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Why the writing advice to “show, don’t tell” is inherently political

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to the weekly Vox book link roundup, a curated collection of the best writing on the web about books and related subjects. Here’s the best the internet has to offer for the week of October 8, 2017.

Serious novelists do our deep thinking for us, and find ways to communicate big questions (“the way countries and nations remember their past”) within stories so compelling that readers absorb them without having to try. We read Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day because we want to know whether housekeeper Miss Kenton ends up with butler Mr Stevens, and in the meantime absorb the atmosphere and politics of pre-second-world-war Britain. We are bewitched by the prehistoric, magical landscapes of his 2015 novel The Buried Giant, and incidentally find ourselves thinking about the importance of history to a bewildered, conflicted nation.

  • And at Electric Literature, Alexandra d'Abbadie reads Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day as a treatise on the neoliberalism that would lead to Brexit and President Trump:

Stevens is deeply invested in the false, essentialist mythology of his position: the belief that he is part of a great tradition. As this is the only thing that gives him his self-worth, he fervently clings to it just as much as he wants to (unconsciously) escape it. He is thoroughly indoctrinated by Conservative, English class rules: a reverence that’s practically an institution.

He is the pre-echo of the Thatcherite paradox, suffering from an irreconcilable rupture within himself. He knows he’s being played, a small cog in the greater machine of things, and comforts himself in the mythology of The Great English Tradition.

The word itself has suffered from its failure to describe a reality. Diversity has become an empty, ugly, punishing sound, like a wave of coughs or the revving of a stalled engine. It’s in the category of thing that people generally agree with in principle, although they’re not exactly sure why they’re nodding their heads, and are confused about how to actually achieve—or perhaps not confused at all but worried that it will cost more than they’re willing to bear, which for many people might be any cost at all. But I think there are ways to anchor the question of diversity in publishing in reality—and ways to achieve it that will only grow the work we do to greater abundance, with no meaningful loss.

These are the do’s and don’ts of MFA programs everywhere. They rely on a shared pool of knowledge and cultural assumptions so that the words left unsaid are powerfully communicated. I am not saying this is not a worthwhile experience as reader or writer, but I am saying anointing it the pinnacle of “craft” leaves out any voice, genre, or experience that falls outside the status quo. The inverse is also true, then: writing about any experience that is “foreign” to that body of shared knowledge is too often deemed less worthy because to make it understandable to the mainstream takes a lot of explanation. Which we’ve been taught is bad writing!

An almost completely illegible comment on the inside flyleaf of the second volume is headed “Silly Book,” and that sentiment pervades this reader’s responses. Following Frank Churchill’s invitation of Emma to dance, this reader recorded the following judgment: “This book is not worth reading whoever the author, as their time had better been spent in reading than inventing. By one who has read this.” A similar, though more concise, thought—“I wonder who likes this book”—appears at the top of the page on which Mrs. Elton declares that “without music, life would be a blank to me.”

There is nothing more interesting than talking to people about books, so owning Books & Co. for 20 years was a dream come true. I adored being a bookseller and being able to share books I was reading with my customers. I never had boring conversations in the store, was never roped into asking boring questions such as what people did or where they were from. We went right to the heart of the matter: what authors did they like? That might lead to an interesting discussion of a character such as Dorothea in Middlemarch. Was her second marriage a mistake?

Ever heard of Alexander Baron’s King Dido? Me neither, and we’re missing out, because apparently, Baron is one of the most consistently underrated novelists of World War Two. According to Fowler, his bildungsroman was “one of the greatest and least-read novels about London ever written, arguably an East End version of Les Miserables.” Then there’s Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who began writing penny dreadfuls as a child and graduated to ‘sensation’ novels like Lady Audley’s Secret that index Victorian anxieties. Braddon caused her own sensation when it emerged that she’d been living in near-bigamy with her married publisher (his wife was in an asylum), and by the time of her death she and her lurid tales were said to have become “a part of England”.

A generation ago, as the culture wars raged, Toni Morrison often stood at the front lines, demanding the desegregation of the American literary canon. In her Tanner Lectures in 1988, and later in her book Playing in the Dark, she argued against a monochromatic literary canon that had seemed forever to be naturally and inevitably all-white but was, in fact, “studiously” so. She accused scholars of “lobotomizing” literary history and criticism in order to free them of black presence. Broadening our conception of American literature beyond the cast of lily-white men would not simply benefit nonwhite readers. Opening up would serve the interests of American mental as well as intellectual health, since the white racial ideology that purged literature of blackness was, Morrison said, “savage.” She called the very concept of whiteness “an inhuman idea.”

Arranged on the desk are various objects of mystical significance. “I write more easily, more comfortably, with less anxiety if I’ve got my various magic bits on the table,” he said. The magic bits consist of a piece of scientific apparatus used in the search for dark matter, a magnifying glass and his “special pen.” Pullman has three special pens — Montblanc ballpoints — one in his study, one in his bag and one on the table downstairs for letter writing and signing books that people bring to his door (“which sometimes happens”). There is special paper, too: “I started ‘His Dark Materials’ on the sort of paper you could get 30 years ago, A4, narrow-lined, with two holes. Then they started making paper with four holes, and I discovered I couldn’t write on that.” He acknowledged with a brief apologetic glance the lunacy of this statement.

Happy reading!