there to tell the audience what to think.    And the masks were there to make sure the audience didn’t run off the rails and think that Xenophanes was crying when he was really having a good chuckle.

Okay, so part of that was writers not trusting actors, either.  But you see what I mean.

Unsophisticated forms–like, for instance, Medieval morality plays–are even more determined to tell as much as possible.   In fact, they often seem to do very little else.  Milton may have left us all wondering if he was “of the devil’s party, and didn’t know’t,” but the person who wrote Everyman left no wriggle room.  We know what side he’s on with every line.

And most of us who say we prefer show over tell have novels we love that are very largely tell–for some people who read this blog, that would be Atlas Shrugged.

What’s more, telling instead of showing can be used very effectively by writers who know what they’re doing.  There is, for instance, the narrative voice in Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge.   By and large, the book is impeccably show and not tell, even though it was written in the first person by a character who could not have been present at all the scenes he presents.

Every once in a while, however, that narrator will step forward out of the frame, and the result will be very compelling indeed–and sometimes very funny. 

“They were afraid he was a snob,”  Maugham says of Elliott Templeton. “And of course he was.  He was a colossal snob.  He was a snob without shame.”

 And, really, that’s exactly what you need at exactly that point to make Elliot Templeton more alive in your living room than your cat.

I’ve been trying to figure out when “telling” instead of “showing” is tolerable and when it isn’t.  There’s more of it in commercial fiction, these days, than in literary fiction.   In fact, a lot of literary fiction these days is so minimalist, you aren’t sure what it’s trying to show.

And telling instead of showing in more in evidence the farther back you go in the history of the novel.  Trollope and Dickens (and Kipling) do more of it than Hemingway and Margaret Mitchell. 

I hesitate to say, however that this is some kind of progress. 

The fact that we can care about the question at all is probably a testament to the effects of the drive for universal literacy, and the fact that it causes so much more trouble these days is probably a testament to the waning influence of those effects.

So yes, I guess that in one way I am looking at a story of progress–although not progress from bad to better novels.

I also wonder how much of this is the affinity effect–we don’t mind being told if we’re being told what we want to hear, but we hate it when the telling expresses something we disagree with or dislike. 

I once had a discussion with a guy on RAM during which it because very clear that he didn’t mind rock stars talking about politics, he only minded them talking about politics opposed to his own. 

And then there’s the most obvious issue–anything can be done well or badly.  Maybe we just don’t like telling when it’s done badly.

I’m going to leave the office now and put an ice cube on my eye.

Written by janeh

May 25th, 2011 at 3:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Pollen'

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  1. OK. Action may be told, and generalizing action is dicey. Character must be shown. But writing in the first person changes the rules. The narrator may be telling me about one character, but he’s showing me another.

    I generally regard the balance point as latter half of the 19th Century. Watch some poor screenwriter dealing with Austen. We’re told that Mr. Darcy is polite to Elizabeth Bennett’s uncle and aunt at Pemberly, but we’re not given a word he says. Scott once told his readers a character made a rousing speech and left it at that. But I don’t get that in Homer, so I’m inclined to think people in 1810 were still working out how to write novels. By Stevenson, Haggard and Kipling, the novelist seems to have a full toolbox.

    (The equivalent point in film is about 1941. They remade silent films with sound, and black and white films in color, but once they had sound and good color, there has been no equivalent advance, and remakes are seldom worthwhile.)

    I’m not sure, by the way, that Mitchell shows more that Kipling. Rand may tell more. I think that’s the range when one is telling a story. Hemingway goes under that–showing more and telling virtually nothing–because a lot of what he does, especially in “short story” form, aren’t really stories. They’re vignettes or character studies. When he writes novels, he IS telling a story, and he moves back closer to the balance point: you describe action, and as much as possible show character, but sometimes you have to cheat a little on the margins to keep the story moving. If you tell me a major character is cheap, or an idiot, instead of showing me, you need to have a REALLY cute way of telling me.

    And you don’t want to make a habit of it.


    25 May 11 at 4:58 pm

  2. In-room air filter, really. Get one of those Sharper Image ones, or something from Bed Bath & Beyond, research online first of course, but they can substantially reduce pollen load if the windows aren’t wide open.


    25 May 11 at 6:35 pm

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