Over at her blog, my friend Rohan has a great post about what’s wrong with the old “show don’t tell” saw, drawing on her love of the Victorians by way of a reading of Adam Bede. Where would Eliot be without telling? It’s a great question and one that made me think about my own practices while reading, writing and teaching. I do use “show don’t tell” when I teach creative writing, as it can seem a useful shorthand to get students to work towards specificity. I think a lot of what motivates the its use is the sense that while an Eliot or a Doestevsky might make great use out of telling us what things might mean, the average apprentice writer can’t be trusted to use abstractions or ideas for more than clichés. Whereas if we just describe an experience, or what we see at Grand Central Station (to take an example of a CW exercise I use), we’ll be relatively immune to cant. We want students to notice, so we say, “Look at how that person walks, describe the way their arms sway. Don’t tell me how they embody the soulessness of modern man.”
It’s useful as far as it goes, I guess. But Rohan’s post made me think: what if this is another example of the workshop-ification of everything: if a somewhat useful tool for those starting to write contemporary fiction takes over how we read fiction of all kinds, as when one of Rohan’s commenters dismissed a novel she loved for having too much telling? And what of the fact that it’s exactly the opposite of what we tell them when they are in our essay writing or composition or literary criticism classes – namely, to have a thesis? In the first draft of this post, I wrote, we might not want fiction to have a thesis but we want it to have ideas, but actually I don’t think there is anything wrong with fiction that has a thesis. And I think saying it shouldn’t is the same kind of anti-intellectualism that says it shouldn’t have ideas at all. If we think that to write a thesis is to make something rote, pat, and generally not useful, why do we spend so much time teaching them? Yes, I know, works of art are different from works of intellectual argument, but sometimes texts can be both.
Anyways, this was a particularly interesting post for me to read since I just watched Manchester by the Sea* and was discussing with Josh why I wasn’t sure what I thought about it, but that I was sure that Lonergan’s previous movie, Margaret, was much better. As J. pointed out, both are in a sense about the same idea. What if something terrible happens, for which one is responsible if not guilty? That is, there was foolishness but not malice, and so the meaninglessness of the tragedy ways particularly heavily? What if this is just chance and there is no catharsis or redemption? What does living after this look like?
The difference is, that in Margaret, the protagonist desperately wants there to something there: some meaning to what has happened, some justice for it, even if it means she will be punished. The working through of that idea – that there can be no catharsis but that searching for it is a noble desire and a core part of what we are – is what makes the film so unusual, so morally serious, so willing to take its characters moral struggles seriously, all the more so since one of those protagonists is a teenage girl. In Manchester by the Sea, the lack of catharsis mostly just leads to moping. I think what people find interesting in Affleck’s character and performance are his odd affect with work well for a character who resists performing his grief in a recognizable way – instead he just shuts down – except that we can’t ever totally shut down. So, instead of the conflict in Margaret – where the desire for catharsis and its refusal are both given their due and articulated with the best of the movie’s brilliant writing – we get a brief plea from Michelle Williams’ and a blank refusal, which we are supposed to take as the correct, tragic, brave response. Williams’ desperate plea for catharsis isn’t really allowed to speak, just to emote.
Watching Manchester, I thought of something I read that Picasso wrote: “Women are machines for suffering” (a nice formulation by which the machine-maker hides, no doubt). I won’t deny that I probably enjoyed Margaret more than Manchester in part because it gives so much more for its women to do – but there are class as well as gender dynamics at play here. Margaret is unusual in articulating morally serious questions through female characters of different ages, and draws on the idiom of its Manhattan settings, culminating brilliantly with a scene at the opera. Manchester can’t or doesn’t want to find a similar idiom through which its characters can speak, and seems to
say that working-class men are machines for suffering. So while Margaret feels wholly original, Manchester by the Sea is more like a lot of indy movies which seem to think they are superior in resistance to traditional narratives but offer little in return. It’s better than most of those, but would have been better if, like Margaret, it had dared allow its characters to articulate. That is, it would have been stronger if it had been willing to tell, not just show.
* I totally get people who don’t want to see this movie because of Casey Affleck. I’m not a “the art and artist are SEPARATE” purist – I will mostly likely never watch another Woody Allen movie. Where and how we make these calls is subjective and interesting – possibly the subject of another post. (Perhaps I will unlock the big Woody Allen post of doom someday I’m feeling grumpy.)