A Reconsideration of the First Commandment for Writers
"Most of what calls itself contemporary is built, whether it knows it or not, out of a desire to be liked. It is created in imitation of what already exists and is already admired. There is, in other words nothing new about it. To be [truly] contemporary is to rise through the stack of the past, like the fire through the mountain. Only a heat so deeply and intelligently born can carry a new idea into the air."
- Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook
espite the fact that we know better, that we’ve been cautioned again and again not to write with an eye to the market, most of us can’t help peeking from time to time. It’s fun, after all, to see what everyone else is up to and to spot trends. I, for one, always get a little thrill of self-congratulation when I can say I saw it coming. So I’m going to try my hand here at predicting the "next new thing;" and it may surprise you that I’m betting it’s an old one. If you want to catch the wave of the future, I’d suggest you look to the past.
Here, by way of example, is an excerpt from an author whose work has caught fire with young readers in the last several years:
If you are interested in stories with happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happened in the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children, and they were charming, and resourceful and had pleasant facial features, but they were very unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with misfortune, misery and despair. I’m sorry to tell you this, but that is how the story goes.
As many of you know, this passage comes from The Bad Beginning, the first novel in the wildly popular Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, whose real name is Daniel Handler.
Interesting, isn’t it, how this modern riff of Handler’s recalls Dickensian plots? How the shadows of Little Nell, Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield fall large across this passage? Note, too that the protagonists here are named after one of the nineteenth century’s dark darlings, Charles Baudelaire, the author of Les Fleurs de Mal, the Flowers of Evil.
And here’s a tempting tidbit from an even newer book, one that won the 2004 Newbery Medal:
"Once upon a time," he read aloud, relishing the sound. And then, tracing each word with his paw, he read the story of a beautiful princess and the brave knight who serves and honors her.
Despereaux did not know it, but he would need, very soon, to be brave himself. Have I mentioned that beneath the castle there was a dungeon? In the dungeon, there were rats. Large rats. Mean rats.
Despereaux was destined to meet those rats.
Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.
I know you all recognize this moment from The Tale of Despereaux by our own Visiting Writer and Commencement Speaker, Kate DiCamillo. This excerpt, too, recalls nineteenth-century literature. Remember the way Charlotte Bronte, who wrote about another dreamy, book-loving rebel, addresses us as "Gentle Reader?" Remember how George Eliot constantly interrupts her narratives to comment on her characters and her job as their creator? All of which means I wasn't at all surprised two days ago, when Kate and I were talking, to hear her, in the middle of our conversation, quote Bartleby the Scrivener, Herman Melville's bizarre, immoveable protagonist!
Okay. I'm going to stop here to ask you all a question, and I want an honest show of hands, despite the abject humiliation that is almost sure to follow! How many people here have used the device of having a character look into a mirror in order to avoid TELLING your readers what she looks like? (I raise my hand with the rest.) Guilty as charged. To the dungeon with all of us! Notice, in contrast, the bravado with which Handler simply describes his long-suffering protagonists. And observe, too, please, that his description comes off as a great deal fresher than our contorted and by now clichéd attempt to circumvent the forthright delivery of necessary information.
Here’s another question: How many of you have avoided exactly the sort of moralizing Kate delivers with such panache at the end of the passage I quoted from her book? (I raise my hand again.) Yep. We’ve been taught, well taught, you and I, to show our themes through our characters’ actions and words, to painstakingly suppress any impulse to tell our readers what to think.
And then along comes an author like this, an author (mark me, now) who knows the rules perfectly well and is adept at applying them, but who suddenly decides, rules be damned. An author who has a long enough view to recognize that nothing is new under the sun. Nothing except the story she needs need to tell right now, at this very minute, and who also recognizes that contemporary wisdom may not help her find the best way to tell it. She knows that, yes, good books, the great books, are character-driven, but she also knows that there’s someone else in that driver’s seat. Someone equally indispensable to the process of story.
I’ve suggested that DiCamillo and Handler share a debt, a debt to the 19th century writers they both clearly know and love. This is a pair of authors whose work is testimony to the fact that good reading is crucial to good writing. Because what’s happened in their books is not something unprecedented, but something missed, something yearned for, something sensible and honest that once characterized the majority of novels written in the western world. That something is the story teller.
Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, and Baudelaire, while worldly, sophisticated and, in the case of the late Dickens and Baudelaire, increasingly dark and despairing, were still story tellers. They did not attempt, like the Wizard of Oz, to foster the awkward illusion that no one is behind the curtain; they made no bones about the fact that their stories were art and that they were artists.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. Somewhere between existentialism and deconstruction, we lost the author. Contemporary Realism now insists that the world of the book is real and that characters act and speak on their own. Modern writers and literary critics, especially those writing in the field of children's literature, have worked themselves into a fetishistic stupor that can’t see beyond first person, present tense. To reveal the storyteller, to comment on events, or - perish the thought - to be swept away by them, is considered egotistical, passé, and a violation of the First Commandment for Writers: (audience says with me) Show, Don’t Tell.
Even as we say these words, I see the initials S.D.T. in blazing red ink, scribbled derisively across thousands of pages, yours and mine, by hundreds of editors, college comp teachers, and MFA instructors. Yes. I confess! I’ve succumbed at times myself to the lure of "The Rule." It is soothing, after all, to have at least one pure inviolable dictum I can pass on to my students. It helps persuade me that I am teaching a craft, not an impossible mystery; that I have something tangible to offer.
So, sadly, I can imagine a new writer being admitted to this program, an older, seasoned author as some of our community are. And I blush to imagine further that one day, in the grip of S.D.T., I might scold him in my illegible scrawl on the side of his manuscript: "T. S., you’ve already shown us your narrator is aging; you’ve established this through very effective concrete detail in the rolled trousers, the hair parted over the bald spot, and the dentures that can be dislodged by a peach pit. Do you really need this rhetorical outburst, "I grow old! I grow old?"
Well, of course you do! T.S. Eliot’s man Prufrock is, by nature, all plaints, all woe is me, all what’s the use. He is excess; he is heightened sensibilities and endless talk without action. So the telling here is in character and on target. It is excruciatingly right. Does this one poetic exception, though, give the rest of us license to dispense with showing, to abandon sensory detail and concrete imagery in favor of sweeping generalities and impassioned pronouncements? Does the brave, born-again narrative of Handler or DiCamillo give us permission to preach, to teach, to expound?
Not always. But sometimes. What I hope this talk does, you see, is not create a stampede toward unbridled rhetoric, but restore a delightful tool to your writer’s tool belt, one that has been all but denied you, one that can, if used with discrimination and skill, add a great deal to your artist’s world and vision and to the world of your readers. I want to promote among us today an openness to coming full circle, to returning to a relationship between author and reader and between the teller of tales and his story. For too long, it seems to me, contemporary criticism and pedagogy have refused to acknowledge how much lyricism and authorial voice can add to fiction. It has been far simpler, less complicated to reject them out of hand. But look what has happened as a result: The blanket acceptance of Show, Don’t Tell has effectively bound modern authors, and turned narrative into the idiot relative we hide in the basement and bring out only for transitions and minimal expositions.
t’s gotten so that, anxious to turn transparent, to disappear, we writers have confined ourselves to first person and present tense. The result is that we have a hard time telling, even when it’s called for. Where our predecessors would have blithely announced, "Three days later," or "He’d been in jail for ten years, and never learned to appreciate four-course meals," many of us today perforate our stories with ellipses or rely on vignettes, prologues, and multiple view points to make connections clear. We force our characters to peer into mirrors, we find unlikely occasions for someone to call out their names rather than risk simply telling them to our readers. We tend toward the most improbable expository moments, where teachers announce the grade level of the class they’re talking to, or suddenly sensitive protagonists intuit the emotional responses of those around them. Like the Wizard, we keep pushing Dorothy away from that curtain, when what she might really need is to see how hard, how industriously we’re working back there for her approval.
Yes, you’re right. This diatribe is being brought to you by the same faculty member who usually warns against getting in the way of your characters and their story. Who chastises you for flexing your stylistic and metaphoric muscles at the expense of immediacy and authenticity. And yes, again, the times they are a-changing, and readers today no longer have the patience that characterized book lovers before the advent of television and film.
But there is, nonetheless, room for sometimes ending the pretense that stories are real life. For going back to the fire, where we sit together and listen spellbound. Where we know that what we are hearing is not reality, but something different, something better. Where we acknowledge the magic of make believe and the relationship between teller and listener, or author and reader.
There is not only room for such acknowledgement; there is, I contend, a positive hunger for it. A hunger so implacable that it will reward more and more experiments like DiCamillo’s and Handler’s. I know, you see, that I am not the only one who adores Thomas Hardy, whose moors stretch for pages; and Rudyard Kipling, who addresses me as, Best Beloved; and George Eliot, whose triumph, Middlemarch, is as much about the author and her times as about the characters in her story. There are many of us who steal away to the nineteenth century when the 21st overwhelms us. Why? Because telling, the way these folks did it, IS showing. It shows us (For those of you who love to take notes, grab those pencils, a list follows! They’ll be six items, so leave enough space):
1. WHO THE AUTHOR IS -- not by way of puffery, but to make us secure, comfy, patient, involved; to let us know we’re in the care of a story teller whom we can trust. Here’s Eliot opening Chapter 15 of Middlemarch and complaining, ironically enough, that she doesn’t have the leisure to carry on about this and that, after the fashion of earlier authors:
...Fielding lived when the days were longer (for time, like money, is measured by our needs), when summer afternoons were spacious, and the clock ticked slowly in the winter evenings. We belated historians must not linger after his example, and if we did so, it is probable that our chat would be thin and eager, as if delivered from a camp-stool in a parrot house. I at least have so much to do in unraveling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.
At present (then) I have to make the new settler Lydgate better known to any one interested in him than he could possibly be even to those who had seen the most of him since his arrival in Middlemarch. For surely all must admit that a man may be puffed and belauded, envied, ridiculed, counted upon as a tool and fallen in love with, or at least selected as a future husband, and yet remain virtually unknown.
Hmmmm! Delicious! Who wouldn’t want to keep reading? Who wouldn’t be lulled by the storytelling voice here, by the companionable way in which our responses and opinions are solicited? By the way the author admits her limitations at the same time she bowls us over with her canniness about human nature. Robertson Davies in the lecture series at Yale I recommended you read in preparation for this talk, makes a point of stressing the author apart from her story. "When we read," he says, "we must always be aware of the mind that lies behind the book. Not that we may be wholly persuaded by it, or that we should have no minds of our own, but that we may share it and be shown new meanings by it."
Of course, to be open in this way calls for certain qualities on the part of a reader, which leads to the second thing the great, windy novels of the nineteenth century show us:
2. RESPECT FOR THE READER’S ROLE -- this sense of inclusion is, for me, an important part of my delight in "old fashioned" writing, and I can think of no better example of an author who continually reaches out to his young audience than Rudyard Kipling. In How the Whale Got His Throat, from the Just So Stories, as in all of Kipling, the read-aloud rhythms are stunning. Here, this is due, in no small measure, to his asides to the reader:
So the whale swam and swam to latitude Fifty North, longitude Forty West, as fast as he could swim, and on a raft, in the middle of the sea, with nothing to wear except a pair of blue canvas breeches, a pair of suspenders (you must particularly remember the suspenders, Best Beloved), and a jack-knife, he found one single, solitary shipwrecked Mariner, trailing his toes in the water. (He had his Mummy’s leave to paddle, or else he would never have done it, because he was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity.)
Then the whale opened his mouth back and back and back till it nearly touched his tail, and he swallowed the shipwrecked Mariner, and the raft he was sitting on, and his blue canvas breeches, and the suspenders (which you must not forget), and the jack-knife -- He swallowed them all down into his warm, dark, inside cupboards, and then he smacked his lips -- so, and turned round three times on his tail.
Throughout this story, Kipling continues to check on us, to make sure we remember the suspenders, and when at last the Mariner who is, as you’ll recall, a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity, uses them to tie open the whale’s mouth, our story teller chortles triumphantly, "now you know why you were not to forget the suspenders!)
And just in case you think first-person narration precludes "breaking the third wall," (I've borrowed this term from the theatre, where occasionally, an actor may speak through the invisible barrier that separates him from the audience and address them directly), let Bronte’s Jane Eyre show you otherwise. The opening of Chapter XI is a virtuoso combination of a first-person narrator combined with the transparent acknowledgement of story as art:
A new chapter in a novel is something like a new scene in a play; and when I draw up the curtain this time, reader, you must fancy you see a room in the George Inn at Millcote, with such large figured papering on the walls as inn rooms have; such a carpet, such furniture, such ornaments on the mantelpiece, such prints, including a portrait of George the Third, and another of the Prince of Wales, and a representation of the death of Wolfe. All this is visible to you by the light of an oil lamp hanging from the ceiling, and by that of an excellent fire, near which I sit in my cloak and bonnet; my muff and umbrella lie on the table, and I am warming away the numbness and chill contracted by sixteen hours’ exposure to the rawness of an October day. ...Reader, though I look comfortably accommodated, I am not very tranquil in my mind....
Doesn't this sound daring? Modern? As bold as meta-fiction? How I wish more contemporary authors would bring us, faces warmed by the fire, back into the intimate story circle this way: When Kipling urges us to find the place he’s talking about in our atlas or encourages us to color his illustrations because his publishers won’t let him; when Kate and Lemony Snicket send us to our dictionaries, (You do know, don’t you, Listeners Dear, that the two of them do this with some regularity?) they are all acknowledging our crucial role in the process of reading. They are agreeing with Robertson Davies (again from the Yale series) that writing is meant for performance, that "great works of the imagination -- the masterworks of poetry, drama, and fiction -- are simply indications for performance, which you hold in your hand, and like musical scores they call for skilled performance by you, the artist and the reader. Literature is an art, and reading is also an art..."
Which brings us to the third thing nineteenth century writers show us with their telling. Because like all art, fiction can be used to paint
3. THE BIG PICTURE -- to tell us what God or grace is like; or how an entire town thinks or a place feels. How often, especially when dealing with an unreliable narrator, who sees only one small part of the world, contemporary authors must yearn to do what writers a hundred years ago didn’t hesitate to do -- escape from their protagonist’s view point and put on large, impartial spectacles that see for miles and miles. Remember the super-size opening of Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, a sprawling catalog of two continents that begins,
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...
ickens’ Big Picture ends a full chapter later, like a telescope closing, with a single sentence that finally brings us down to the "small creatures" about whom he plans to tell his story. This sort of God’s eye view, a view larger, more knowing than any one character’s, a view too huge and generous to be conveyed by mere showing, earned E.B. White several scathing reviews when he described Wilbur’s world at the beginning of Chapter Three in Charlotte’s Web:
The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell -- as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world.
White's lengthy description goes on for two pages, through a catalog of rakes and grain and hoes, until we return to the story with the sentence, "And the whole thing was owned by Fern’s uncle, Mr. Homer L. Zuckerman." The human mind, like the human eye, is a flexible piece of equipment, suitable for both narrow and expanded focus. What fun, then, what good practice, and what healthy mutual respect is involved when authors give young readers a chance to make such adjustments in perspective.
It’s fun, too, to roll words around on your tongue or in your head. To be shown, as so many of the nineteenth century novelists showed us,
4. THE BEAUTY AND DELIGHT OF LANGUAGE, language chosen with relish, artfully employed, and perfectly suited to the character and occasion at hand. Davies, as you read in the lectures I recommended, believes the magic of the storyteller resides, primarily, in his language. "It is extraordinary," he says, "how few people have any real feeling for language, or any sense that it is one of the greatest and most inexhaustible playthings with which our human state has presented us." For a sense of this playfulness, we only have to turn to Kipling, who read all his work out loud and therefore tempts us with such exotic treats as the "great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees." (That's from "The Elephant's Child.")
But for sheer beauty of language, is there anyone who can compare with Herman Melville on one of his Shakespearean rampages? No real person, mind you, is likely to expend the words or time Ahab does at every plot turn of his desperate life, but who cares? This isn’t life, it’s magic. Listen to the tired captain, then, standing watch with his first mate the night before his last three fateful encounters with the white whale. Here’s just a bit of his beautiful, mad two-page soliloquy:
"Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day- very much such a sweetness as this- I struck my first whale- a boy-harpooner of eighteen! Forty- forty- forty years ago!- ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain's exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without- oh, weariness! heaviness! ...I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!- crack my heart!- stave my brain!- ... Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearthstone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye. No, no; stay on board, on board!- lower not when I do; when branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick. That hazard shall not be thine. No, no! not with the far away home I see in that eye!"
Moby Dick is not an easy novel to read. It is dense and varied and studded with gems that must be held up to the light, gone over and over to fully appreciate. In her book, Living By Fiction, a collection of essays almost as dense and rich, Annie Dillard suggests that contemporary prose styles can be divided into two schools, the plain and the fancy, which last she also calls "fine writing." She might as well be describing Melville in particular, as fine writing in general, when she claims it "is not a window, not a document, not a surgical tool. It is an artifact and an achievement; it is at once an exploratory craft and the planet it attains; it is a testimony to the possibility of the beauty and penetration of written language."
Okay. Now it’s time to put away those mirrors we confessed to using earlier, and to consider the fifth thing nineteenth century telling shows us:
5. WHAT SOMEONE (or something) LOOKS LIKE, REALLY LOOKS LIKE:
In a wonderful New Yorker article on what he calls hard-to-read writers, Jonathan Franzen describes one modern novelist’s insistence on constructing a character entirely from dialogue. (No transitions, no narrative, no description!) This is not so far, is it, from the challenge we set ourselves in most of our first-person fiction? Franzen, having spent some dizzying hours with this experiment, suggests that eschewing description is "like boxing with one arm tied behind your back." He is not persuaded by the argument that imagination can make a character more real to us than description imposed by an author. "In fact," he says, "the work of reading [a description-less book] makes me wonder if our brains might not be hard-wired for conventional storytelling, structurally eager to form pictures from [narrative] sentences, [even ones] as featureless as ‘She stood up.’"
It could be argued, and has been, that it is more democratic and inclusive to present a character in whose mind and heart we can make ourselves at home, but whose externals are up for grabs; who, like the protagonist of Virginia Euwer Wolff’s True Believer, can be considered black or white, Hispanic or Indian, depending on a reader’s sympathies. But does this, in fact, add or detract from a book’s credibility as a "slice of life?" Don’t we see the people around us (and ourselves) with more clarity than that? And isn’t there a certain undeniable verisimilitude in the way we meet characters in the older novels, approaching them from a distance first, then moving closer and closer, rather than being plunged immediately into their consciousness on the first page? Here’s one of Thomas Hardy’s most famous heroines, reintroduced to the reader in the novel’s second part, after she has been seduced by an arrogant wastrel and has run home, a wiser, sadder woman. Note, by the way, the switch to present tense once this passage is underway, a change that insists on the reader as observer, even though the action of the novel unfolds in the past tense. Notice, too, how in a time before film, Hardy moves from a long-distance shot to a close-up:
The women--or rather girls, for they were mostly young--wore drawn cotton bonnets with great flapping curtains to keep off the sun, and gloves to prevent their hands being wounded by the stubble. There was one wearing a pale pink jacket, another in a cream-coloured tight-sleeved gown, another in a petticoat as red as the arms of the reaping-machine... This morning the eye returns involuntarily to the girl in the pink cotton jacket...
Her binding proceeds with clock-like monotony. From the sheaf last finished she draws a handful of ears, patting their tips with her left palm to bring them even. Then stooping low she moves forward, gathering the corn with both hands against her knees...holding [it] in an embrace like that of a lover. ....At intervals she stands up to rest, and to retie her disarranged apron, or to pull her bonnet straight. Then one can see the oval face of a handsome young woman with deep dark eyes and long heavy clinging tresses, which seem to clasp in a beseeching way anything they fall against. The cheeks are paler, the teeth more regular, the red lips thinner than is usual in a country-bred girl.
It is Tess Durbeyfield, otherwise d’Urberville, somewhat changed -- the same, but not the same.
This emphasis on the surface, it should be added, only serves to heighten what Hardy turns to next -- the changes that have happened inside his character.
To finish our list, let’s look at the last thing that artful and unapologetic telling can show us,
6. WHICH WAY THE WIND BLOWS -- The most heinous crime of all, according to modernism, is to tell your reader how to feel. Preaching seldom works, it’s true, nor sentimental manipulation, but the great ones can break even this rule. Here’s George Eliot, like a Greek chorus, commenting on the way one of her characters, after being rejected by a first woman decides to pay court to a second:
We mortals, men and women, devour many a disappointment between breakfast and dinner-time; keep back the tears and look a little pale about the lips, and in answer to inquiries say, ‘Oh, nothing!’ Pride helps us; and pride is not a bad thing when it only urges us to hide our own hurts -- not to hurt others.
nd here’s Melville again, or rather Ishmael, his mouthpiece, after Ahab has promised to chase the White Whale around the world:
Round the world! There is much in that sound to inspire proud feelings; but whereto does all that circumnavigation conduct? Only through numberless perils to the very point whence we started, where those that we left behind secure, were all the time before us.
Were this world an endless plain, and by sailing eastward we could for ever reach new distances, and discover sights more sweet and strange than any Cyclades or Islands of King Solomon, then there were promise in the voyage. But in pursuit of those far mysteries we dream of, or in tormented chase of that demon phantom that, some time or other, swims before all human hearts; while chasing such over this round globe, they either lead us on in barren mazes or midway leave us whelmed.
Today’s young readers don’t have much experience with 19th century literature. And if the impetus driving current "No child left behind" programs continues, there will soon be nothing but test-based reading in the schools. Will that, do you suppose, end the need for story telling in the old fashioned sense of the word? I doubt it.
In 1952, a book called Ginger Pye won the Newbery medal. Eleanor Estes, a master at conveying individual points of view through third person, undoubtedly shared her protagonists’ prejudice, but I, too, remember, as a new reader, feeling just the way Rachel and Jerry do in the following passage:
They both always opened a book eagerly and suspiciously looking first to see whether or not it was an 'I' book. If it were they would put it aside, not reading it until there was absolutely nothing else. Then, at last, they would read it. But, being an 'I' book, it had to be awfully good for them to like it. Only a few, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and Swiss Family Robinson, for example, survived the hard 'I' book test. These were among their best beloved in spite of the obvious handicap.
So even if you’ve never heard of George Eliot or Thomas Hardy, you can still crave the security of being cradled by a brilliant story teller, who holds you in the arms of their book and murmurs comforts as the scenes unfold. Even if you’ve never experienced Melville, you can still thrill to the majestic cadences of a storytelling voice that thunders and booms, that hurls fireworks and rockets skyward on every page.
Am I suggesting here that modern writers turn back the clock? No. Of course not. While I can’t claim to have seen the "hundreds" of moors he has, I agree with Robertson Davies that Hardy’s chapter-long description of Egdon Heath, at the opening of Return of the Native, strains the patience of anyone born in the television age. We admire Gothic Cathedrals, after all, but few contemporary architects devote themselves to duplicating their grandeur. What many try to do, however, is incorporate the best qualities of the old style with the new, and this is what I am, respectfully, recommending to you.
In bringing this talk to a close, then, I’d like to give kudos to a few more contemporary authors who have managed a combination of showing and telling and who may, therefore, be riding the wave of the future. Let me say first that I think it’s a bit easier when we write picture books, rather than novels, to embrace the inclusive nature of old-fashioned stories, to invite the participation of young readers the way Kipling did, the way Munro Leaf does in Ferdinand the Bull. (Remember when Ferdinand inadvertently shares a clover with a bumble bee? Remember how the narrator stops, before telling us what happens next, and asks: "If you were a bee and a bull sat on you, what would you do?") It’s easier, too, for picture book authors to have open, riotous fun with language. Remember Phyllis’ Rattle Trap Car? And Laura’s See You Later, Alligator? Or Tim’s On Tumbledown Hill?
Chafing under the yoke of Show, Don’t Tell, several authors of longer books, too, have managed to tell things, big things beyond the scope of a single character or point of view. Lovely Bones is an example of an adult novel that achieves The Big Picture by letting its protagonist speak from beyond the grave. With much less fanfare, our program’s friend and a former teacher here, Jacqui Woodson, has done the same thing in Behind You, her sequel to If You Come Softly. Here, soaring way beyond the confines of contemporary realism and, not unusually for a Woodson character, employing beautiful language in the process, is Jeremiah, the boy who was killed at the end of If You Come Softly. As you listen to him, hear how Woodson has dropped the narrow, showing "I" in favor of a telling, universal "you":
You do not die. Your soul steps out of your body, shakes itself hard because it’s been carrying the weight of your heavy skin for fifteen years. Then your soul lifts up and looks down on your body lying there -- looks down on the blood running onto concrete, your eyes snapped open like the pages in some kid’s forgotten picture book, your chest not moving. Your soul sees this and feels something beyond sadness -- feels its whole self whispering further away. Shhh. Shhhh. Shhhh - past the trees in Central Park, past the statues and runners and children playing on swings. Shhh. Shhh. Shhh. Over yellow taxicabs and late-afternoon flickering streetlights. Shhh away from the dusting of snow, the white tips of trees, the darkening sky... But you do not die. Each breath your soul takes is cool and reminds you of a taste you loved a long time ago. Licorice. Peppermint. Rain.
Okay, so we’ve got Kate and Lemony Snicket breaking the third wall, even moralizing now and then. We’ve got Jacqui painting a big picture with a broad and rapturous brush. Any more adventurous souls tipping the sacred Show, Don’t Tell cow?
(Whisper) Well, if you promise to keep it just among us, I’ll share with you the fact that we are harboring one such pioneer in our very midst. Marion Dane Bauer, Newbery Honor winner, past Department Chair, beloved mentor -- who would have thought that she is, even now, contemplating a series of retrospective short stories. These shorts, like Jacob Have I Loved, the novel that earned Katherine Paterson considerable critical disapproval when it was first published, look back on youth. Instead of a child a few years older than her readers, the narrator of Marion’s book is Marion, a grown woman whose perspective on her past combines the now passions of childhood with the then second thoughts of adulthood. This backward glance often results in wonderful, wise, and unashamed telling. Here’s a snippet about the narrator’s Episcopalian background:
Instead of a Pope we had the Archbishop of Canterbury, but nobody had to listen to him unless they wanted to. That’s what it was like being an Episcopalian. You picked and chose, like at a potluck. You took what you wanted and let the rest stay on the table. If you wanted to listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury, you did. If you didn’t... well, who was there to tell you you had to? Nobody ever said, "If you do this or don’t do that, you’ll go to hell." Nobody ever talked about hell... or even sin.
Which is not to say that we didn’t know about it. I don’t think it was possible to grow up in the middle of the twentieth century without knowing about sin, even if you weren’t Catholic. For us Episcopalians there was, after all, that moment, just before we went up for Holy Communion, when the priest knelt before the altar and said, "Lord, we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy table." And we knew ...we knew.
John Rechy, the author whose website I mentioned in my lecture description, claims that the greatest art always involves telling. "They don’t call it storyshowing," he rants in his fun and bitter diatribe about what he calls the "major nonsense" of trying to Show, not Tell. He insists that showing needs telling and vice versa. And he makes the (forgive me; here at the end, I can’t resist) "telling" point that when artfully handled, telling throws showing into relief, makes it all the more compelling and universal.
My darling Annie (Dillard) says what amounts to the same thing at the end of the delicious essay I steered you toward, "Fine Writing, Cranks, and the New Morality." She makes the neat distinction there that "fine writing" is writing that points to the world with a hand, that is with a storytelling presence and voice the reader can clearly identify. She says that plain writing, on the other hand, has a sort of humility about it which calls the reader’s attention to the world, not to the hand that paints it. "I think," she concludes, "the very finest works of art do both things at once and well." She notes how Cezanne both distorts and attempts to recreate three-dimensional space. "Just so," she adds, "do artifice and sincerity meet and balance in a great work of art. We teeter at the edge of the artists’ representations, affected by their depths and at the same time admiring their effects."
I couldn’t agree more. To pretend that the hand isn’t there makes no sense at all; besides pyrotechnics are fun and generalities are sometimes unavoidable and powerful. Similarly, we need moments when nothing, no authorial stance or style or voice, stands between us and the world. Immediacy and lavishness; empathy and magic; we need it all, Kind Listeners. And in the best fiction, especially in the brave new work that shows as well as tells, we get it.
N.B. Because I've quoted from so many "classics" in this lecture, I had to take the liberty of rather severely editing some of the selections I read. If you enjoy the snippets above, please turn to the titles under section 2 below and read the unexpurgated originals!
1. CRITICAL BIBLIOGRAPHY
Davies, Robertson. "Reading and Writing," the Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Yale University, 1991. (online at www.tannerlectures.utah.edu/lectures/davies92.pdf)
Dillard, Annie. Living by Fiction. (See in particular, "Chapter 7, "Fine Writing, Cranks, and the New Morality: Prose Styles.")
Franzen, Jonathan. "Mr. Difficult: William Gaddis and the Problem of Hard-to-Read Writers," The New Yorker, September 30,2002.
James, Henry. "The Art of Fiction," Longman’s Magazine, Sept 1881, Number 4; reprinted in Partial Portraits, Macmillan, 1888 or viewable at guweb2.gonzaga.edu/faculty/campbell/engl/462/artfiction.html
Rechy, John. "The Three Terrible Rules." (www.johnrechy.com/onwriting_3rules.htm)
2. QUOTES EXCERPTED FROM THE FOLLOWING FICTION
Bauer, Marion Dane. "Sin," from an unpublished collection.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre.
DiCamillo, Kate. The Tale of Despereaux.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities.
Eliot, George. Middlemarch.
Estes, Eleanor. Ginger Pye.
Hardy, Thomas. Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Kipling, Rudyard. "How the Whale Got His Throat; "The Elephant’s Child,"from Just So Stories. (Be sure to get an edition with Kipling’s illustrations!)
Leaf, Munro. Ferdinand the Bull.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick.(Charles Feidelson, Jr. did an excellent job of annotating the novel in a 1964 edition by MacMillan.)
Snicket, Lemony (Daniel Handler). The Bad Beginning.
White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web.
Woodson, Jacqueline. Behind You. (sequel to If You Come Softly)