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Tell, don't show?

I wrote this piece for the Beautiful Books blog:

The regular ‘Short Cuts’ section in the current issue of the London Review of Books is somewhat curious. Penned by Thomas Jones, contributing editor and regular LRB blogger, it amounts to little more than a scathing review of recent first novel, Anthill, by E.O. Wilson. The ‘novel’, and yes, it is in single quotation marks in the title of the online edition, first fails for Jones because the cover proudly proclaims Wilson as Pultizer winner. Close to being a case of false advertising, Jones claims, for Wilson’s two Pulitzers are for works of non-fiction. It is a good point – when do accolades have the ‘right’ to be on covers when they are covering different forms/genres? But then we come to the story and the old fail-safe accusation of the contmporary critic is rolled-out – that the main reason Wilson’s novel falls down is because of its ’thudding amateurishness of the story-telling’. This, he says, is because the author ‘appears to subscribe to the unorthodox ‘tell don’t show’ school of fiction writing.

Students up and down the country, on the ever-increasing range of creative writing courses are drilled from day one, the rule is ’show, don’t tell’. I teach on an undergraduate course and am therefore one of those drillers. Yet, I always hasten to add, now you know what the ‘rule’ is, feel free to ignore it. Why? Because novel writing is done best when it is not treated like a screenplay, or with one eye on adaptation, which the rule implies. A story ’show-er’ is a screenwriter. A novelist, well, a novelist can play with a range of tools, but creative novelists are those who are creative about those tools, and if they have a good command of the written word, they will also realise that perhaps there’s also room for ‘novel’ in the novel and not the mindless subscription to ‘rules’. And Jones has not pulled himself up on the irony of the above complaint of Wilson’s amateurishness of story-telling. The critic’s careful use of words would have bewailed the amateurishness of story-showing, surely?

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