Saturday, June 3, 2017

Tell, Don't Show--Again

In his book How Fiction Works James Wood early on sings the praises of Gustave Flaubert as the founder of "modern realist narration," what is often glibly summed up as "show, don't tell" done right. This, as Wood remarks,
favors the telling and brilliant detail . . . privileges a high degree of visual noticing . . . maintains an unsentimental composure and knows how to withdraw, like a good valet, from superfluous commentary . . . and that the author's fingerprints on all this are, paradoxically, traceable but not visible.
Indeed, Gustave Flaubert was a genuine and highly influential master of the technique, frequently managing to convey some quite difficult content with ease and precision in many a scene in classics like Madame Bovary. However, it was worth remarking that even he used a good deal of telling--as you find if you actually pick up the book. To fill in his picture, he did not just rely on the "visual noticing" of such things as the characters' facial expressions, casual remarks and the like, but time and again delved into his characters' heads and pasts and generalized and grew abstract in relating such things as Emma Bovary's school days, and the romantic side of her that developed but was never to find fulfillment in the workaday world into which she was born and in which she had her life.
"This nature, positive in the midst of its enthusiasms, that had loved the church for the sake of the flowers, and music for the words of the songs, and literature for its passional stimulus, rebelled against the mysteries of faith as it grew irritated by discipline, a thing antipathetic to her constitution . . ."1
It is elegant telling, but telling all the same.

1. I cite here the Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation.

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Tell, Don't Show
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