I recently started rereading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The first time I read it was in high school, which meant I was predisposed to dislike it. Something about being forced to read books made it all the more unsavory to me. Now that I’m out of school and can read it of my own free will, I figured I’d give it another shot. I’ve had this anthology of all of Austen’s works sitting on my bookshelf for quite some time…
…so I went ahead and took a crack at it. And the first thing that struck me was that, for all I’ve talked about Showing not Telling, Jane Austen does the exact opposite. It is her style. And it works for her. This led me to wonder when the rules for writing modern fiction came to be. The problem is that I have no skills in history, research, geography, political science, or attention span. As a result, I have created this made-up history of books to explain the progression of fiction from the late something-80s to modern day. Enjoy!
The first book was written in 1587 by a Spanish man, Gabriel de Jamón. He was 27 at the time, and was writing a letter to his sister, who was vacationing in France. The only problem was that women didn’t start learning how to read until the early 1600s, so Gabriel had to accompany all the stories in his letter with pictures. The letter ended up being 39 pages long, and his sister was so caught up in the stories her brother told that she put a binding around it and loaned it out to all her friends. Thus, the first book ever written was a picture book. Since it was the first book ever, its title was simply, “El Libro,” or, “The Book.” The word “Libro” had to be invented for the sole purpose of naming this new form of arranging words and pictures in the form of a story.
The trend of writing books slowly began to spread throughout Europe. Most notably, King James of England transcribed the stories of the Bible – which had until that point been passed on orally – into written text. This is how we came to have the King James version of the Bible.
In the late 17oos and early 18oos, several British authors, such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, started coming out with works of Fiction. The word “Fiction” was not coined in the English language until around 1875, however, so the books had to be referred to as “Untruthworthy” pieces. These books contained excellent examples of prose, but lacked any real structure by today’s standards.
It wasn’t until 1904 that a young, American author by the name of Eunice Umberly produced a piece of Fiction that followed the “Show don’t Tell” structure. The people of the time found this idea to be so disturbing that Eunice was hanged two weeks after the publication of her novel; she was charged with disturbance of the peace. Several years later, a man – Thomas Thicket – published a novel that followed the exact same structure, but this time the supreme court deemed it permissible, as men were always to be trusted more than women.
With the emergence of Thicket’s writing came a veritable onslaught of new Fiction that led to the development of many of the rules that are taught in modern creative writing courses.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the history behind Show don’t Tell. Please don’t ever, ever quote me on this.
Word of the Day: Onslaught (n) – an onset, assault, or attack, especially a vigorous one.
P.S. If you found this post sexist, blame history, not me.