Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Elizabeth Harrower’s “Alice” was originally published in the February 2, 2015 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.

Click for a larger image.

Well, what an exciting couple of weeks in The New Yorker fiction section! Last week, we got a “new” Isaac Bashevis Singer story, and this week we get a “new” Elizabeth Harrower story! Elizabeth Harrower, though alive in her late 80s, has not published — and says she has not written — anything in approximately 45 years. In 1971, she pulled her last novel, In Certain Circles, from publication not long before the publication date. Before that, she had published four novels, with The Watch Tower being her last, published in 1966 (I haven’t read any of it, but from what I’ve seen it looks right up my alley).

Last year, through some process of cajoling, Harrower allowed In Certain Circles to be published. James Wood reviewed the book, and gave a nice overview of Harrower’s publication history, in The New Yorker last year (here). According to Deborah Treisman’s interview with Harrower upon the publication of “Alice” this week (here), a collection of Harrower’s short stories is due out in Australia (and, one hopes, elsewhere) later this year. It’s one to look out for: “Alice” is a phenomenal story.

In “Alice,” Harrower gives us an astonishingly detailed portrait of Alice’s life, almost in its entirety, as it has been influenced and modulated by her quest for her mother’s love. I said it in the paragraph above, but I’ll say it again: “Alice” is a phenomenal story. Here’s the set-up: Alice, the naturally “good” girl, and her dismissive mother:

Her mother was Scottish born and bred — irrational, raucous, bony, quick-tempered, and noisy. She had no feelings. She was bright, like anything burning: a match, a firecracker, a tree. Alice was as watchful as a small herbivorous animal. Mother and child were unsatisfied. They looked at each other.

There is little Alice can do to win her mother’s love. Alice is already doing everything as perfectly as she can. Despite this, her mother’s love is completely spent on Alice’s two younger brothers. And just look at how Harrower brings up and then dispatches the father:

Oh, the family had a father. But he went away to be a soldier and was gone for years. When he came back, he was even more silent than before, and the mother indicated that he was of no account. He went to his mysterious work, and spent almost as much time there as he had at the war. When he returned to the house, it was only to eat and sleep. Much later, after the children were all grown up, he died. The day after the funeral, no one could remember his voice.

As a young girl, Alice does not understand why her mother is the way she is. But this relationship rules her life and her relationships. “Because Alice’s deepest attention, you might even say her soul, was busy looking back, over its shoulder, she had few acquaintances and no friends.” As the story moves on, Alice finds herself being a wife in a marriage that means little to her. After all, her husband’s love means nothing to her if she cannot also have her mother’s.

Many things make “Alice” a phenomenal story — the scope, the intimacy, the prose that runs crystal clear but that bites. But Harrower shows here something I admire a great deal: she understands her characters intuitively and she articulates their psychology with astounding insight and compassion, a kind of compassion that doesn’t shy away from flaws. It reminded me of the strongest moments in John Williams’ Stoner. If he got a revival recently, I say let’s give one to Harrower while she is still around to see it.

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By |2015-02-03T00:37:31-04:00January 26th, 2015|Categories: Elizabeth Harrower, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |34 Comments


  1. Trevor Berrett January 26, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    I’ve finished the story, and my first impression is that it’s brilliant. I need to reread it before posting much above though — a lot is going on in it!

  2. Carol January 26, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    It took my breath away !

  3. Trevor Berrett January 26, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    I’m about to reread, Carol!

  4. Lori Feathers January 26, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    What a poignant story. And distinctive style: “….she also had two sons, younger than the girl—golden, milky boys, not made entirely of wood and flames like their mother, nor of guileless life like their sister, but a mixture of both, and somehow not quite enough of either.”

    Thanks for introducing me to Harrower, Trevor! I want to read more.

  5. Trevor Berrett January 26, 2015 at 7:46 pm

    Me too, Lori, me too! With a rather small body of work, I think it’s time to do add her to my “completionist” challenge (she’s there with only a few other authors :-) ).

  6. lotusgreen January 30, 2015 at 2:56 pm

    Before I read anything above, I’ll let loose with my take on this story: I hated it. I guess some of the writing wasn’t so bad — the end was pretty. But it broke one of the singular rules as far as terrific fiction goes: it told, it didn’t show.

    There is little as aggravating as a trite story told tritely.

    Did the author think what she was saying was so revolutionary that merely setting down “facts” would be sufficient? It wasn’t. Did she think the ending so marvelous it would fix everything? It didn’t.

    No one, not the mother nor the brothers nor the girl herself ever actually came alive because every action was rather unspecifically explained; nobody ever did anything.

    Did anyone learn anything, gain any insight, break down, stand up, anything? Not as far as I could tell.

    About half-way through I thought: the only thing that will rescue this story is if somebody, preferably the girl, murders somebody. Nobody did.

    On the other hand, the whole piece argues as a great reason for shrinks.

  7. Trevor Berrett January 30, 2015 at 4:00 pm

    About half-way through I thought: the only thing that will rescue this story is if somebody, preferably the girl, murders somebody. Nobody did.

    This made me laugh, Lily :-) . I am sorry that didn’t happen too!

    But not for the same reasons. Regarding your take on the story, we differ — boy, do we differ!

    I cannot address why some events or whatever seem trite to one person and deep to another, but I did want to address your “show don’t tell” stance. It’s a “rule” I understand, but it’s one I don’t agree with insofar as it make a story good or bad. I used to teach undergrads, and they were the best at telling rather than showing because they’d usually failed to think their stories through. They told because that’s what they had to do to even get a sequence of events on paper. We tell them to “show don’t tell” in order to get them to focus on the surroundings. In truth, even when they switched to showing and not telling their work was rarely significantly improved. They still haven’t thought it through, only now they’ve added inconsequential details and action. Sometimes, I just wanted them to think it through and then come up with a very precise, direct way of exploring the issue at hand.

    Which is what I think we have in “Alice,” a fully realized protagonist and a fully realized relationship with a mother, distilled brilliantly in clear, precise, rich, layered, textured language. For me, the swiftness of time, and the impact an incomprehensible relationship can have on events over time, is wonderfully articulated. The tone, because the language rarely settles down to “show,” is rather droll, perhaps a bit clinical, which I think works wonderfully with the psychological questions raised.

    So I think that this short story is fantastic! And I think it’s because it is so nicely developed, in spite of, and maybe because of, Harrower’s alleged avoidance of the rule “show don’t tell.”

  8. lotusgreen January 30, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    Ha! We are funny! Okay, so, I didn’t just pull that “rule” out of my ass because it’s a rule, but because I asked myself, why do I feel so distanced from this story? And the “rule” jumped out at me! Could a strong difference between my reaction and those of the rest of you be because I know this situation extremely well? In fact, and please recognize that I’m a Jew when I say this, but I will bet you that this identical story has played out over and over and over in many, or even most of the Jewish homes you know. For me, it brought nothing whatsoever new to the table.

    I’m not saying it’s a “Jewish story.” Who knows what religion Harrower is? Nor am I saying that this is only a Jewish phenomenon — not at all. Merely reflecting on a strong reason why our takes might be so opposite.

    If this story tells you something new about, well, anything…. thank your lucky stars.

  9. Trevor Berrett January 30, 2015 at 9:52 pm

    Oh, I don’t know if it tells me anything new; I’m very pleased with how it’s telling me what it is. I loved the style and structure. I did find it insightful — is that the same as telling me something new? That’s a genuine question, and not an attempt to be flippant. I think I found it so wonderful because of how it went about it rather than what it went about, so we are at odds on this one all the way around :-).

    And I think that’s great, especially since we are having this conversation!

  10. lotusgreen January 30, 2015 at 10:10 pm

    I love how you say that, Trevor. “…how it went about it rather than what it went about…” Well, not me. :^) (Though I suspect I already made that clear enough.) I had afternoon guests and told them my premise, they both also being Jewish women, and they agreed it’s an old story — not Harrower’s story, the commonality of circumstances story. I’d love to hear the thoughts of others here on this sociological element.

  11. Trevor Berrett January 30, 2015 at 11:42 pm

    Yes, yes, I’m also anxious for others to read the story and share their thoughts here, regardless of perspective.

  12. Paul January 31, 2015 at 5:40 am

    I totally agree with lotusgreen. I went to this website, expecting the story to be panned for its complete lack of any descriptive detail, or anything to make the story come alive, and was astonished to see all the fulsome praise.

    I’m not from a creative writing background at all, and I just felt intimidated from expressing my opinion. I thought that my lack of appreciation just showed my philistine ignorance and that I should therefore shut up, and just learn from others.

    No, the relationships are not “fully realized”. All we get are bland generalizations like “Mother and child were unsatisfied.”

    I’m completely puzzled by the enthusiastic responses which seem to consist, in large part, of quoting bland prose and then exclaiming that its brilliance is self-evident.


  13. Cathy Thomas January 31, 2015 at 10:39 am

    I am hoping someone can give me insight on a paragraph in the middle of the story. It begins, “Years went by. The road where Alice stopped now stretched far in either direction. She didn’t want to follow it.” It goes on to refer to a “horrible accident” and her standing with a crowd of little girls and women with red-gold curls. I’m not sure what this is about. My only guess is that it refers to the middle of her life – the road stretching far in either direction, and Alice doesn’t want to think about her past or her future. But the “accident” is leaving me stumped. I’m curious to know what others thought of that paragraph.

  14. Trevor Berrett February 1, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    Paul, I can’t say why one story “comes alive” for someone and not for someone else. It’s a strange thing, for sure. I’ve read this story four times now, more than I’ve read any other New Yorker story in a very long time. The first three were for pleasure; the fourth was to see if I could figure out where you and Lily are coming from, and the fourth time was still very pleasurable :-) .

    I can’t agree that the story lacks detail. Certain kinds of detail, sure; but this is a psychologically detailed story. And Harrower gets to that psychology with some lovely descriptions, like Alice being “as watchful as a small herbivorous animal,” placed just after a description of her mother being “bright, like anything burning.” To me, that is a great way to establish Alice’s timidity, reverence, and fear. That is followed up by, “Mother and child were unsatisfied. They looked at each other.” I have no problems with that sentence, where the two are sizing each other up. I find their dissatisfaction interesting because they are not unsatisfied for the same reasons.

    Again, this story did come alive for me, with its fear of and longing for intimacy against the sweep of time, and I credit Harrower for that, though I also see where you’re coming from.

    Cathy, as for the accident, Harrower is, as she is often in the story, being deliberately ambiguous. The “accident,” whatever it was, is something — anything — that has left a deep psychological wound on the entire family. We don’t know anything about her children, but we know from the next chapter than Eric is still alive, though about to leave the picture for good.

    Again, I think this vague style is perfect for capturing the movement of time, how surprising it is, how impressionistic it can make the most distinct moments feel.

  15. Trevor Berrett February 1, 2015 at 3:34 pm

    Oh boy, the next story in The New Yorker will be from Toni Morrison, a writer whose style has never connected with me.

  16. lotusgreen February 1, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    Thank you Paul. And Trevor — you crack me up — who else would be excited by that possibility??! Cathy, I seem to recall the accident had something to do with getting pregnant? And Trevor, again, even in that little bit you quote: Alice being “as watchful as a small herbivorous animal,” placed just after a description of her mother being “bright, like anything burning.”

    Wouldn’t it have been far more effective if, as I said before, she showed rather than narrated. Not suggesting my caliber as a writer — just making a comment on another possible approach: Alice grew her bangs long so, in the right position, she could hide her eyes, hunch her shoulders, and back into whatever chair she might be in, and resemble a small frightened rat. Placed just after, If she could have grown taller she would have, instead she reached higher like a flame, her eyes and hair suddenly red in some ray of light.

  17. Parker February 1, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    “She (Alice) stood there with a crowd of girls and women, all with ravishing red-gold curls. There had been this accident, so long ago that none of them could remember quite what it was. A horrible accident. They couldn’t get over it.”

    Rightly or wrongly, I took the “horrible accident” that these girls and women had experienced as being born into a male-dominated society. I also took this story, written probably 45 or 50 years ago, just when the so-called Feminist Movement in Australia and elsewhere was starting, as Harrower’s attempt to solidify her feminist credentials. It was also during that period that her novel “The Watch Tower”– since regarded as a feminist classic– was published.

    Personally, I don’t mind all the misandry (dislike or hatred of men or boys) in this story that Alice directed at her brothers, her father, and her two husbands (particularly the second husband– referred to only, as I recall, as the “man.”) This theme, as lotusgreen pointed out, is nothing new now, a half-centry later. Harsh as the misandry is, however, I think it is mitigated by the story’s appealing, almost fairytale-like structure– the third-person omniscient narrator, the simple (almost nursery school) language, the happy-ever-after ending. I, like Trevor, enjoyed the telling, the language. (It might also be noted that during this period, 50 or so years ago, some feminists were rewriting fairy tales to better reflect their feminist values, and this could be Harrower’s attempt in that direction.)

    Thus, perhaps predictably, in this “fairy tale,” the damsel in distress (Alice) is not swept off her feet by prince charming. Rather it is by some sudden, unexpected illumination (“She had no idea what it was called.”) But whatever it was, it does (by implication, at least) seem to free her from the oppression of her previous male-dominated life. And that, I think, is the point of the story.

  18. lotusgreen February 1, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    Parker — Ive been thinking about what you said, and I think you have a good point, one that is useful to me for my understanding of my reactions. Indeed, Harrow predates even me! While “consciousness raising” was still in its infancy when I was coming up, you’re right: this is very explored territory by now, but not by when she wrote it. It reminds me of my reaction when I watch old footage of Ernie Kovacs’ Nairobi Trio. It feels so overdone and derivative…. But that’s where this schtick started!

    On the other hand… much of Angela Carter’s work was from the early 60s, and was reworking of fairy tales, and there ain’t nothing similar between her “reworks” and those of Harrower.

    The reason I reached the conclusion about pregnancy, and our guesses can surely coexist, is because she seems surrounded, both back in time and forward, with clones of herself. Could she have said no???

  19. Trevor Berrett February 1, 2015 at 8:05 pm

    Wouldn’t it have been far more effective if, as I said before, she showed rather than narrated.

    First, you do an excellent job writing, and I think your re-visioning illustrates your point nicely. I still think it’s a taste thing, though, rather than something Harrower should have done. I personally prefer her more direct approach. This is not a scientific study or anything, but when I first started reading a lot of contemporary translated fiction I was very surprised and invigorated by how direct I found much of their prose (not all of it, to be sure), especially in relation to a lot of contemporary American fiction (much of which I like quite a lot). And many of my favorite authors come from the more direct school of prose: William Trevor, William Maxwell, John Williams (a lot of those Williams), Alice Munro, and Penelope Fitzgerald (and I am anxious to try more Harrower to see if she becomes a favorite). Many of these authors might even revise to strip away the description in favor of a direct, still descriptive and metaphorical, statement, the better, at times, to focus on the emotional currents.

    Boy, I’m saying a lot of things I’m not comfortable stating as certain fact, but in the interest of the discussion…

    Parker, do you feel the misandry is appropriately directed? I see it, but I think Harrower is making a comment on how the mother is the cause of so many of Alice’s hatred toward her brothers and husbands (not her father, I don’t think).

  20. Parker February 2, 2015 at 1:37 am

    Trevor, you make an excellent point. I suppose a psychologist would say that Alice’s obvious misandry was the result of a sense of inferiority inculcated in her at a very early age. And the story seems to give that view credence. It also makes clear that the mother is the prime suspect in that regard– continually praising and catering to the two boys, while diminishing Alice in her eyes and in the eyes of those around her. In the third paragraph the narrator (Harrower) leaves no doubt about where to cast blame : “Could one terribly good girl (Alice) ever, in her mother’s eyes, equal one boy? The answer was no.” What’s more, if anything went wrong in the household “it was all, all Alice’s fault…. Visitors learned to praise the boys, not Alice.”

    There’s no defending the mother’s behavior, in my view. Her “irrational. raucous, bony, quick-tempered, and noisy” (one is tempted to add “masculine”) behavior is no doubt an attempt to conform to the norms of a society that traditionally devalued feminine attributes. In that light, Alice’s behavior can be seen as an heroic confronting of issues her mother avoided– and her growing misandry, if not exactly endearing, at least understandable.

  21. henry February 2, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    This story felt empty to me. As some others said, for me, it also failed to come to life. I read this to my wife (a ritual of ours). One of her unsolicited responses was, “It’s a storyline we’ve heard before. It’s nothing new”. There didn’t seem to be much going on. I got that we were being given a representation of a girl who yearned for her mother’s love, a love that was apparently untouchable or unobtainable. But this didn’t feel like nearly enough, and I was expecting something more as some others have indicated. More than that however, what left me cold, was an overall flatness. I think this was partly derived from the “show, don’t tell” rule violation despite the fact that I agree not every writer need to stick to that rule at all times. The story almost felt like a fairy tale, albeit a dark one, being told. A fairy tale lacking proper development and the necessary tweaks to bring the tale to life.

  22. lotusgreen February 2, 2015 at 2:35 pm

    I feel like I’m talking too much, but I’m jazzed! So please forgive me! Trevor–what you said is so interesting to me. I wonder if the very thing that attracts you to some of these stories is the exact thing that turns me away from much of “modern form” fiction. This is not the first time I’ve felt this, not even here. I think I might have complained about Coover in much the same way. It’s amazing the ease with which you’ve codified this difference. It will be interesting to follow.

    Parker, you’ve shown light onto something else interesting. Alice’s mother is probably behaving just as her mother did to her; she dis-values the “female virtues” not only in Alice but in herself as well. Self-hatred is always the hardest thing to contradict.

  23. Trevor Berrett February 2, 2015 at 11:59 pm

    Well, with Henry popping in, I’m feeling very much in the minority! But, folks, if you want to see a story that, for me, violates the show-don’t-tell rule because it hasn’t got much else to say other than what’s on its surface, see the current story — or, excerpt — from Toni Morrison: “Sweetness.”

    But, Lily, I love modern fiction. I am not a huge fan of post-model, though I studied it a lot and have at least grown to appreciate it. Some of it, of course, I love. But my heart has, for as long as I can remember, been in modern fiction and the forms of experimentation going on there.

  24. Roger February 3, 2015 at 12:43 am

    I wouldn’t deny the talent on display in Harrower’s exposition. But what left me so disappointed was the absence of a character or plot I could care about. Alice’s mother treats her cruelly and as a consequence she is emotionally anesthetized for almost her entire life, feeling her own absence of feeling but not much else. The closest she comes to experiencing emotion is pity, but it is self-pity, based directly or indirectly on her inability to gain mom’s approval. Even her hatred of her brothers lacked authenticity: really, it was displaced anger toward her mother. (Okay, so that makes for two emotions: self-pity and anger, both derived from the scar her cartoonishly cruel mother keeps picking.) When the main character is this flat and remains so until a very tardy and anti-climatic epiphany, as a reader I’m left with that empty feeling you get when you hoped for life on the page but ended up with melodrama, albeit eloquently delivered at times.

    I am pleased to learn this story was written no more recently than 1971. Otherwise, I would feel obliged to rant that too many writers these days value style and tone at the expense of dramatic substance. Then again, the New Yorker did choose to publish it in 2015….

  25. Trevor Berrett February 3, 2015 at 1:00 am

    Et tu, Roger?

  26. lotusgreen February 3, 2015 at 1:28 am

    “skritch, skritch, skritch” — a little scratching behind Trevor’s ears (that’s what I do to soothe my cat, anyway). I’m very unsure where I was misunderstood, Trevor. I just used the phrase “modern form” — made up on the spot — because I’m just not really sure what to call it. but I think we’re saying the same thing. I think you’ve defined the very thing about “modern fiction” that you love and I don’t, which I find very interesting and very helpful.

    I wish I could remember the names of all the writers, popular bright lights, whose work I’ve hated, with many of the same complaints, but I can’t. But maybe if you listed your favorites the list would be the same. And yet you’ve given me a whole different perspective on that difference. I’ve always felt that “these people can’t write and everyone has been duped trying to be hip.” I can’t imagine thinking such a thing about you, though, so I’ve had to reconsider my preconceptions, and I greatly appreciate that.

  27. henry February 3, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    Trevor I agree wholly with you on “Sweetness” in that it was more guilty than “Alice” in violating the “rule”. And it missed in more ways than “Alice” did, but I’ll reserve comment for the “Sweetness” comment board.

  28. Rich Persoff February 6, 2015 at 9:48 am

    Where is the plot, the movement, the arc of character development in this story? Nothing “happens”.

    For me, Harrower does little beyond portraying the desperate emptiness of Alice’s life (and that of her “significant others” [irony intended] — which I’ve seen reflected in other Australian stories about that era: the sense that nothing of importance was happening, or would ever happen, here and now, that ‘attention would not be paid’.
    Lotusgreen observes correctly: the unfair preference for boys and last-born has been acted out innumerable times in many cultures. Does this contemptuous familiarity make it any less crushing socially, or when personally experienced? Taken further, I cannot imagine the psychic maiming of knowing that some cultures routinely leave ones’ fellow females out to die like unwanted kittens — talk about survivor guilt?!
    I thank Ms. Harrower for the most illuminating, satisfying, and honest story I’ve seen in the NY for years, and look forward to reading more!

  29. Sean H February 13, 2015 at 1:25 am

    It’s one of those stories redeemed by a well-done ending. I have no problem with “telling” instead of “showing.” We don’t need to fetishize craft and there are plenty of writers who occasionally or regularly “tell” (from David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers to Renata Adler to, heck, all the way back to Laurence Sterne) but my issue with this story is that it seemed very much of a period, and also very much in the style of Joyce Carol Oates. The uptick at the end inverts the Oatesian miserablism route in an invigorating way. It’s not the greatest short story of all-time or anything, but as someone who hadn’t read Harrower before I was pleased with her work and interested to see what else she’s got up her fictional sleeve. If anything, the end works so well precisely because the story is so largely “told” and then the use of present imagery at the end (the girl walking up to Alice’s house in the wedding dress) makes the “show” at the end a reveal which ties together form and function in a really clever, almost revelatory way.

  30. henry February 13, 2015 at 3:16 am

    Sean H. ….Funny you should mention Joyce Carol Oates. Reminded me immediately of a short story by her, “The Girl with the Blackened Eye” I think it is. Somehow it feels parallel to “Alice” in my imagination. Maybe in tone. The title of the collection that Oates’ story appears in is called, “I Am No One You Know”. The female protagonist, Alice, from Harrower, and the one in the story by Oates both can seem, in my mind at least, to fall into that category defined as “No Man’s (or should I say “Woman’s”) Land”. Granted the story by Oates is about a girl abducted by a serial killer yet there is a common subjugation of their existence, a denial, that cloaks both main characters in each story. Excuse please my going off on a bit of a tangent, but maybe it’s not coincidence you mention the congruence of styles, and that story by Oates came to my mind when you did.

  31. Ken February 14, 2015 at 4:20 pm

    I chime in late having been catching up with New Yorker stories the past week. I wanted to say that I’m a bit surprised about the “showing not telling” rule because I’d never heard much about it. I have an academic background but in cinema studies which involves a lot of theory and criticism but not too much of literature. Interestingly, though, the showing/telling thing is also highlighted in Screenwriting courses. To me, it seems appropriate in a script for a film (yet even exceptions exist with good movies by Godard or Wes Anderson who both love narration and “telling”), less important in a novel. I don’t think Proust would fare too well in this light nor Henry James. I liked this story a lot and was captivated by the language, the mystery, and the tone and felt quite satisfied with what was on offer.

  32. lotusgreen February 14, 2015 at 8:04 pm

    Let me just say, I don’t go around checking for “showing” or “telling” when I read something. Nor do I pursue the other “rule” I’ve found to hold true, the the more specific that “showing” is, the more universal the “showing” becomes. I don’t remember learning them anywhere, nor do I think I used them myself in the fifteen+ years I was the editor of a literary magazine.

    Here, though, I want to be responsible for my words and my reactions. It’s not enough to not like a story; I need to see if I can figure out why that is. In this case, the show/tell thing is what I came up with. And I agree — no rule is hard and fast; though Hemingway said, “Show the readers everything, tell them nothing,” he probably sought distance from his readers himself now and again.

    A story is successful, in my experience, when I read about a character, not a caricature; and the surrounding must not be caricature either. If it’s flat, as when the protagonist is, it’s flat. It may be amusing, and amusing is a good enough reason for a story to exist, but to me, literature must go further than that to be considered as such.

    Pat Holt was the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle’s Books section for many years. On her current blog, she says this:

    >>Try this from Faye Kellerman in Street Dreams:

    “[Louise’s] features were regular, and once she had been pretty. Now she was handsome in her black skirt, suit, and crisp, white blouse.”

    Well, that’s it for Louise, poor thing. Can you see the character in front of you? A previous sentence tells us that Louise has “blunt-cut hair” framing an “oval face,” which helps, but not much – millions of women have a face like that. What makes Louise distinctive? Again, we may think we know what Kellerman means by “pretty” and “handsome” (good luck), but the inexcusable word here is “regular,” as in “her features were regular.” What *are* “regular” features?

    The difference between telling and showing usually boils down to the physical senses. Visual, aural aromatic words take us out of our skin and place us in the scene you’ve created. In conventional narrative it’s fine to use a “to be” word to talk us into the distinctive word, such as “wandered” in this brief, easily imagined sentence by John Steinbeck in East of Eden. “His eyes were very blue, and when he was tired, one of them wandered outward a little.” We don’t care if he is “handsome” or “regular.”

    Granted, context is everything, as writing experts say, and certainly that’s true of the sweltering West African heat in Graham Greene’s The Heart of the Matter: “Her face had the ivory tinge of atabrine; her hair which had once been the color of bottled honey was dark and stringy with sweat.” Except for “atabrine” (a medicine for malaria), the words aren’t all that distinctive, but they quietly do the job – they don’t tell us; they show us.

    Commercial novels sometimes abound with the most revealing examples of this problem. The boss in Linda Lael Miller’s Don’t Look Now is “drop-dead gorgeous”; a former boyfriend is “seriously fine to look at: 35, half Irish and half Hispanic, his hair almost black, his eyes brown.” A friend, Betsy, is “a gorgeous, leggy blonde, thin as a model.” Careful of that word “gorgeous” – used too many times, it might lose its meaning. <<

    I like reading mysteries, and I'll tell you — this type of writing gets me to close many more books than how many I do end up reading.

  33. leigh February 26, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    Alice knew. She was different.

    Commentators here seem to like Trevor and AliceMunro. This story fits.

  34. Madwomanintheattic March 5, 2015 at 12:46 am

    For me this story, which I did not like, had an odd rhetorical tic that sounded like repetitive whining, but in a dry Australian-cum-Scottish voice rather than a richly furnished aggrieved plaint to break my heart. The luminous and transformative ending (which we were both shown AND told) was way too brief a to make up for that long, tedious saga.

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