The Tyranny of Show vs Tell

book-4133883_1920If you’ve ever taken a writing workshop, you’ve heard many times the bromide “show, don’t tell,” but often the showing part dominates the telling and becomes tyrannical. As a writer friend once pointed out, when we’re writing fiction, we are storytelling and not storyshowing, and there are many ways to tell an engaging story. Continue reading “The Tyranny of Show vs Tell”

Is autobiography the only form in all the arts?

I recall reading a review by Elaine Blair of Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline in the New Yorker a few years ago. Blair says, Cusk has written admiringly about Karl One Knausgaard, and her proposed cure for the trouble with fiction sounds like a gloss of his. ‘Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,’ she told the Guardian.” Blair goes on to say that some writers are hewing closer to the author’s subjective experiences, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal lives. Continue reading “Is autobiography the only form in all the arts?”


I’ve just read a review by Elaine Blair of Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline in the January 2015 New Yorker. Blair says, Cusk has written admiringly about Knausgaard, and her proposed cure for the trouble with fiction sounds like a gloss of his. ‘Autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts,’ she told the Guardian.” Blair goes on to say that some writers are hewing closer to the author’s subjective experiences, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal lives.

But Blair also points out that “Cusk’s shorthand doesn’t begin to account for the variety of literary experiments we’ve been seeing from novelists like Knausgaard, …. and W. G. Sebald” (70). As a writer, I’m all for any kind of improvisation on the novel or any other kind of narrative. I haven’t read Knausgaard, but I have devoured all of W. G. Sebald’s “fictions,” novels that are truly novel in that he has invented a hybrid form. He incorporates travelogue, biography, memoir, speculation, and literary criticism into the narrator’s perspective: often a wandering and thoughtful observer of his surroundings.

Vertigo was the first of Sebald’s books that I read. In order to enter his world, I had to disregard most of my preconceptions about what a novel should be. Initially, I was attracted by his playfulness and the tongue-in-cheek tone, as well as by the sly humor and wit. I also felt there was something else lurking there. Just as the narrator has a paranoid fear of being watched or followed, I felt followed by something in the book that I couldn’t quite identify, some truth or knowledge, as often happens with good poetry where meaning emerges from around the poem’s borders. Sebald’s approach explodes for me the myths I’ve created about novels needing to incorporate dramatic scenes, etc., all of the various workshop admonitions about narrative arc and development.

Though I haven’t read Cusk’s work, and only have this review to go on, I am concerned with the idea that some writers may rely more on their personal experiences to create “fictions” than employ their imaginations. Contemporary life is already too one-dimensional and focused on surfaces. Most people aren’t aware of their dreams and the unconscious. Or they deny that anything other than the day’s residue is being circulated in these nighty dramas. What a loss!

As Carl Jung pointed out in Man and His Symbols, “Imagination and intuition are vital to our understanding” (82). He goes on to say that it isn’t just poets or other artists who employ these ways of perceiving, but they are also essential to scientists. He emphasizes that the rational intellect isn’t the only way of knowing or understanding ourselves and the world (inner or outer) and claims that “the surface of our world seems to be cleansed of all superstitious and irrational elements” (86). This observation is even truer today than when Jung wrote this piece in 1961 near the end of his life.

If our novels are limited to portraying our everyday experiences, the chitchat that goes on in our living rooms and other social settings, then we are missing a whole level of vitality and knowledge. It’s the imagination in conjunction with the unconscious that produces myths, symbols, and alternate views of reality. Not that our personal experiences can’t be imbued with these elements, but if they are the sole basis for our fictions, then we are deprived of something much richer and more worthwhile.





The Buddha Never Leaves the Attic

My reading group has chosen Julie Otsuka’s Buddha in the Attic for its next book, and I approached it enthusiastically. The reviews were ecstatic: “An understated masterpiece…that unfolds with great emotional power…Destined to endure” (SF Chronicle) and “Otsuka’s incantatory style pulls her prose close to poetry” (The New York Times Book Review). I wanted to be a believer.

As a writer, I think I’m more focused on style and structure than some readers might be, so I was curious to see how Otsuka handled these things and more. And I’m always interested in seeing inventions: W. G. Sebald, who has conceived a new hybrid novel—part memoir and part travelogue—remains one of my favorite writers. So is Roberto Bolano, another original writer whose 571 page The Savage Detectives has a four hundred page central core titled “The Savage Detectives” that offers the viewpoints of 38 friends, lovers, acquaintances, and enemies of the main characters, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. This chorus of characters describes encounters with the two poets over a period of 20 years in Mexico City, Barcelona, Tel Aviv, and beyond. Clearly, Bolano isn’t trying to write the traditional novel.

Neither is Otsuka. She seems to be creating more of a sociological study of the Japanese women who immigrated to America in the early 1900s, mail order brides to Japanese men who had preceded them here. But instead of exploring a handful of these females in depth, she uses a collective voice. The first line is “On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall” (3). The collective “we” prevails throughout.

At the beginning, I didn’t mind this group point of view. I was willing to see how the writer narrated the various situations these women found themselves in once they landed. Some worked in the fields with their new husbands. Others lived in cities and found similar menial work to do. But none of these situations is covered individually. We learn that “They admired us for our strong backs and nimble hands” (29). I never experienced one particular character and followed her through the build up to WW II and Japanese internment.

For someone who values original ways of presenting a narrative, I wanted this collective voice to work. Unfortunately, much of the account just lists what happened, and that approach gets boring. It also keeps the reader at a distance from the emotional heart of these lives. Yet it wasn’t until the final third of the book when many were moved to internment camps that this collective voice works. By then it is a collective situation, and it makes sense to approach it as such. The most compelling moments happen after that.

But overall, I don’t believe the novel lives up to its hype, and the Japanese men and women who created new lives on American soil deserve to be represented as individuals, not ciphers.