Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Showing vs. telling and Motherless Brooklyn

I've never read any of Jonathan Lethem before and got to Motherless Brooklyn the other day. (I'm poking around in novels with different stylistic experiments lately as I mull over some ideas for my second novel, which I hope to start working on early next year.) I gulped it down in 24 hours and loved just about every second of it. I loved being "in the zone" and having that sensation of "hurry up and tell me what's next!"

As usual, though, I have quibbles even with those I am fondest of. In this case, it has to do with the old rule about showing and not telling.

Like every writing rule, that one doesn't survive as an absolute law for very long. There are plenty of places where telling is preferable to showing. And much more commonly, there are times when it can work to show AND tell to a certain degree. But if it's not a perfect rule, it's still a good guideline -- show more, tell less. To what degree is the judgment call that writers have to make.

My general attitude on including anything I'm doubtful about--exposition, background, a digression, a subplot, a bit of dialogue or an explanation of what I just showed--is to let necessity be my guide. Does the reader NEED it to get my point? If not, I try to err on the side of leaving it out.

Now I can always rationalize something by arguing that to get EXACTLY what my point is EXACTLY in the way I want it gotten, then I need to provide this piece that I don't want to cut. But if you take that too far, you're writing a lecture and not fiction. Fiction is going to allow for some gaps so that the reader does some of the work of filling in meaning, and when the reader does that they're not necessarily going to fill it in with exactly the meaning you had in mind. That's part of where the energy from narrative form comes from. That tension and doubt surrounding meaning and who is in control of it isn't a necessary evil; it's part of the nature of fiction and probably of any other art. The reader has to have some agency or it probably isn't art at all.

Nevertheless, the writer still has most of the agency and is trying to at least lead the horse near the right watering hole while giving the horse the illusion that they've gotten there themselves. They have to provide enough that the reader can get there but not too much. You don't want them to taste the bit.

Which brings me to my quibble with Motherless Brooklyn--a few places where I became conscious of the bit and felt like I didn't need it anyway since I was heading in the right direction on my own. The unnecessary is experienced by the reader as a form of disrespect or distrust.

That's what it felt like to me on pg. 178 (of the paperback). I can find it so easily, because I can picture it, because when I read it originally, I became aware. The spelled was snapped and I was looking at the page of a book instead of living in the very engaging story of an amateur detective with Tourette's syndrome trying to solve the murder of his father-figure boss. His investigations are complicated by the practical difficulty of dealing with Tourette's itself and by the fact most people treat him like he's crazy or pathetic.

At pg. 178, the author, via the narrator, makes a little speech to show off his operating theory for the book's experimental form. It starts, "Conspiracies are a version of Tourette's syndrome, the making and tracing of unexpected connections a kind of touchiness, an expression of the yearning to touch the world, kiss it all over with theories, pull it close."

Now, the speech is made "in character" so it's not an interruption in the sense that we are suddenly getting a different voice. And the point of the speech is important to fully appreciate the clever mechanism of the book--the parallel between the obsessive worrying of the language into pieces and the obsessive worrying of the clues that will lead to a solution to the puzzle.

But I didn't NEED it. I had already arrived at this understanding on my own earlier. Rather, the author had shown it so expertly already, had led me to it without my noticing, that I felt like I had discovered it on my own. That had been part of the pleasure of the book up that point, and it felt like a gyp to have the author start spelling it out for me now.

After that point, I becme hypersensitive to any unnecessary telling. Pg. 209--the long metaphor about the cat. Don't need it. I already have the point that the metaphor is supposed to stand in for. Pg. 222--the exposition and metaphor showing off the research on Mad magazine illustrations. Same. Pg. 192--"Have you noticed yet that I relate everything my Tourette's? . . . . I've got meta-Tourette's." Yes I had noticed. I think the meta-narrative element was working on its own. Meta-meta decreases the cleverness, not increases.

Well, again I'm sounding harsher than I mean to. They really are quibbles, but I get interested in the quibbles and what causes them, so I study them closely. These are blemishes in a very strong book that I like a lot. Four short sections or so where the spell was broken and I was thinking more about the author instead of living in the story. That's a lot better than par I think.

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