"It is true that if you want to write well and live well at the same time, you'd better arrange to marry a stockbroker or a rich woman who can operate a typewriter."When one first begins writing, one hears lots of advice:
"Never end sentences this way: example."
"Never ever do this in this situation: example."
"And above all, show, don't tell."
It is true that the modern reading public has a shorter attention span than in the days of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. I consider myself a fairly patient reader and even I had to have three go's at the unabridged Les Miserables before I could finish, and even then it was a terrible struggle to push through his ponderous lectures to get to the heart of the story.
It is true that modern readers expect a certain hook at the front of the book and look for page-turning plots. The books I put down are inevitably the books that bore me to tears. If you can't capture my attention within the first chapter or two, how am I to trust you with my valuable reading-time not to continue to bore me throughout?
It is true that it's always nice to show instead of tell. We all like details. Details! Juicy, fat, details.
I'm here to say that though much of what the modern writer is taught is good advice, pleasure remember that it is just advice after all. It is someone else's idea of how to you ought to write. Perhaps this other person is more qualified than you to say what sells, what readers like, and what will attract the attention of a worthwhile publisher. But when it comes down to whether modern taste is Holy Writ, I'm here to say it is not. To illustrate my point: at a coffee shop the other day I chose an old, weathered book off the community shelf. I picked this book because the illustrations looked similar to those in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. My Ten Years in a Quandary by Robert Benchley. Between rounds of mancala I read the first two chapters. Nothing much happened in those two chapters. Gasp. Rob Bell would have a fit. But the book entertained me well enough to the point that I left a note inside at the place I left off for the next reader. How? Nothing happened! The plot did not advance in the slightest and I can hardly see how each sentence mattered to the whole of the book's events. Here's the secret power of this book and the best of the those in the old style: they didn't arrest a reader by virtue of action, but activity. Benchley's voice in the first two chapters of his book is anything but passive. It romps about with as much energy as The Hunger Games could possibly give, though in the latter you're thrown right into the midst of a world gone mad.
I also know from experience that I don't mind character-driven fiction. Sure I like things to happen and plot is terribly important. Glaring at you, The Notebook. But if the characters are well-drawn, the voice lively enough, and the story-world interesting, I am one-hundred percent okay with a sauntering pace. Just like I don't run marathons because I prefer walking and enjoying my surroundings (and let's be honest: I'd feel like I was dying), I almost prefer a story that, while well-constructed, leaves me time to savor the summer pace of its pages. I think of some of my favorite films (Cinderella, The Devil Wears Prada, The Help, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Miss Potter, Master & Commander...) and realize that though plot is present and well-formed, the real reason I am invested is the strength and color of the characters.
I'd been throwing these thoughts around in my head and waiting for them to gel before writing a blog post when the final driftwood was thrown onto my seaside fire: Flannery O'Conner (yes, that paragon of all things Southern) gave me a lift in denouncing the prophetic law that the Modern Reader has tried to make of "Show, Don't Tell":
"All the sentences in Madame Bovary could be examined with wonder, but there is one in particular that always stops me in admiration. Flaubert has just shown us Emma at the piano with Charles watching her. He says, 'She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff's clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen with his sheet of paper in his hand.' The more you look at a sentence like that the more you can learn from it."Yes, dear Flannery O'Connor. We can learn that the editor at Harper & Row would fling the papers into Flaubert's satchel and say, "Try again some other time when you've learned the market." Yet one of the most well-respected writers of Southern fiction goes on past the quote I shared and continues to praise a very obvious lapse of POV and showing vs. telling. Now I don't mind so much. I'm accustomed to that kind of description and that kind of description is, in fact, what I tried for when I first began writing. But such a thing would admittedly not stand up in today's court again a jury of modern readers. I suppose the point of all this is to show you that there is both wisdom and error in the advice given to the modern writer. Wisdom, in that the current marketplace wants a certain thing and if you want to engage in commerce, you must learn to cater to their whims. Error, in that the modern way is the only way to write well. Flannery O'Connor reminded me that in each era there is, speaking of literary technique, a temporary right and wrong. Each era's faux pas were different. Our era's are one thing...fifty years from now it will be another.
For now....just try not to write like Flaubert.