Shakespeare: 1. Greatest Storyteller. 2. Poet 3. Taught us storytellers are liars.
A number of ideas recently entered my mind, drawn into it by a personal observation.
The personal observation is personal. I will get to it later. It is the centerpiece of my theme, but first, here are the ideas which saw fit to add themselves to the conviction that I was onto something real.
I saw a truism quoted approvingly in the New York Times in one of those ‘best books of the year’ pieces which went something like this: stories only happen to those who can tell them.
The ‘best books of 2015’ piece outlined those disturbing novels, memoirs and non-fiction works of eccentricities and loss which are discussed because they are discussed. The Times notice which originally drew me in was the new book on the Creative Writing phenomenon and Paul Engle, with its “show don’t tell” mantra that served to professionalize the American writer as a civilized university product—and was indeed sponsored by U.S. Government anti-Communism during the Cold War (just as it has now come out that abstract painting was CIA funded in the war against Soviet Realist art.)
The upshot of “show don’t tell” is the conviction that “telling” is propaganda compared to the more authentic and personal rhetoric that “shows,” gathered from genuinely observed experience.
The most exciting story-telling always reveals some kind of shame or tragedy or horror, the kind that has us saying, “No! Really?” in excited whispers. Is it real or fiction? It doesn’t matter. Our reaction is the same.
Most fiction is loosely based on truth. A story is a story, and the fine points of whether a particular piece of writing is fiction or non-fiction are reserved for the tedious scholar who is ignored by the rest of us, and who, when turned to, never finally knows the full story in all its truth, anyway.
The novelist “shows” what appears to be the “truth” by way of fiction, not because there is some poetic “truth” which hides behind fiction, or because there is something about “fiction” which allows “truth” to come to light—this is a sentimental falsehood repeated often by novelists and their defenders.
The novelist “shows” what is taken as truth only because the reader assumes “truth” is present due to the great confusion which naturally blurs truth and fiction in our minds; rather than admit ignorance, readers “fill in” the “truthfulness” of the writer’s presentation and construe it as “truth” without question—because this is what ignorance does.
The novelist is a cut-and-paste liar and the novelist’s “truth” is a shadow—cast by the truth of the reader’s ignorance, and the reader’s ignorance is willing to be duped by the fiction, whose “showing” merely strengthens the delusion that “truth” of any kind exists in the fiction. Emotional truth—the truth that one is having feelings— should not be confused with truth, or with cut-and-paste lies that trigger these emotions.
Therefore “showing” in fiction, the non-judgmental presentation of selected, cut-and-paste, experience with its corresponding emotions, the classic Workshop fiction formula, is not valid or truthful, per se. “Showing” stands in opposition to “telling” in name only, since selected presentation of experience: incident, dialogue, etc lacks truth in the precise way all mere experience lacks truth. What happens to us has no truth, per se, except as it is our private experience—which may potentially comprise leaning a skill through repetition. But our experience merely related by way of a story told to someone else, has for that other person, as literature, no necessary truth—unless the “truth” of a pleasant illusion, but only if pleasantly and artistically conveyed.
The only human truth with a capital T is moral truth—what happens to us is true only in its moral cause and effect. Whether this is told or shown is entirely beside the point: the difference is overstated since language by its very nature shows by telling.
Advertising is communication with a motive; it is crucial to understand that story-telling may be below even that of advertisement: a distinguished novel the inferior of a mere advertisement no matter how genuine the experiences conveyed in the novel. If an author’s experience is genuine, it is private, and private experiences alone can never rise to the level of truth unless we add what “showing” supposedly opposes: “telling.”
“Let me show you what I would otherwise tell you” is all about the illusion created— and nothing else.
There is nothing morally superior about “showing.” By “showing” we use an aesthetic term, only, and one that was practiced by the ancient Greeks by way of producing beauty—very different from the Workshop formula.
Now my personal observation: there is a very common personality that loves to talk for its own sake, and I was struck recently by one I know filling up time with talk in a way that was so pleased with itself and at the same time disengaged from preventative reality so it made me wonder: since we delight to hear stories of tragedy and loss, is it possible that story-telling itself can become a kind of mania which “shows” a “loss” of mind and reason? So that the “best” show-don’t-tell stories are, in fact, products of madness?
The stern, theoretical “telling” of communist or statist rhetoric is well worth refuting. No argument there.
But what is the true value of the antidote?
What good is maniacal telling of the “show-don’t-tell” variety?
First, it essentially springs from personal experience so dense, genuine and “real,” it crowds out our own mundane and empty existence—that existence which is charged with “figuring things out” in order to live.
Second, it competes with all experience, since this is what fiction that “shows” finally depends on.
Third, it has no conclusions or directives, since it is genuine only because it “shows” and refuses to “tell.”
Fourth, it makes no attempt to please for its own sake: it is merely in thrall to the mania of its story-telling mode. When we tell a story, there is no attempt to do anything more than tell a story which causes the reader to exclaim excitedly, “No! Really?” Content—the lived—is all. Form—the teachable—is nothing.
Fifth, the sum total of others’ experience is so vast and interesting just by itself, that unless there is a mechanism of sorting, we find ourselves in a continual state of excited whisper, “No! Really?”
Sixth, the professionalization of this kind of writing in the Writing Programs, feeding directly into the book industry, has made it necessary to carry this ‘rhetoric of experience’ on our backs as editors, writers, and publishers. There is nothing worse than when the leaders of any industry are guilty of gratuitously dumbing down that industry—one in which lurid content is everything and form is nothing.
Seventh, there is nothing wrong with lived experience and its communication, except that it already exists in all walks of life—and when literature becomes merely a competition for ‘who can tell the biggest whopper of a tale’ without any self-reflection or qualifying judgment or restraint or art or philosophy (telling), then literature has essentially become a cynical part of what makes human life the most cynical.
For as we know, the most cynical is not the grief and consternation we find in rhetoric that desires to solve problems and prevent disasters, but the mindless “showing” with a devilish maniacal delight of every imaginable and preventable horror under the sun: literature = yellow journalism.
Now it may be said that there is good “show don’t tell” writing and bad “show don’t tell” writing, and that the good variety has been screened by good editors and publishers and the best of it is intelligent and not maniacal and does do a little valuable “telling” in the end, after all.
But of course. There is always ‘bad and good’ within bad, and always hybrid concessions which dilute any picture, but this should not distract from our main point—story-telling that takes on insane, self-justifying dimensions across the culture, supported by a professional apparatus and a professional class, all of which circles back to enhance the very same mania in subsequent generations of students and general readers.
When we say pleasure for its own sake, we don’t mean that there is something inherently wrong with the pure joy of story-telling for its own sake.
But telling a story carries it with it a responsibility that say, Mozart’s music does not.
Words can libel, slander, present half-truths, make a mere show of learning, and horrify and seduce in damaging ways. And further, storytelling, or talking for its own sake, can just be a plain useless waste of time, a vanity kept afloat by a professional class for its own benefit. So there is that.
The professional apparatus of music can safely pursue Mozart for its own sake and there is no doubt that this is a musical good with all sorts of side benefits (one doesn’t have to love Mozart personally to sense at once that Mozart embodies a universal musical skill that can only help and not hinder the pursuit of music itself in any way).
Cold War anti-Communist officials had no trouble believing that the Soviet Union was a unified and far-reaching society that was dangerous because of its art and writing and rhetoric.
But instead of finding a common ground of cultural connection, such as Mozart, the CIA instead gave us both abstract painting and the Writing Program Era of Paul Engle (good organizer, terrible poet) which celebrated anti-intellectual fiction (the novel as wounded auto-biography) and a “new poetry” which quickly lost any sort of public due to its poor quality.
Poetry is the crucial literary expression—which is like Mozart’s music: joy and excellence for its own sake that escapes all propaganda, either the sort practiced by communists or the kind practiced by the Jorie Grahams in the Writing Workshop.
Poetry avoids the trap of many types of story-telling rhetoric: the propagandist, the gasbag, the immoral confessionalist, the college essay blather, etc.
Poetry which is transcendently beautiful, setting the standard by what it is for all those who would aspire to be a poet—or any kind of writer—is unimaginable to most people, the same way that Mozart’s music flies above that of the folk singer. But who would want Mozart and the folk singer to compete? Never. That would be like introducing the fiendish illogic of war into heaven. No sane person would assert the world of music would be better if there were no Mozart—not even a folk singer singing communist folk songs.
If we are to have “writing programs” (to fight communism or cultivate professionalism or what have you) let us produce poets of the first order—Mozarts, who may then go on to write whatever they wish.
Just as with artists: first let us see if they can draw.
And musicians: first let us see if they can invent a melody.
If we are serious about avoiding propaganda and gas bagging and lower quality and lower standards and increasingly bored students, the answer is simple: music, poetry, and drawing which is beautiful for its own sake.
The blatherers will object, of course.
But in the world I am imagining, at least we will know what blathering—as opposed to poetry—is.