Karen E Bender is the author of two story collections: Refund, which was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, short-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and also long-listed for the Story Prize. Her collection, The New Order, was long-listed for the Story Prize in 2018. In addition, she is the author of two novels, Like Normal People, which was a Washington Post book of the year and a Los Angeles Times bestseller, and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in magazines including The New Yorker, Granta, Ploughshares, The Yale Review, The Harvard Review, Zoetrope, Electric Literature, Guernica and others. It has been reprinted in Best American Short Stories, Best American Mystery Stories and New Stories from the South: The Year’s Best.
The winner of three Pushcart prizes, her work has been read at Selected Shorts at Symphony Space by Joanne Woodward and by Levar Burton on Levar Burton Reads. Bender has received grants from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Bender is a Visiting Writer for the MFA programme at SUNY Stony Brook and is core faculty for the Alma College MFA in creative writing. She has taught for the creative writing programmes at Hollins University, the University of Iowa, the low-residency programmes at Warren Wilson College and Antioch University, Los Angeles. Bender is the fiction editor of the literary journal Scoundrel Time.
In this exclusive interview with The News on Sunday, Bender discusses the role of clear, concrete images in a narrative, “show-don’t-tell” as a mantra at creative writing workshops, and images in stories which primarily use “telling”.
By Muhammad Sheeraz Dasti
“The aesthetic structure I strive for tries to mimic the strangeness of dreams, and to do that, the narrative needs to have clear, concrete images,” — Karen Bender.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Your fiction has a unique quality of materialising abstraction. Your short story, The Shame Exchange, does this with a number of brilliant visual metaphors, for instance, of vehicles escorting government officials, dance-like rows in the warehouse, bags of shame carried by common people, etc. Is ‘image’ in creative writing synonymous with metaphor, i.e., a way to compare within and without? Or is it something more? A way to, perhaps, create an aesthetic structure in which the narrative lives?
Karen Bender (KB): I like the idea of image as a metaphor, and I also like to think of it as a way to show experience in the structure of a dream. John Gardner says fiction should be a “vivid continuous dream,” and the most memorable dreams are about images that rise out of the subconscious in a concrete, vivid way. The aesthetic structure I strive for tries to mimic the strangeness of dreams, and to do that, the narrative needs to have clear, concrete images. I often look to sensory detail to start a story or when I get stuck, as the sensory where we first experience the world as children.
TNS: Your highly acclaimed story, Refund, seems to have partly drawn on your lived experience in a Tribeca neighbourhood in New York. How do you rate experience or research, in comparison to pure imagination, in effectively creating a scene?
KB: The story, Refund, does draw on some real-life events – my family did live in Tribeca at the time of the 9/11 attacks, though [we] were not in NY on that date. When we returned, the destruction of the neighbourhood was so terrible and disorienting and surreal that I felt it was important to take notes to capture it, as I knew it would soon be forgotten. So as a writer, that was the task not of imagining as much, though there were imagined details and characters, too, but of noticing. When I heard someone say that a restaurant near Ground Zero was taking reservations, with fires in the rubble burning very close by, it was a detail I remembered because it seemed both admirable and awful. That the businesses continued despite the destruction was a good thing, but it also felt callous. Surreal-ness is partly about juxtapositions, and Lower Manhattan after 9/11 was about constant juxtapositions: gigantic iconic buildings now piles of rubble, people going to work under clouds of smoke, the barges carrying the rubble, carrying bones of the dead, beside the rest of the bustling city. So as a writer, my job was to try to notice and witness effectively.
TNS: Shaking its readers out of their complacency, the title story from your collection, The New Order, successfully lays bare the psychophysical vulnerabilities of teenagers, which are a part of their lives more because of a flawed and ruthlessly competitive system than anything else. Is imagistic writing the highest form of “show-don’t-tell”, which has become a mantra at creative writing workshops?
KB: Thank you for the kind words about The New Order. The idea of show-don’t-tell is definitely a workshop mantra. It includes using images to convey characters’ actions and feelings and setting, in addition to action and dialogue. It can be an effective way to help the reader participate in a scene, to be part of it the way a character is. I think that writing can include showing and telling – giving us interiority, exposition, summary, and is a way of revealing character. But image can play a role in summary, too – I tell students to use what I call “scenic moments,” which aren’t full scenes but short moments that create a clear picture in a reader’s mind. They involve a clearly drawn description and action.
TNS: What are the situations in which telling might be inevitable? Hastening the plot along, etc.?
KB: I think a great story that uses “telling” is I Stand Here Ironing by Tillie Olsen, which is mostly told in summary. The main character is a mother who has just received a call from a teacher at her daughter’s school and is worried about her daughter. We learn about her daughter’s life through summary flashbacks, but they are written in such an active way the story doesn’t feel stagnant at all; in fact, it’s full of suspense. Another story that does this well is The Circling Hand, a story/ chapter from Jamaica Kincaid’s linked stories, Annie John. Kincaid describes a young girl’s life in Antigua, describing her days with vivid details and images; the story is mostly summary, but Kincaid brings us into the narrator’s world with such precision, the story is so active and the reader is fully participating in Annie’s life.
Jane Allison has a great description of time and different plot strategies in her craft book, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. She discusses how time in a story parallels real-time in a reader’s experience in a scene, but speeds up in a summary, expands over larger amounts of time when a writer uses white space, etc.
TNS: Some creative writing experts also believe that, in some cases, mere showing becomes an objective account of what has happened in a scene. At the same time, telling can sometimes offer a subjective interpretation of a situation by a narrator or a character, which engages the readers better. Do you agree with this “internalise-don’t-externalise” view?
KB: I think that both showing and telling can be subjective, depending on how the narrator, say in first or third person, filters the action through their perceptions or judgments. It’s rare for a story to really be an objective third person, say – the one I can think of is Hills Like White Elephants by Hemingway, where the third person is very remote, really just showing the images of the rail station where the couple is talking, and following their dialogue and actions.
The interviewer is the author of the novel, Sasa, and five books of academic and literary translation. A collection of his Urdu short stories, Maati Kahay Kumhar Say is currently in press. His Lisaniyat: Aik Jame’ Ta’aruf was recently published by Oxford University Press.