People often sound off about the value of showing over telling in fiction. I think this is a pretty stupid contest to set up: what’s important is finding the right technique to get the work done. As I emphasize in my class on close reading, you can do some things by telling that you can’t do otherwise–establishing historical context, for instance, or philosophizing or otherwise commenting on the action of the story. Huge swathes of brilliant writing from the nineteenth century is basically telling: I could never embrace any putative standard of excellence in fiction that doesn’t put Chapter XV of Middlemarch pretty high up the list. It’s not as if telling is the easy way out, either. It’s hard to manage information in a compelling and elegant way, as I was reminded by some joltingly awkward moments in a book I just finished, Julie James’s About That Night. Here’s an example:
She had a week off before her summer job started, during which she planned to do nothing more strenuous than roll herself out of bed every day by noon and mosey over to the university’s outdoor pool, which was open to students.
‘I hate to burst the bubble on your daydream, but I’m pretty sure they don’t allow alcoholic drinks at IMPE,’ Rae said, referring to the university’s Intramural Physical Education building, which housed said pool.
James’s challenge here is that Rae, who’s familiar with the campus, would naturally use the acronym, but the reader, who isn’t, needs it glossed. She is right, then, to gloss it, but it feels like an awkward afterthought when the explanation is tacked on like that. Why didn’t James’s editor work with her on this bit? What is the solution, anyway? My first thought is that it would help to put the details in sooner, maybe here: “mosey over to the university’s Intramural Physical Education building, where the pool was open to students.” Then we’d recognize the source of the acronym when Rae uses it, wouldn’t we? And then the awful phrase “housed said pool” could go too.
Here’s another bit of awkward explaining:
Dex smiled at Rae, then turned to Rylann with a curious expression. ‘Oh, Ry-linn,’ he said, pronouncing her name. ‘I’d been saying it wrong after I saw the picture of you and Kyle in the paper.’ He cocked his head. ‘Not a very common name, is it?’
I’d been saying her name wrong since page 1, and this is page 149. Obviously this is something James knows is a likely problem. To me, it makes more sense to address it sooner, though admittedly I may just be sensitive on this point because my own name is not very common and often mispronounced and I’ve had to explain or correct it for 40-something years. Why not include the pronunciation and provenance of the name in an early bit of characterization? We hear all about her hair colour and amber eyes right away, after all. But it’s the ‘pronouncing her name’ bit that’s really an editorial wobble. What else could he possibly be doing?
Another one, still later:
With a smile curling at the edges of his lips, Kyle held up a Starbucks cup. ‘Drink this. My mother used to get migraines. I remember her saying something about caffeine helping.’
‘Sweet Jesus, you are a god,’ Rylann said, taking the cup gratefully. She’d had luck with caffeine before but hadn’t had the energy to stop at a Starbucks on her way home from work.
This is the first we’ve heard about her even contemplating a stop at Starbucks. It makes sense that a regular migraine sufferer would know about and have tried various fixes (though this is also the first time in the novel that she’s had a headache at all), so I can see why it felt necessary to say something to fill that in–but again, I think it makes more sense to integrate her previous experience as well as her idea to stop for coffee into the actual description of her coming home from work–‘By the time she left work at six thirty, her head was throbbing, she felt nauseous, and even the hazy pre-sunset light outside made her eyes hurt so much that even stopping at Starbucks for the caffeine that had helped her headaches before was intolerable’–or something like that. Then Kyle arrives bearing his Starbucks cup and the scene can just go on.
These are not fatal flaws, though there are other similarly graceless moments in the book–more of the same after-the-fact fillers as in these examples (after a comment about ‘Keith, Kellie, Dan, and Claire’ in conversation, we get ‘Keith, Kellie, Dan, and Claire had been their “couple friends”‘), or the occasional info-dump (as when Kyle arrives at his old campus and we get a whole paragraph describing the computer science building), or problems with modifiers (‘Now in his late fifties, there was gray in Sharma’s black hair’). Not fatal–but at the same time, they send the signal that this book has relatively low standards when it comes to its prose and its craft: not just the writer but the editor either didn’t see or didn’t care that it could be better written. It’s not that my ideas for tweaks would move the novel any closer to the depth and richness of the exposition in Middlemarch, but there’s no need to give telling a worse reputation than it already has by doing it so clumsily.
In fairness, I should add that the book overall is not so bad.