Show & Tell: the best of both worlds

‘I was not the first one to find the book. There were notes in the margins…’ So begins ¶2 of Jeanette Winterson’s Art & Lies (1994). And this opening gambit amused me more because it applied to the book before me.

A gift from friends, bought on Amazon and shipped straight to me, packed in part of a cardboard soapbox (which some Winterson critics would deem appropriate), the purportedly new novel had been vandalised. Some seemingly peeved previous reader had underlined passages with a blue pen and cluttered the margins with brackets and an asterisk, only to ditch the text after p. 23. Of course the pen might have run out of ink – or why did its user press hard enough to leave grooves that raise scars on the reverse of those pages? – but the impatience of the marks makes me think this critic didn’t persist.

Jeanette Winterson is my favourite living writer. Two other favourites committed suicide; one before I was old enough to read, the other soon after I’d discovered him. And according to her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011), Jeanette attempted suicide but her cat saved her life.

While this suicide bid came as no shock to me, given Jeanette’s intensity, I decided to read the rest of her oeuvre while she’s still in this world. Weight was one of the few I’d missed (a misleading title for a text of such lightness). And now I’m rereading Art & Lies: because it didn’t sink in the first time.

It turns out (unlike the first time through, I now have access to online reviews: ‘hard to swallow’, ‘more of an excuse for a book than a book in itself’, ‘less like experimentation and more like masturbation’) that I’m not alone in having failed to wholly grasp, let alone retain, it. And yet… I’d rather read allegedly third-rate Winterson than the best countless others have to offer. The three main voices weaving the conversation that’s Art & Lies might merge too much for some, but through each, I hear Winterson speaking to me.

While not a PC word to use if you’re a mainstream reviewer, ‘masturbation’ is only a slur because each reader’s turn-on is personal, and the focus of Winterson’s time-straddling Sappho is erotic. Besides, if Art & Lies lacks a forward-moving plot, might it not be worth reflecting on what patriarchal mores – e.g., ubiquitous porn – lead us all to expect? Cultural or gender conditioning – Eastern or Western, female or male (not to mention a lack, or a surfeit, of education) – can colour what we bring to, or want from, a plot or an orgasm.

One female blogger who finds Art & Lies ‘confusing – and not in a good way’ complains ‘I don’t know why Picasso is a woman…’ In case anyone hasn’t noticed, the name Picasso’s a synonym for artistic mastery married to stupendous success in one’s own lifetime. And Picasso, who (like us all) had his off days, but was too macho to admit it, painted whole roomfuls of canvases duller than Winterson’s least lustrous imagery: the downside of not dying young while being wildly prolific. Nonetheless, the bourgeoisie (and myself, I’ll admit) will compulsively queue to be herded around such over-hyped exhibitions. Yet why not appropriate a name that evokes genius, destiny, fame, and bestow it upon a female narrator?

On the writers’ site where I trade feedback, I get to see a broad cross-section of the assumptions emerging writers and beginners bring to the crafting of fiction. In such forums, much advice follows the least resistant line of one-size-fits-all.

Adventurous writers know that rules are made to be broken; adventurous readers revel in exceptions to the rule. But a toddler must learn to walk before it can run, let alone make great leaps of faith, and so one such newcomer to literary fiction informs me:

… from my point of view, there is one major rule that you have broken all the way through this piece. And that is ‘show,’ don’t ‘tell.’ You need the reader to experience the story through action, words, thoughts, senses, and feelings rather than through the author’s exposition, summarization, and description. [quote marks sic]

What I need is just for the reader to not be a blinkered automaton. (It may be too much to ask the average reader – many of who, in our digital age, have authored half-baked DIY publications – not to conflate author and narrator.) Who knows what Mr Show-don’t-tell might have said if he’d read, instead of skimmed over, my extract; some wannabes treat their peers as mere obstructions to be cleared (a dog-eat-dog attitude; or should that be parrot-eat-parrot?). But I’m guessing he’s never read myths or fairytales; if he did, how would he account for the immortality of the Brothers Grimm? No doubt he’d find, given their lack of gratuitous action and dialogue, he ‘didn’t really care about the characters’. And he’d throw the book at Winterson.

To return to those lines of hers that incited blue-ink violence: The riskiest thing you can do is to be naked with another human being. Show or tell? There’s more than one way to present a provocation. Summary or not, this statement makes me care. What does the narrator, a doctor, mean? And is the risk greater if only one of you is naked? If Mr Show-don’t-tell believes what he preaches, he can’t have played Truth or Dare. But the blue-pen critic of Art & Lies’ prose has also underlined examples of showing: The sun had dropped on to the roof of the train and bloodied the grey metal. What exactly is wrong with that? Is it too imprecise, too abstract (because it’s not the sun but the earth that travels)? Or there’s: The light struck off the welder’s metal boots in glowing chips. He wore his halo around his feet. Again, the painterly description: Winterson’s showing us an image.

Fairytales, too, favour telling studded with imagery. Though set in an undefined distant past, a nameless faraway place, the action is no less significant; it’s condensed into archetypal symbols, e.g.:

Rapunzel was the most beautiful child under the sun. When she was twelve years old the Witch shut her up in a tower, in the middle of a great wood, and the tower had neither stairs nor doors, only high up at the very top a small window.

Now, if the Grimms were to seek advice on the aforesaid writers’ site, no doubt they’d be told that Rapunzel should kick, scream, bite and plead or argue with the witch. And BTW, how does she wash all that hair, what does it smell like etc.? The fixation on publishing shared by these wannabes makes for a narrow focus indeed; hence when straying from the path worn by formulas, they often miss the point of what they’re reading.

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