Recently, the New York Times Book Review featured two writers asked to comment on the question, “Do critics make good novelists?”
I wasn’t particularly interested in the question but was struck by two passages from novels cited by one of the responders. Both passages describe fictional characters named Daisy. In The Great Gatsby, the first view the reader gets of Daisy Buchanan is in a room where the only stationary object “was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house.” The other Daisy, from Edmund Wilson’s novel, I Thought of Daisy, is described as “interesting, attractive, amusing, and profoundly sympathetic.”
The side-by-side contrast is worth an entire how-to book on writing fiction. Of course, these are only snippets from a writer’s work and mean little about the overall work itself. And Scott Fitzgerald was one of American’s finest writers, with Gatsby considered his best novel. But I‘m not quoting these passages to argue the merits of a novel or whether critics are poor novelists. I believe these quotes vividly illustrate the well-known writers’ mantra “show, don’t tell.”
Fitzgerald’s brief description of Daisy and her friend Jordan captures in two sentences what the reader will learn about her as the novel progresses. There’s a lightness to Daisy, her character indistinct and malleable, and although the reader will find her girlishly charming, she’s also fickle, mercurial, irresponsible and yes, flighty, one of the “careless people,” described by the narrator Nick near the story’s end. The passive sentence structure “been blown back in” strongly reinforces this sense of her. As for Edmund Wilson’s Daisy, there is little to see. What does “interesting” tell us about her? That she has interesting hobbies or an interesting personal history? In what way is she attractive? Is she pretty or is it her personality that’s attractive? And what about amusing? Does she tell jokes?” Only “profoundly sympathetic” seems to give us some insight into her character.
Fiction writers don’t need to provide every detail of a character’s appearance and psychological makeup. A few telling descriptions and even actions, imaginatively rendered, may, as the old saying goes, “speak volumes.” Here’s a quote I like from Anton Chekhov: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”