“Show Don’t Tell”
by Curtis Sittenfeld
from the June 5 & 12, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

It’s time for the summer fiction issue, featuring three stories: “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest,” by Sherman Alexie (here); “Crossing the River No Name,” by Will Makin (here); and “Show Don’t Tell,” by Curtis Sittenfeld.

This post and comment thread are focused on Curtis Sittenfeld’s “Show Don’t Tell.” Sittenfeld’s work has appeared relatively often in The New Yorker over the past few months. Tthis is her third since last August, and the last two (“The Prairie Wive” here, and “Gender Studies” here) inspired some great conversations in the comments. Did someone in those comments call her out for “show don’t tell” techniques? If so, hopefully this isn’t some revenge against that commenter.

I’m curious to see where he goes with this one and am looking forward to your thoughts below!

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By |2017-06-16T21:50:11+00:00May 29th, 2017|Categories: Curtis Sittenfeld, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. Rai June 1, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    I enjoyed Sittenfeld’s last two stories – and this one even more so. It’s the protagonist’s inner world, the honesty with which it is shared with the reader, that did it for me. She creates a character that is not immediately likeable, who is flawed, yet there is something admirable in her and I am rooting for her – not necessarily to win the Peaslee but to locate that thing – a sense of identity perhaps – that she is feeling her way towards. Ruth is not entirely sure of herself – my favourite line: “but the beer bit made me uncomfortable in ways it would take between two days and twelve years to pinpoint.” – but I get the sense that her inner resilience grows with the story. Also enjoyed the portrayal of gender dynamics both external and internal.

  2. Roger June 1, 2017 at 10:05 pm

    I really enjoyed this, as well as Rai’s insightful comments. To which I will add that I found this story to be funny, satirical, but more than that because it has a heart, especially in that last scene, with the hug from the middle-aged neighbor.

  3. William June 7, 2017 at 5:35 pm

    I enjoyed this story, it read very smoothly. There was definitely a light touch, even though the events were serious to the narrator and her fellow-students. Curt is definitely a skilled writer. I liked the way she just dropped in this locator – “It was 1998 and I was 25.”

    I admired the mix of tones that she handled so well – gently mocking her younger self while acknowledging the serious insights she had and maintaining the narrator’s stance of a mature, more knowledgeable person.

    Also, waiting for your fellowship is not a world shaking anxiety, it’s strictly FWP. Yet she shows (not tells) how important it is to the people involved. Everything happens above this layer of anxiety about the fellowships.

    Some humorous lines:

    “Graduate school was when I discussed fiction the most and read it the least.” Yet even here she respects her younger self by saying she was a pupa becoming herself.

    “I wanted to have torrid affairs with hot guys my own age.”

    The scene where she delivers a 17-minute critique of Doug’s story while he’s laying on top of her preparatory to having sex is hilarious.

    When she corrects his use of the word “fester” and he says, “Don’t workshop me.” And she says, “Being deeply upset didn’t preclude my remarking on his syntax.” All of those grad writing school quirks.

    “How can someone who came inside me sign his critiques ‘Best’?”

    “program-sponsored cheese”

    All of the talk about blowjobs, especially when she gets the Peaslee and thinks: “I’d probably never give Bhadveer a blow job.”

    Use of the phrase “Girl-woman”.

    Her books being read by students’ mothers recovering from knee surgery. Again, mixed with a serious insight – “eventually I stopped seeing women as inherently ridiculous.” Not a big deal, no extensive explanation, just a statement.

    And her serious moments: “I wondered a lot if charisma correlated with talent.”

    The one Rai cited about reacting to the cult writer needing a beer.

    And when she was driving the cult writer home and he says don’t ever stop believing that you are a good writer. And when he reveals that he still has so many needs, even though he’s famous.

    And her two big insights:

    “Here it was understood that work took precedence over everything else. This is the lesson of graduate school I am most grateful for.”

    “You can say whether people have published books. But you don’t get to say whether they’re writers.”

    I wasn’t so sure about the ending – too epiphanic? too Iowa Writers Workshop? On rereading I noticed that she had to interrupt the flow of the story to end it with Lorraine hugging her. Also, Lorraine’s daughter dying of anorexia was gratuitous to the theme of the story. It was put in to create sentiment. I wonder if the story could have ended with her insight about who’s actually a writer: “- of course they’re writers.” I wonder if there was a version of the story where it did end there.

  4. David June 7, 2017 at 6:56 pm

    William, you mentioned two of the things that bugged me most about this story. The first is the sentence “It was 1998 and I was 25.” It’s a perfect example of telling rather than showing, but what makes it worse is how unnecessary it was. I had already figured out it was later twentieth century by the fact that the scholarship news came by snail mail and the amount of the award. Her age is also pretty clearly indicated by her being in grad school and comments she makes about the ages of others. To me that sentence was very clunky writing.
    .
    The second is the use of the word “syntax”. Is it really possible that Sittenfeld and whoever edited this story for the magazine don’t know what the word “syntax” means? Because objecting to the word “fester” because of its meaning is not an issue of syntax. I considered that maybe the word is used wrong intentionally to indicate that the character isn’t as smart as she thinks she is, but that does not fit the rest of the story given that she wins the big award and goes on to be a very successful writer.
    .
    Those might seem like nitpicky comments, and I would agree to some extent they are, but they are only a couple of examples of many times when I paused and thought “WTF? Really?” while reading the story. Even that bit about “you don’t get to say whether they’re writers” is silly. It would be fine if she were talking about how you can’t say someone isn’t a writer just because their work isn’t being published, but she makes the comment about people who have stopped writing. It comes off looking too self-congratulatory – as if being a “writer” is a magical kind of person you are whether you ever actually write or not.
    .
    I could go on. The group hug was just odd and did not seem to serve any purpose (in the interview she says that is what the story started with, so I suppose it made the final cut just because it was there at the start, not because it fit). The relationship with the neighbour was weird and then just got sentimental. Anyway, I’ll stop there. Sittenfeld’s previous two stories for The New Yorker were worse, so this is a step forward. But it’s still not very good.

  5. William June 8, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    a propos Curtis Sittenfield — watching the news on the Comey testimony, I see that a woman reporter on MSNBC is named Kasie.

  6. Diana June 10, 2017 at 8:18 am

    I wish I could better explain (to myself!) what it is about Curtis Sittenfeld’s writing that is often so unsatisfying. This story is a another perfect example of my problem with her writing. She’s very workman-like (workwoman-like?) so her stories are well-constructed which, for me, means the pace and interest level of the “plot” are sufficient to ensure I finish the story (which is why I’ve read 2 of her novels and 3 of her short stories in the NYer.) But I never end up caring even minimally about her characters, identifying with some aspect of them or their lives, or saying to myself “I know this person!” because they never come alive on the page in any meaningful way. (In fact all of her female protagonists are the same person, differentiated only by locale, family situation, profession.) Here, Sittenfeld gives Ruthie a sprinkle of insights and retrospective “deep” thoughts, that never seem jell into a character of any depth – rather they are just an accumulation of jargon – in this instance grad school jargon, writing program jargon, 25 year old female lifestyle jargon – a facsimile. (In other stories, suburban mom jargon.) To use an analogy, her characters are like people one comes across sometimes in a social setting – I don’t know them – they’re friendly, talkative to the point of going on and on, not on my wavelength tho they seem to think everything they say is mutually agreed upon by the company they find themselves with. So as a result they eventually start getting a little tedious. The difference between that person and Ruthie is that, in real life, one sometimes has the opportunity/option to get to know what lies beneath the persona. But in a short story the option to get to know and understand the character is either there on the page or it’s not. It’s never there (for me) in Sittenfeld’s writing. Of course I realize this must be the hardest task a writer faces, but’s at the heart of what makes a short story a gem.

  7. Greg June 10, 2017 at 8:48 pm

    Rai – Your post was perfectly succinct; thank you for sharing how this story touched you. And your internal/external emphasis is apt.

    William – Your expert quote selection has allowed me to enjoy the story all over again! My favourite is this:

    “How can someone who came inside me sign his critiques ‘Best’?”

    David and Diana – Even though I enjoyed the piece, your critical views have taught me to be more judicious in my assessments…..sometimes I forget to “take off the blinders”.

  8. William June 11, 2017 at 11:43 pm

    David –

    You first object to this:

    “It was 1998 and I was 25.” It’s a perfect example of telling rather than showing, but what makes it worse is how unnecessary it was”.

    I disagree. I don’t think Sittenfeld meant this as information. I think it was intended to give weight to the ensuing material and to emphasize context. It’s as though she was saying, “You have to understand that this happened many years ago when I was quite young.”

    Next you say:

    “The second is the use of the word “syntax”. Is it really possible that Sittenfeld and whoever edited this story for the magazine don’t know what the word “syntax” means?”

    It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? So why might that misuse of the word be in there? It occurs in a self-mocking sentence, so perhaps she was making fun of her younger self’s pretensions to special knowledge.

    Also:

    “Even that bit about “you don’t get to say whether they’re writers” is silly. It would be fine if she were talking about how you can’t say someone isn’t a writer just because their work isn’t being published, but she makes the comment about people who have stopped writing. It comes off looking too self-congratulatory – as if being a “writer” is a magical kind of person you are whether you ever actually write or not.”

    No, David, it’s not silly. It’s one thing for you to object to something from your broad literary and knowledge base; it’s quite another when you object to something from a lack of experience and a lack of understanding. In two weeks I am going to take an intensive one-week course called “Reading As A Writer”. As you might expect, the primary text is Francine Prose’s book of a similar name. The subtitle of Prose’s book is: “A guide for people who love books and those who want to write them.” I’ve done some short story writing, though I can’t say I have ever finished a satisfactory story. Certainly I wouldn’t call myself a writer. Yet I believe that I read from the viewpoint of someone who has tried to craft fiction. I don’t feel that I am being self-congratulatory, nor do I regard myself as a magical kind of person. I just believe that there is a particular way of reading that derives from having attempted to write.

    David, I admire your broad acquaintance with literature. I often find your comments insightful and I learn things from reading them. Yet, sometimes you seem so jaundiced and harsh.

    Diana –

    I admire your sharing openly this meditative reflection on why you don’t like this story (or Sittenfeld’s other work) more. However, I don’t think we are supposed to identify with fictional characters. We may, but that’s not a criterion that I rate highly in evaluating a story.

    You talk about how her characters seem similar. I don’t think that’s unique to Sittenfeld. I’m thinking of Alice Munro, how many of her stories are about either the young or the mature Alice Munro. I don’t think that’s avoidable. T.C. Boyle often writes about a 30-something grad student.

    You also write:

    “But in a short story the option to get to know and understand the character is either there on the page or it’s not. It’s never there (for me) in Sittenfeld’s writing.”

    Personally, I don’t think we can get to know a character deeply in a short story. Obviously you feel differently. Can you give us a couple of examples?

  9. William June 12, 2017 at 12:52 pm

    While I was sleeping (my best thinking time) I came up with an emotionally neutral analogy that might explain the notion of being a writer without actually writing. Think of a person who played a sport, let’s say soccer, through college, but wasn’t good enough to go to the pros. When that person watches a soccer game, he/she will have a more perceptive appreciation of the play than I would.

  10. David June 12, 2017 at 2:13 pm

    William, I don’t want to fall into a pedantic rabbit hole on this, but you have missed the point here in a way that actually supports what I was saying. Let’s look again at exactly what happens in the story. When Ruth and Bhadveer meet, he mentions that only they and Grant (the misogynist filmmaker) have become successful. Then Ruth mentions Harold and Marcy, who are being published but with little success. Then we get this:
    .
    “Think about it,” Bhadveer said. “Jeff’s not a writer. Dorothy’s not a writer. Your boy Doug’s not a writer. Aisha’s not a writer.”
    .
    Clearly what he means by “not a writer” is someone who is not writing. He uses the phrase the same way anyone would about someone who has switched jobs. “I used to be a carpenter, but I’m not a carpenter anymore. Now I drive a bus.” But Ruth objects to this and says to us, “you don’t get to say whether they’re writers” Then she adds that some of them might be working on something we don’t know about. Fair enough. They might be writing and we don’t know, but that just means we can be wrong when we say “not a writer”, not that we are not allowed to define what counts as a writer. She adds, “some of them probably haven’t written fiction for years and might never again. But the way they inhabit the world, the way they observe it—of course they’re writers.” Really? Even if they only tried writing briefly and gave it up because they were terrible at it? Just because someone tried to be a writer once does not mean that they have some (dare I say it again) magical idea of how writers see and live in the world. Some people have no talent for writing and so they stop trying. Some don’t stop trying even though it’s always bad. Do those people all count as people who have this special and unique way of seeing and living in the world? Utter nonsense.
    .
    Ruth clearly means “is a writer” as a phrase that means “has a special and unique way of living in and looking at the world”. So I guess a shitty writer who lacks this perspective, but persists in producing writing does not count in her books as a writer at all. This means someone who, to use your example, was a hopeless soccer player not just years ago, but who still plays pick-up games today and is just as hopelessly bad at it does not even count as a soccer player for her. That’s the self-congratulatory and pretentious part of it all. And it is made all the worse by her seeming to say that we can never tell if someone has this unique way of seeing and being, so we are never allowed to say “not a writer” about anyone. If someone who does not work as a writer and never has, and in fact has never even tried to write declares “I am a writer” she thinks we are not allowed to say “no you’re not.”
    .
    She wants the phrase “is a writer” to say something about how people see and live in the world, not something about what they actually do (ie; writing). You are never allowed, according to her, to say that some other person lacks that quality. That’s just obnoxious.

  11. William June 12, 2017 at 7:22 pm

    David —

    I disagree with you on all counts. I think that you are the one who has missed the point. You are distorting and misrepresenting what Ruth says. She doesn’t say that all ex-writers, including shitty ones, are still writers in the broader sense. Nor does she say that all people who once wrote have the mindset or viewpoint of a writer.I agree with you that “Just because someone tried to be a writer once does not mean that they have some (dare I say it again) magical idea of how writers see and live in the world.” (With the exception of that word “magical.) Ruth just says that no one from the outside gets to say which ones are writers, meaning that they look at the world from a writer’s viewpoint. I would bet that your ex-carpenter who is now driving a bus looks at a construction project in a different way than you and I would.

    You ask — ” Do those people all count as people who have this special and unique way of seeing and living in the world?” No, of course not. And Ruth doesn’t say that. She just says that we can’t tell which ones still think like writers. You have to be awfully obtuse not to see this simple point.

    Finally, you insist on using the word magic, despite my saying that I feel that I read like a writer, and that I don’t consider myself magical. But if you want to say that I, and all the other people who are going to take the course that I have signed up for, are pretentious and obnoxious, that’s your privilege.

    That’s all I’m going to say. I’m done with this exchange.

  12. David June 12, 2017 at 9:33 pm

    William, the best case scenario is that Ruth is guilty of a non sequitur. Let us suppose you are right that people who once played soccer look at the world differently than people who have never played and people who were once carpenters look at the world in another different way and people who once wrote look in the world another different way – that everyone looks at the world in different ways based on what they have done in the past. If that’s all she’s saying then her objection to Bhadveer completely misses his point. He was merely talking about who among their peer group from school were still writing and how many of them had had success and how that compared to who had won Peaslees. None of that has anything to do with her response.
    .
    But there still is that pesky claim that we are not allowed to say someone isn’t a writer. Imagine you meet a guy at a party and as you are talking about something he say, “Well, as a writer here’s how I see that.” He then goes on to explain his perspective. Some time later a woman who knows him well says to you, “actually, he only wrote bad poetry twenty years ago and has never even tried writing since, so he’s not really a writer,” would you say, “No. You don’t get to say who is a writer”? Or would you more likely think that the guy was a pretentious fool? I know my answer.

  13. William June 12, 2017 at 9:42 pm

    I know my answer too.

  14. Diana June 13, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    William, in response to your question, two stories/ characters jump immediately to mind. Marie in Clean, Cleaner Cleanest (I may not have done Sittenfeld a favor by reading the two recent stories back to back.) and Alice Munro’s Juliet in the beautiful trilogy of stories “Chance” “Soon” and “Silence” published in the NYer a while back (that admittedly runs to 80? pages, but still, not a novel.)

    The techniques for revealing the characters’ depths are quite different in the two stories. Juliet’s daughter has purposely eliminated her daughter from her life and the mother has no idea why altho she posits many possible reasons. We know more about Juliet than she does about herself. She doesn’t seem to recognize the inner dynamic that connect her rejection of her own mother to her own daughters rejection. Though educated, she doesn’t have much insight about herself. There’s a beautiful passage (in I believe the second story) when she’s comes back to her mother’s house during her mom’s final illness. She finds some papers related to the Greek language/doctoral work which she loved but eventually abandoned to marry. “This is what happens. You put it away for a little while, and now and again you look in the closet for something else and you remember, and you think soon. Then it becomes something that is just there, in the closet, and other things get crowded in front of it and on top of it and finally you don’t think about it at all. The thing that was your bright treasure. You don’t think about it. A loss you could not contemplate at one time, and now it becomes something you can barely remember.” At this point in the story she isn’t estranged from her daughter. She is thinking about Greek and her work, but we, the reader have already seen it’s an operative dynamic in her life. Juliet never manages to understand her daughters silence. She instead chooses to resign herself. Nor does Juliet try to contact her but opts instead to learn to live with her silence in peace. But we are sad for her because we see it is a half life. In many small touches, Juliet is so real a character that we know her well enough to see, accept and understand her blind spots because this is who she is; because though we are not Juliet, we all have our own blind spots, ones that cause us pain we don’t understand, obvious to everyone but not to oneself. In an earlier comment I said “identify with” not really a good choice of words. This is closer to what I meant by that. But it’s unfair to compare Curtis Sittenfeld with Alice Munro regardless of whatever postion one takes on CS’s skill or lack thereof in creating a character. I find her characters, insights and dialogue (in particular!) very clichéd. She can construct a story that moves forward nicely though.

    I’ve already talked about Marie in an earlier comments but wanted to note here that it’s the opposite situation/dynamic that occurs with Marie, but with the same result. Here it is we, the readers, who have the blind spot – almost an unconscious and culturally engendered bias to disregard Marie’s value. But I thought Alexie skillfully, with telling small details and incidents, and with neither hipness nor sentimentality opens our eyes to the richness and value of Marie’s life.

    I realize this is a digressive response to your question, with no textual references to support my thesis so to speak, and I haven’t read the Munro stories recently. And mostly because in the final analysis I agree with Cicero who said “De gustibus non est disputandum” What we respond to, what resonates, is finally a matter of taste.

  15. Dennis Lang June 13, 2017 at 2:16 pm

    The perfect movie role for Greta Gerwig as Ruthie, directed by Whit Stillman!

    Funny, insightful, totally engaging….

    I think Ms. Sittenfeld continues to lead the Mookse with comments generated for her “New Yorker” pieces. If this means anything I have no idea.

  16. Greg June 13, 2017 at 6:47 pm

    William – I look forward to hearing all about how your course went!

  17. William June 14, 2017 at 9:38 pm

    Greg —

    I’ll let you know.

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