I sometimes think that “show, don’t tell” is over-rated as writing advice. As I’ve mentioned in past posts (even if I’m too distracted by the pups to search them out just now), a lot of successful, popular, published books do a lot of telling: urban fantasy novels (“So I went down to the bar run by my buddy Mac, a wendigo who reformed after he decided it was more fun to sell people craft beer than eat them.” Sometimes it seems like every character gets a couple of paragraphs of backstory on their first appearance), epic fantasy (looong info-dumps on the history of This, That and the Other Thing) and serious literary novels (lengthy internal monologues telling us about what’s really going on with the character). So it’s not necessarily fatal.
And sometimes it works well, as in the opening of The Magic Island. But then again, it’s easy to overdo—and probably much easier to turn off readers (or at least me) with telling than with showing. Two examples follow.
THE DISASTROUS MRS. WELDON: The Lives, Loves and Lawsuits of a Legendary Victorian by Brian Thompson is the biography of Georgina Weldon, whose legendary status I’m inclined to doubt. While she’s certainly a striking, flamboyant figure, the Victorians had a lot of those, and she doesn’t stand out that much from the pack, neither in her (probably) promiscuous sex life, her drive for social status or her efforts to become a successful singer, among others. Still, she’s an interesting enough individual that given my fondness for reading about Victorians, I could have enjoyed this book.
Unfortunately Thompson just cannot stop telling us what we should think of Weldon: that she’s shallow, selfish, makes bad decisions, and simply had no comprehension of how society worked, let alone how to rise in it. To a certain extent I can see that as necessary—the Victorian standards diverge enough from ours that explaining where Weldon goes wrong is probably wise—but even when it’s reasonably clear, Thompson still has to explain. And sometimes I just don’t buy his interpretation, like holding up Weldon’s vegetarianism as proof of how odd she was (I do admit to bias on that point). So the book was a slog.
WITCHES OF EAST END by Melissa de la Crus (all rights to cover with current holder) starts off with three exposition-heavy chapters explaining who the Beaumont witches are, what they look like and what their personalities are (fairly close to the TV series, except here their homeland of Asgard is the Asgard). We get more of this throughout the book, which slows the plot down to a snail’s pace, up until maybe the last quarter when things get lively.
Part of this may be (and I emphasize “may” because I’m guessing) that de la Cruz is trying for a literary, magical realism feel. That would explain the reserved style, the slow pace, the emphasis on the details of every day life in the family’s community. But if that were the case, it still wouldn’t work (even after allowing that I’m not a Serious Contemporary Literature type of reader) because the story’s a basic potboiler. We have Joanna taking a sweet little boy under her wing, Freya’s hot-and-heavy sex life, and when the book comes to life, it’s pure fantasy adventure. Literary style does not make the material any more literary. And it doesn’t make all that exposition any more interesting. And in all that exposition somehow she neglects to explain the “council” who’ve banned the Beaumonts from using magic—they’re Norse deities, who has the power to boss them around?
The TV series was actually an improvement.