Where did the know-it-alls get their literary dogmas?

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)

  1. 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.

  1. -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.

  2. 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.

Style rules, including formal grammar, often come from one critics personal opinion that is picked up by others. There are good reason for a critic to state their opinions, with various degrees of strength. After all if the critic is being listened to they’d better say something. The rules pick up a lot of force until someone comes along and smashes them by being innovative and accepted.

I think what people should take away from the rules is that they are meant to promote clarity. Any rule can be used to promote clarity. The adverb rule is at its heart a clarity one. Adverbs slip around in a sentence. Precise placement and fussy punctuation can pin it down beyond a shadow of a doubt, but it can require effort. Complicated sentences make getting the adverb to do what you want a pain. Additionally, there is a tendency for writers to use adverbs as a crutch. When used without discretion every action in the piece takes on a specific shade. You end up with redundant scenes where everything is “slinkily”, “slyly”, “wryly”, and “sneakily” done, or incoherent scenes where the adverbs clash. Bad genre writers have a reputation for never letting “said” stand alone. Adjectives can also be abused this way, but it isn’t as common. I would say any noun with more adjectives than letters may represent a problem.

Show and not tell should, even if people don’t agree with me, mean that you show your point and tell your pointers. All of writing is telling. If I’m not telling you what he feels I’m telling you what he does. If I’m not telling you what he does I’m telling you how people react. If the point is what he feels I shouldn’t come out and say it, but if this very interesting unnamed person’s emotion is just part of the scenery then it can just be told. Like a potted plant an angry man in the crowd is there to show your point. A lot of good writers have told good stories. These stories show us more than just the words lying on the page.

I do agree that being pedantic is very silly. In many cases it is the consumer demanding to have his head up the bull’s ass instead of listening to the butcher. Language is weird and wonderful, and those things that make it enjoyable are easy to exclude in sweeping rules. I think that the contagious nature of writing styles, phrases, and grammatical constructs is one of the reasons that pedants can get so entrenched and vicious. The mistake that bothers you the most is the one you’ve caught yourself making.

Even so it is best to listen to what pedantic sorts think about writing. That way you can argue against them, or better yet write something that is breath taking and violates their rules.

Even in a fuzzy field like literary criticism this kind of ridiculous approach will usually be rejected as nonsense, with someone rapidly pointing out that the only item of substance here is the first one (rules). Confidence and the pathological inability to support one’s arguments do not define a critical position.

There are indeed many rules, and some of them date back thousands of years to ancient Greece, which is pretty much where we get the first principles of criticism and dramatic construction. Aristotle in particular contributed a whole bunch of stylistic and narrative rules, including the three unities of drama, the five canons of rhetoric, etc., to the point that he is one of the most important figures in literature throughout the ages.

However it’s not all good. The fanatical adherence to technical rules has allegedly done great harm to the theater to the point that Aristotle must be thrashing in his grave, and the application of strict dogmatic rules to fiction has been equally decried (most recently, sort of, by you, Aeschines).

I doubt any rule is absolute, and I am sure that most critics realize that breaking a rule can be a good thing (can you imagine a novel like Neuromancer written in grammatically correct full sentences??). On the subject of popular writers, well popular need not mean “good” or “skilled”. Stephen King may be one of the world’s most successful authors, but stylistically and technically speaking he is absolutely nothing special, so take advice on style and technique from him with caution. Besides, King flagrantly violates my foremost rule of literary criticism, which is “do not bore your audience to the point of tears while you attempt to set up the scene and build tension”.

A lot of bestselling authors (Grisham, Cook, etc.) actually write according to stylistic formulae. I couldn’t find it, but there was a useful discussion on these boards about this kind of thing about 2 years ago if you feel like searching.

Thanks for your insights. Of course, I’m not really talking about high-quality critics here. I’m talking about extremely petty wannabes.

Yeah, Aristotle’s “unity of time.” So every play had to take place within a single day! Oh, that lead to some interesting results.

Oh, I did say “pros.” But most of what I said referred to the on-line wannabes. Yeah, that could be confusing…

— Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.

hey Lib, is that atrocious cagal the same passage read to the class in Dead Poets Society?

That definition leaves free verse out in the freezing cold, right next to poetic appreciation.

Aeschines, IMO there is enough to worry about among some of the real experts, without getting all tangled up with the worst of the web pundits.

Aeschines wrote:

It deserves to be drummed into everyone’s heads. Having a reader glean meaning from actions and scenery rather than having the meaning pre-digested for them makes the impact more powerful, and application of the rule forces creativity on the part of writers who would otherwise rely on abstract shortcuts to get their point across, leading to windy prose that bores the reader and weakens the story.

Or, more likely, your sensei will tell you that it was popularized with the advent of the Iowa School of Writing, but was already established in essays by the likes Flannery O’Connor. It came about because where once upon a time shepherding young writers was the role of book editors, who would often just fix the problem rather than lecture the writer advice about how not to make the same mistakes, but the role of mentor became the job of academia, whose approach was to encourage writers not to write things editors were going to cut.

Adverbs water down prose, and are often a shortcut to the harder but beneficial task of making the verbs speak for themselves. And they tend to be unnecessary. As Mark Twain said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

This is not an entirely new controversy. I was told long ago that for every adjective you use in a poem, assume you’ve lost half your audience. That’s hyperbolic, sure, but the principle is the same as with `telling’ or using adverbs, though to a lesser degree.

Mostly because they have been in writing workshops and have had to read the prose of people who don’t observe these rules.

The mantras have a history and a lot of serious thought has gone into them. I recommend that before you reject them out of hand you read more about them.

The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor
The Art of Fiction by David Lodge

One thing you will find is that these are not considered good candidates for absolute, inviolable laws even by the people who most eloquently defend them. But they are damn good guidelines, and you ignore them at your peril.

Wow. Your tone, I fear, is the very thing I was writing against.

Like the pedants I described, you missed or ignored some of my important points. Did you see what I wrote about Fitzgerald? We’ve got to have historical perspective. To what degree did writers in the past use show/tell? How have stylistic considerations changed. Without this historical perspective, the rules are worthless.

Do I object to the rules themselves? NO! I even said so re show/tell. But time and again I’ve seen a small-time, nasty little writer rub his hands together and glee and go on the attack, thinking he’s definitely gotten someone in a show/tell violation, and now he’s gonna make 'em pay.

Aeschines wrote:

But I gave you a historical perspective that begins just as Fitzgerald’s era ends, and Fitzgerald is the only example you seem interested in.

How far back do you want to go? Beowulf was written in with an alliterative prosody that even the acclaimed Seamus Heany translation only shyly attempts to imitate, because it does not sound so lovely to the modern English ear. Chaucer presided over a revolution in the way that poetry was written in English, and produced good stuff as a result, and yet hardly anybody tries to write like Chaucer, because the discourse on style in literature did not stop with him.

A historical perspective ought to tell you why eighty years later we don’t encourage young writers to imitate Fitzgerald, just as writers in Fitzgerald’s time did not feel compelled to write like Dickens. Considerable thought and observation has gone into the rules you eschew, and that with considerable historical perspective in mind, as you will find to be the case in the brief list of readings I have already posted.

In terms of literature, a lot of history has happened since Fitzgerald’s time, of which I have already given just a tiny account which is by no means trivial from a historical perspective.

So we can put you on record as considering Fitzgerald’s work to be unreadable shit in light of the rules of what proper prose should look like, assuming his ubiquitous use of -LY adverbs is as Aeschines describes?

Music has gone through its bouts with various “inviolable” rules, to the point where very little academic music from the twentieth century is remotely tolerable.

Art is one area of human endeavor where the ends clearly justify the means. Of your work moves the receiver in the way you wished, it matters little what lever you used.

Well, Johnny, I gather that you agree with many of the people I describe. I don’t mean to paint them all with the same brush in terms of intelligence: many are quite knowledgeable, as you seem to be. To me, however, the problem really seems to come down to one of attitude or stance: the modern style is good; you will be a bad writer if you don’t follow it.

So, has evolution occurred? Do today’s best writers write better than Fitzgerald? Is there a modern style to be followed that shall be good for all time, or will it evolve even further, always displacing that which came before it?

I think you will find that many writers of the past tended to think this way. It is not a totally untenable position. Especially in the 20th century, it was thought by some that a revolution had occurred, which rendered all past literature moot.

My position is different: although there are fundamental rules of good literature (basically, tell a good, engaging story), the smaller matters of style are arbitrary.

Too many modern amateur critics want to flash their erudition without actually stating a clear position. Are Dickens and Fitzgerald to be thought of as crap now? Or is it rather that their styles were good for their eras but never to be imitated today?

I find that too often the latter position boxes writers into a very uncomfortable corner. We must be original always, never anachronistic, always 100% original. And the “art” fiction and especially poetry of our day continues to be ignored, ignored, always ignored.

I heard the various dogmas about good writing from both ends, as both a lit student and a creative writing student.

I defend old chestnuts like “show don’t tell” for one very simple reason: they’re a good place to start for young writers, who usually need all the help and advice they can get. I can’t think of how many of us young’uns, having our windy first drafts raked over the coals by our peers, protested feebly, “But Fitzgerald/Hemingway/Carver/Alice Munro/William Trevor/Blah Blah Blah does it!” To which the typical — and I think, proper — response is, “When you have mastered your craft to the degree that those writers have, and when you have found and defined your voice to the degree that those writers have, then you can break the rules.” Yes, it’s elitist and a little autocratic, but there you go.

Gotta disagree most heartily here. You have given here a set of writers. Let us suppose for the moment that we are not as good as they; they are higher and better. They have “craft” and “voice.”

If talent has been a necessary condition for them to attain what they have, then our following the rules won’t help us very much, will it, if we do not have talent ourselves? We can follow all day long, but we will not have the spark that Fitzgerald et al. had, which allowed to achieve fame and literary success.

If we choose to put “them” and “us” in categories that never shall overlap–the gods and the wannabes of lit–they we should admit now that all are rules and dogmas are all for nothing.

But let us not be so hopeless. Let us suppose that some among us have the talent that will let us aspire to their level. Are the rules and dogmas really beneficial to such persons–given in the form that I’ve been complaining about here?

No, they will not. Look at your “autocratic” and “elitist” advice. This is exactly the type of instruction that I say is destructive of potentially good writers, the ones with talent. Why?

  1. You are telling them that they are (of course! how could it be otherwise?) not in the same category as “real” good writers.

  2. The reason you gave as to why those writers have the right to break the rules was given in terms of their goodness and status, not in terms that will help the potentially good writer achieve the same level.

  3. You did not say whether “their” breaking of the rules was actually something that hurt their writing, or whether they were breaking the rules in a beneficial manner. If we do not understand the flaws of good writers, then it is difficult to understand their strengths.

Again, I think you have exemplified in your post precisely the mindset that is seeking, unconsciously perhaps, to curb out the suppy for the benefit of those who will fervently cling to orthodoxy. The crabs in a bucket phenomenon, if you will.

Yak, many errors.

I wish “suppy” were a word. It’s cute. But it’s supply.

You don’t know a thing about me, and this loopy “market supply” theory of yours is nonsense. I am not part of academia, I don’t read contemporary fiction for the most part, and I don’t care who tries to become a writer or doesn’t. I simply believe that there are standards of good writing, that these standards can be identified objectively to an extent, and that any aspiring writer will do better to learn them and, perhaps, eventually modify them to her taste.

You’ve chosen only a very few of the precepts that writing and lit students are taught, and the ones you have picked you’ve oversimplified terribly; there’s little point in discussing the issue in any depth when the premise is so thin to begin with. I can only say that education has to start somewhere, and that learning an aesthetic craft is impossible without accepting standards of what is and isn’t good. There are always a few Budding Geniuses™ who think they’re so blazingly original that the rules just don’t apply to them, and while a tiny, tiny, tiny-ass percentage might be, the rest are just inexperienced writers who may know what to say but not how to say it—and who will never improve without good examples and guidance.

Of course. Sorry if I’ve offended. I am not trying to write a tretise here myself on the proper way to write. I’m trying to communicate a particular mindset I’ve encountered, a certain type of person who just makes the whole writing thing no fun at all.

As I’ve said, I’ve encountered absolutely the nastiest people and environments on on-line literary fora. I am hypersensitive when it comes to this issue, and I apologize for it.

One and the same. And yes, it is a damnable approach to poetry.

I’ve been known to use the expression “show, don’t tell,” but I always use it in regards to a specific incident of ‘overtelling.’

There are times when you want the reader to get the meaning herself, like popping a grape between the teeth instead of spooning grape jelly. However, there are also times when you want to get in a bunch of exposition, or else where it would slow the passage down unacceptably to say “he said, rolling his eyes, an edge in his voice,” instead of just “he said impatiently.”

So I’ll say “here, you should show this instead of telling it,” but I don’t claim it’s a rule that one must always follow.

This happens a lot in matters of grammar and style outside of literature. Consider the ludicrous claim that you should not use the passive voice (or the negative, a “rule” I encountered once from someone who should have known better.) That’s ridiculous! There are hundreds of times when the passive voice is necessary, either to make a sentence flow better or to convey a nuance the active voice wouldn’t. It’s just that someone noticed that other times it can be clunky, and instead of taking the trouble to distinguish when it’s useful from when it’s not, decided to proscribe it altogether.

That’s OK. Literary types can be pretty insufferable a lot of the time. Didn’t mean to get in your face like that. :slight_smile: