Peter Blackstock of Grove Atlantic

“Show, don’t tell” is the writing mantra I think I’d most like to dismantle. It implies a reader is familiar with what is shown, that fiction should allow readers to call on personal experiences to self-identify with a character, rather than encourage them to learn about a truly different reality. I think of a realtor showing an apartment—sweeping you from beautifully staged room to room, but without giving you any understanding of or belief in the lives of the people who call that apartment home. Showing can feel like showing off, like showpieces without substance—that is, fiction at its most artificial, the opposite of the intent. But when readers are jerked out of this kind of passive viewing, it can be an amazing experience. Think of Ralph Ellison’s immortal first line: “I am an invisible man.” Or Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose comments about showing and telling inspired me to write this, riffing off Ellison in The Sympathizer, a book I am lucky enough to have edited: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” Other novels I have published, like Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater or Bernardine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, bring you into their realities with a directness that you can’t get just from showing. When we consider the white gaze of many agents, editors, and readers, the idea of just showing situations or characters without making anyone aware of what they don’t know about such things is problematic. Perhaps I have a telling soft spot for novels written in the first person with a sociopolitical edge, but I urge any writer to not be afraid of working out not just how you’ll show things, but what you and your work have to tell. 

Peter Blackstock, senior editor, Grove Atlantic 

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Author: squong

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  • October 13, 2020