I’m talking about both “pros” and amateurs/wanna-bes online who think that fiction and poetry is to be written just so. Their position is characterized by
*A comprehensive approach: they have rules for everything;
*A rabid, world-consuming confidence: they are right, damn you;
*No historical perpective whatsoever: they don’t bother to justify anything they say.
The type of thing whereof they’re certain (a small sample)
- SHOW, don’t TELL. This has become the god of all rules. You are garbage as a writer should you ever tell instead of show. A poet who “tells” is definitely the antichrist. Every modern student of literature (apparently) has this rule pounded into his/her head, and every student (seemingly) enjoys pounding it into everyone else’s head. It is the ultimate lit shibboleth.
One problem with this rule is that it’s often hard to distinguish “show” from “tell.” And, after all, it’s literature, so you’re always telling to some extent. Perhaps it would be better did we all forego literature completely and instead use the motion picture medium, since it’s mostly “show.” No one gives a crap about stories and poems any more, anyway.
The real problem with the rule is that it just popped up–when? In the 60s or 70s perhaps. Not sure. At any rate, writers never seemed to worry about this kind of thing. I just got finished reading The Great Gatsby, and Fitzgerald has enough “tell” in there to talk your ear off. One of the narrator’s first descriptions of Gatsby is a “young roughneck,” which is not only a blatant tell but one that really doesn’t fit well with Gatsby’s other qualities. The book is full of Fitzgerald (through the narrator) telling us what to think of the various characters instead of letting us figure things out for ourselves.
Now, I’m not saying that this is a good thing; I refuse to say that it’s always bad, either. But the guardians of this rule and lit in general should be aware that the “best” writers have made careers out of breaking this king of rules. So, the next time someone mutters the mantra, “Show, don’t tell,” ask them this: When did people formulate this rule? Did people use to break it much? How does this rule relate to past and present styles? Your sensei will draw a blank, leak foam from the corner of the mouth, and begin attacking you with sharp claws.
-LY adverbs are the DEVIL. Apparently Steven King said -LY adverbs are verboten in his writing guide, and this is definitely something one gets a lot. Again, The Great Gatsby has an -LY adverb in practically every paragraph, and a glance at Hemingway (I looked at Fiesta) will reveal the same kind of thing. Whence the confidence that these useful words are to be eschewed absolutely.
I saw an article on the net recently in which it was said that adjectives are now bad. Naughty naughty. Can do without 'em.
Why the pedants enjoy this kind of thing.
I think this type of behavior is mostly due to supply and demand. Today, literature is one world in which most everyone is guaranteed to be a failure by their own standards. That is, everyone wants to become famous, if not rich, and most people, even those with real talent, will not make it.
We do not always choose our behavior consciously, to say the least. The pedants as a group are, by means of their stingy little rules, trying to curb supply. They almost always seem to form a hyena pack to pick off those who are disobedient. I have found that the pedants are almost always rabid defenders of contemporary literature. Despite the fact that (for good reasons) the general public is almost completely ignorant of modern poets and fiction writers, the pedants will lambaste anyone who does not share their level of knowledge and appreciation.
If the pedants ever give a reason for their particular strain of fundamentalism, it is that their rules are based upon contemporary style, and we all know that modern style is fresh, authentic, and, well, contemporary. And if you don’t know that and appreciate it, then, buh-bye to you; there’s more left for us.
I have participated on a few literary boards on the Net, and they left me, to say the very least, disillusioned. I thought they would be full of kind, literary, sharing types. Instead, the petty rivalries and genuinely hate-filled animosities that develop on these boards easily outdo anything to be found in our own BBQ Pit. It really is an environment in which cliques (claques!) develop just so that the members can cheer each other one while despising all others, in which invalidation seems to be the prime directive. I was even stalked from one board to another by a particularly foul individual–it was unbelievable.
Obviously I’ve covered a few issues here, but your insights will be appreciated.