A Reader Named Foxsford

On the amazon website a reader named “foxsford” has posted a single-starred review of A Dark Anatomy. Here it is in full :

 “A better title for A dark anatomy would be A pale reflection. The writing is facile and thin; just one example, the author feels a need to have his main protagonist explain why he is 'pompous' rather than embedding this into the characterization. That alone tells you he's not up to creating believable, solid characters. The plot is predictable from about chapter 2. Other reviewers mention the amount of detail about the period. This is why I gave it a one-star rating rather than nothing at all. Felt I was reading a pale imitation of C.J. Sansom. My advice: buy the Shardlake books instead.”

I’m very sorry that foxsford didn’t enjoy the book, and that he or she found the plot predictable. I shall try harder in future to plot my novels more intricately.

On the other hand I urge foxsford to think again about characterization. The remarks posted about my book are a repetition of the rule – heard nowadays in creative writing courses all the way from the University of East Anglia to Palookaville – that novelists must either show-not-tell, or hang their heads in shame.   But a moment’s thought to the history of fiction reveals that novelists have routinely put “tell” on an equal footing with “show”.

Giants like Fielding, Dickens, Dostoevsky, James and Lawrence were compulsive “tellers” – writers who saw their job as to provide running notes on the characters and events that came up as their narrative unfolded. It is perfectly true that this showing-and-telling voice provoked a reaction at the end of the 19th century and for quite a lot of the 20th. It led modernists like Chekhov, Joyce and Virginia Woolf to espouse the show-not-tell approach, which then became the house style for many 20th century writers, including (to grab a few names at random) Ernest Hemingway, John Cheever, Muriel Spark, and William Golding. But that is what “show not tell” is: not an iron law, but a style. 

Postmodern theory explored this further. It developed the idea that the narrating or “telling” voice can, in fact, never be got rid of because, far from being extraneous, it’s always part of the story. That is naturally most obvious in first-person tales, of which A Dark Anatomy is one. The figure leaning on the mantelpiece, puffing on his pipe while he spins his yarn – as Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov knew so well – is also himself a yarn. And what he says about himself is integral to the novelist’s presentation of that yarn not, as foxsford thinks, some lazy failure of characterization.

A Dark Anatomy is no exception to this. The main character, Cragg, is also the narrator. But he is an invention, as is every one of the words he “writes”. So his character is not just presented through his activities (or what he selectively tells us about them), but also in how he thinks and feels about himself, and how he reports those thoughts and feelings. Therefore it is not a cop-out, as foxsford thinks, to have Cragg comment on the fact that he is sometimes pompous. His rueful awareness of his weaknesses is a part of him.

I would argue that quite a valid point is being made here about human character: there’s a big difference between a person who is inclined to pomposity and knows it, and another who can’t seem to grasp just how pompous he is being.

Posted on September 26th, 2011


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