The Critics’ Corner
A Perspective from the Past
by Bill Bowler and Harry Lang
Edgar Degas, the painter: “But why are my poems no good? I have such wonderful ideas!”
Stéphane Mallarmé, the poet: “My dear Degas, poems are not made with ideas, they are made with words.”" — official Bewildering Stories motto
Bill Bowler: Graham Debenham’s “Past Imperfect” establishes at the outset that Nigel is a man of habit and that children can be very unkind.
Here’s where modern readers may start to wonder:
At this point in his life, Nigel became philosophical about his lack of progress. He looked upon his lack of success as fate, rather than the absence of ambition. Now in his fifties, he was resigned to the fact that he would never amount to anything; although he often thought about how different things might have been, if only...
All of which brings us back rather neatly to where we came in.
Welcome to the 19th-century novel. The center of the work is not the story but the narrator’s relationship to the story; not the events, but the narrator’s comments on the events and his interpretation of their meaning. It is all “tell” and very little “show.” It flies in the face of all the norms of action writing and contradicts every piece of advice I’ve given for the past five years. And Debenham pulls it off magnificently.
Harry Lang: I’ve been reading Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground. Talk about telling vs. showing! I can’t put it down.
I’d much rather read someone telling something relevant and fascinating than showing something dull and pedestrian for the gazillionth time or showing something extraordinary by dull and pedestrian means.
Stories, as well as poems, are made with words rather than ideas, and some words are better than others. I think there is a lot of advice that acquires the force of law for many writers when it ought to be a point of departure. And this may be the point that Tantra Bensko is making.
“Show-don’t-tell” is a great approach for beginning writers and may sustain one for the duration, but sooner or later a writer must find his or her own unique expression. Who needs a one size fits all approach?
Bill Bowler: Harry, well said and no argument from me. For the finest specimens of third-person omniscient narration, though, I’d choose Tolstoy, Hugo, and Dickens.
Dostoevsky does something more modern and ahead of his time: his voice, opinions, judgments and interpretations are in his novels, but they are not dominant; they form a kind of polyphony. Dostoevsky’s voice is one among many, and various characters of his comment on the action with equal authority, expressing opinions directly contradictory to the author’s own, Ivan Karamazov’s “Grand Inquisitor,” for example.
As a result, in Dostoevky’s own time, opposing camps with mutually exclusive viewpoints claimed him as their champion.