‘Show Don’t Tell’ by Curtis Sittenfeld

Show Don’t Tell by Curtis Sittenfeld, 2017

The magic trick:

Providing a kind of ‘Where Are They Now?’ coda

If you’ve ever felt frustrated or regretful over the fact that you aren’t able to develop your writing talents at a workshop or graduate program, this story is the perfect antidote.

The people in this story who are developing their writing talents at a graduate program are loathsome in the most loathsome of ways. Self-absorbed and boring.

So we have this protagonist who is insecure and immature. That’s fine. But we get no growth, no lesson learned. The only sign of character development is the fact that narrator appears to be looking back on her life with two decades’ hindsight.

This allows her to drop in little nuggets like “Of the many foolish things I said in graduate school, this is the one that haunts me the most. But I didn’t regret it immediately;” and “I found the man brilliant and wrote down three of his insights, but the beer bit made me uncomfortable in ways it would take between two days and twelve years to pinpoint.”

These comments, not particularly interesting at the time, become completely pointless when they are never picked back up. They vaguely suggest themes. I guess? Writing makes for a thrilling but devastating career? Is that really what we’re talking about here? Seriously?

If that’s your story’s best attempt at character development and theme, you’ve got some real problems.

Nothing here sticks. The people, the scenes, the snarky comments. It’s all pointless. Believe me when I tell you that the only stakes were me very badly rooting against the protagonist getting a scholarship.

As for magic, we will extend that term’s definition to discuss the jump in time the narrator takes at the end, wherein she ceases talking about her experience in graduate school and gives us a kind of “Where Are They Now?” for some of the key characters. That is a nice coda to the story – assuming I cared about any of characters and assuming the coda didn’t double down on the use of skewed life observations told with an obnoxiously self-absorbed sneer. And that’s quite a trick on Sittenfeld’s part? 

The selection:

The auditorium filled, which meant that about five hundred people turned out to hear the man with the cult following, who was a graduate of the program. He was wearing an untucked shirt, baggy jeans, and beat-up hiking boots, and halfway through his reading, when he stumbled over a line he had written a decade earlier, he said, “Fuck, man, I need a drink,” and about seven minutes after that a guy from my program passed a six-pack of beer up onto the stage, and the man yanked off a can, popped it open, and guzzled. He said, “That’s the stuff,” and the audience applauded enthusiastically. I found the man brilliant and wrote down three of his insights, but the beer bit made me uncomfortable in ways it would take between two days and twelve years to pinpoint.


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