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In Defense of “Show Don’t Tell”

Part One of Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (2009), the now-classic history of the influence of writing programs on twentieth-century American literature, uses as its title two of the hallmark mantras of creative writing fiction programs: “Write What You Know” and “Show Don’t Tell” (Part Two, meanwhile, is titled after the third hallmark mantra, “Find Your Voice.”). McGurl, though, is not so much interested in critiquing these mantras as exploring the way they’ve influenced the kind of fiction produced in twentieth-century America. If anything, McGurl’s book by the end turns out to be a stirring defense of creative writing orthodoxy as producing “more excellent fiction . . . than anyone has time to read.”

There have been detractors, however, especially of the oldest of the mantras, “Show Don’t Tell.” Eric Bennett in Workshops of Empire argues that the phrase’s universalist pretensions belie its inherently political nature as a tool in the Cold War, when the US government funded creative writing programs such as Iowa to combat communism by promoting a particular kind of American literature. More broadly, Cecilia Tan argues that the rule only works if the writer and the reader share set of assumptions about the world, thus privileging white male hegemonic writing. Others, meanwhile, have pointed to the upsurge of more voice-driven, memoir-style fiction like Knausgaard’s My Struggle or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, as evidence that the phrase represents an antiquated orthodoxy no longer relevant to contemporary literature.

But I want to argue that “Show Don’t Tell” is not only still the central guiding principle for fiction but also underlies all the literature that’s often been held up as having challenged its orthodoxy, including both anti-hegemonic minority literature and the voice-driven fiction of writers like Knausgaard and Ferrante. In fact, I think that to make their arguments, the detractors of “Show Don’t Tell” have often recast it as something more totalitarian than it really is. And so what I’m calling for is perhaps less a pure defense than a redefinition.

“Show Don’t Tell” is nothing more than the principle that fiction be specific and use the five senses to recreate an experience. The reasoning behind this is simple enough: if the goal of good fiction is to get at that something we call “truth” (not “reality,” of course, or any objective truth, but instead a subjective, emotional truth), and if fiction convinces someone not through logos like nonfiction but through the pathos generated from emotional identification (not simply “relatability” but something closer to empathy), then good fiction must inevitably use the five senses, because to fully identify and empathize with a character, a reader has to feel like they’ve been taken through that character’s experience, that they have, in another word, embodied that character—and how else other than through the representation of the five senses can a fiction writer ever embody another person’s experience? Thus, by using sensory details, by being specific, by conveying more than just a character’s thoughts but also a character’s lived bodily reality, a writer comes closest to conveying some kind of truth through fiction.

This doesn’t of course mean that fiction should completely reject a character’s thoughts or avoid the kind of memoir-style disembodied monologue that people refer to as “telly” and that has become the standard style of what is described as voice-driven fiction. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer opens with just that kind of monologue, introducing us to the narrator and his unique, engaging voice—but the chapter then goes on to describe the narrator’s evacuation from the Vietnam War, a tense and dramatic scene of anxiously-smoked cigarettes and rain and distant explosions. It’s this latter “showy” scene rather than the “telly” opening that really helps establish the reader’s identification with the central character, embodying his experience fleeing his country through sensory descriptions that stay with us across the novel. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout likewise opens with a monologue introducing us to the narrator’s hilarious, ironic voice, but then goes on to describe in physical detail how the narrator sits handcuffed on a “thickly padded” chair in the “cavernous” chambers of the Supreme Court, making sure that in the very first paragraph we stay embodied in our narrator’s physical reality. Thus, far from representing white male hegemony, the principle of “Show Don’t Tell” is what writers like Nguyen and Beatty use to get their readers to identify with marginalized perspectives. Moreover, their use of specific sensory details in no way detracts from their character’s unique voices.

Even Knausgaard and Ferrante, the poster-children of the memoir-style, voice-driven “tell don’t show” school of fiction, create identification with their readers on the same principle. Knausgaard’s digressions on death and art might give My Struggle an intellectual sophistication, but Book I’s most famous scene is the extended description of him cleaning up his dead father’s house, an exhaustive cataloguing of sensory detail that leaves the readers as emotionally devastated as Karl Ove himself. And although Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend is a recollection and recounting of a lifelong friendship, it’s the specific “shown” moments that carry the greatest emotional weight, such as when Elena gives Lila a bath before her wedding and Lila reveals to Elena how much she respects and admires her. Far from just recounted memories, these moments are rendered as thoroughly embodied experiences and wouldn’t be as powerful if they were simply “told.”

Whenever I doubt myself and wonder if “Show Don’t Tell” really is just an outdated mantra, the product of a mid-twentieth-century school of fiction that emerged from Cold War politics and reached its heyday with Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, I always return to our culture’s oldest examples of literature, the epic poems of ancient Mesopotamia and Greece. Here is a passage from Homer’s The Odyssey (the Fitzgerald translation), a text that was once very literally “told.” Reading it, I feel like I’m there with Telemachus and his crew, on a ship in the Aegean in the distant Bronze Age, pouring out wine in honor of Athena:

They pushed the fir mast high and stepped it firm

amidships in the box, made fast the forestays,

then hoisted up the white sail on its halyards

until the wind caught, booming in the sail;

and a flushing wave sang backward from the bow

on either side, as the ship got way upon her,

holding her steady course.

Now they made all secure in the fast black ship,

and, setting out the winebowls all a-brim,

they made libations to the gods,

                                                     the undying, the ever-new,

most of all to the grey-eyed daughter of Zeus.

And the prow sheared through the night into the dawn.