don’t tell me what to do, show me

Adam Roberts responds here to a tweet by Tade Thompson which (to be very reductive) argues for a full reversal of the old “show, don’t tell” edict, beating up on which seems to have become something of a shibboleth of the online writing community in recent times. In his sometimes Bartleby-ish way, Roberts rejects this rejection, partly on the basis of personal taste, but also in response to the the Greek chorus following Thompson that amps up what might have been a strident but reasonable argument and turns it instead into an association between showing-over-telling with reactionary politics and ableism… an escalation which can probably be blamed as much on the affordances of the birdsite as anything else, but which nonetheless seems of a part with the nuance-free polarisation which I’m almost certain the chorus themselves would note is making such a mess of the world, but would not concede that they’re just as implicated in as their imagined opponents.

(Thompson’s original tweet does make the point that “sometimes show, sometimes tell” is better advice, though it does of course lack the aphoristic clout of the original. The Greek chorus, however, seems rather keener on replacing one black-and-white claim with its inversion. And so it goes.)

Roberts leaves the moral pie-fight behind in order to think about what he feels is a growing resistance to difficulty in contemporary art, particularly in sf/f (and in doing so refers back to an old John Lanchester essay on computer games which looks like it might be worth a read). This issue of difficulty struck a chord with me; I’m not sure difficulty is quite the word I’d use myself, but I can see how it might be a label for a long aesthetic trend that I too have noticed in the fiction I read. I’m tempted to draw a line back through the rise of YA as a marketing category that became a genre in its own right, and onward into the current Torwave/squeecore scene, my dissatisfaction with which is not at all to do with its inclusivity viz diversity-of-characters—which, for the avoidance of any doubt, I consider to be a good thing—and everything to do with its lack of… difficulty? Friction? Showing-ness?

Again, I am not here to damn this aesthetic, merely to note that, like Roberts, it fails to engage me as both reader and writer alike. And that’s fine: publishing is a business like any other, fashions come and go, and eventually one finds oneself wearing slightly more presentable and middle-aged interpretations of classic grunge apparel in a room full of folk who are rocking the full normcore… and as I’ve said many times before, if the young folk weren’t dressing and making art in ways that people in their mid-40s neither understand nor like, then they’d be doing it wrong. This is a matter of personal taste.

And difficulty does seem to be a clarifying term (if, as noted above, an imperfect one) with regards to that personal taste. In particular, I think it explains why I was compelled to plough through Ada Palmer’s Terra Ignota books, despite (among other beefs) my philosophical disagreement with her premise; those books are precisely not easy, they are difficult, demanding, full of friction. Indeed, one wonders if this may explain the mystery of Palmer’s not having netted one of the big sf awards with any of those books, despite their very obviously being products of (if not outright paeans to) a fannish milieu, and even arguably the most extended “slans are fans!” routine ever printed since the eponymous original.

(I would note, however, that due to various choices regarding narrative mode, Palmer’s books do not pick showing over telling; quite the opposite, in fact, given they mostly comprise journals and histories written in the first-person, and predominantly delivered by a prolix and, ah, let’s say mentally and emotionally divergent person who is also the world’s most noted mass-murderer. They are, in short, a few thousand pages of characters telling you what happened and how they felt about it, albeit not in a reliably reliable way.)

My button may well have been pushed by Roberts’s post for situational reasons: I’m currently hacking away at a very strange and exciting fiction commission in which I have chosen (though not consciously or deliberately) to pursue a strategy where showing takes a lot of precedence over telling. I could certainly have found a more telling-driven approach, and hell knows that, given the very short period within which I have to write the damned thing, it might have made my workload considerably lighter… because I’d basically have chosen to write an essay instead of writing a story. (And if the commissioning researchers had wanted an essay to illustrate and deepen the findings of the project the story is responding to, well, they probably would have written the essay themselves.) It’s not a choice that makes things any easier for me as a writer; it’s arguably a choice that makes it “harder” for the reader, too.

To loop back and reiterate: Thompson’s tweet says that some mix of showing and telling is probably optimal, and thus implies (to anyone but a total neophyte) that the exact blend is probably dependent on the story you’re trying to tell; that’s the way I was taught it in hell knows how many blog posts and instructional books, even when the headline was “show don’t tell”.

Should fiction writers nonetheless aim to make their writing as un-difficult and tellish as possible? If that’s what their readers want, then perhaps they should; I dare say their agents would agree. Perhaps there is a diminishing market for difficulty, for books that default to showing, whether on the genre shelves or beyond; I haven’t done the research, though my own experience provides an anecdotal data point in favour of the hypothesis, as do the complaints of others of my acquaintance. If that is the case, then I guess I’m potentially doing myself a disservice in terms of potential audience reach. (Though perhaps not; this might be a similar phenomenon to that noted by Simon McNeil regarding content warnings, i.e. first and foremost useful as a way of positioning oneself in a complex market. Framing that as a moral imperative feels very wrong to me… but at the same time, it also feels very 2022.)

It is my privilege, then, to not have to sell fiction to pay my rent; it is another, different privilege, to pay one’s rent with one’s fictions. Those with the latter privilege are very capable of making their own aesthetic decisions. As someone with the former privilege, so also am I.

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