To Tell or Not to Tell

By Greg GerkeDecember 4, 2020

To Tell or Not to Tell

I only realized I’d been looking for something over some years when I finally found it in an obscure archived page of The Washington Post from February 1985. Hugh Kenner’s review of Gilbert Sorrentino’s essay book Something Said. The two lines are tucked away in the middle:

Page after page and instance after instance, Sorrentino wrestles with the same radical misunderstanding: that fiction and poetry are valuable for what they “tell” us. To rebut that without seeming to exalt empty “style” can be the hardest expository labor in the world.

I must have needed an answer I could fit into a tweet and then brazenly not tweet, owing to a pre-internet-birthed monkish streak. Still, the answer had to be small to be sustained (and certainly pithy) and Kenner provided it — an answer to what has gone awry in literature locally and in most other English-speaking countries — films, too. The key Kenner word is surely “valuable,” and though there is no paucity of current pieces outlining how “reading makes one a better and more empathetic person,” Kenner is drilling at something that has gotten very directly conflated with our literary culture, a kind of business argo that must “sell” a book. Of course, the book business is a “business,” but the end point of the human to human transaction within reading (Kenner once wrote that the “whole point of a book is what happens in the five minutes after one has finished reading it”) is something that cannot be exploited, nor is there any algorithm that can account for it: “He read Beckett, so he is less likely to murder someone.” To parse it, Kenner seems to say we don’t need advice, we need grand style, aka “beauty” — the sight of leaves turned crimson in front of a blue sky. How different would a course of literary studies in college be if the instructor did not sidle up to the students with talk of themes, motivations, and relevance, but instead were intent on exploring what words did to someone’s soul? One might not know for many years what the worth of literature is, since its true impact is destined to occur when no one is watching. The person holding to Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and J.M. Coetzee by an invisible string is so unaware of the parabolic powers over their doings that no quick cut to the monolith (to the words of those authors) would occur during some decisive moment, as it does to the ape in 2001, who then makes a weapon out of a bone he is looking at.

Literary studies tripped up somewhere after the New Critics lasered in on the text and excluded the author’s intention and the reader’s response, a practice now so pooh-poohed with 21st Century snark-filled aplomb. This has been over-rectified and, of late, market forces have certainly had their share of influence over the epidemic sowed by professors who push their own personal political propaganda (however right or wrong they are) instead of the mellifluousness and sinuosity of one of the Bard’s most noted openings, where a person’s judgments of lust-filled lovers can sound like this:

Nay, but this dotage of our general’s
O’erflows the measure: those his goodly eyes,
That o’er the files and musters of the war
Have glow’d like plated Mars, now bend, now turn,
The office and devotion of their view
Upon a tawny front: his captain's heart,
Which in the scuffles of great fights hath burst
The buckles on his breast, reneges all temper,
And is become the bellows and the fan
To cool a gipsy’s lust.

In the background of our present follies sits “form,” a forbidding mountain that won’t go away. Also unknowingly, I’d been searching for a more modern correlation to one of Walter Pater’s famous musings in The Renaissance, the charge about how all arts aspire to the state of music — pure form. I’d needed a little more and bending the spines of many books, I just happened to reread Jorge Luis Borges’s essay “The Wall and the Books” — a writer Kenner adroitly “stole” tropes from after first reading, by writing, “I now see that I was reviewing Borges without knowing he existed.” Borges aids and abets the form over content non-argument (they are vines of the same everlasting tree), though it is so taken for granted it’s the other way around today:

Music, state of happiness, mythology, faces belabored by time, certain twilights and certain places try to tell us something, or have said something we should not have missed, or are about to say something; this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The way we experience time and such things as Bach, inner laughter, or watching those we love age — this confluence of people and art experienced — constitutes our “aesthetic phenomenon.” Art cannot be so valuable for what it tells us — we all know life is unfair — but more for what it doesn’t tell us and for making us wrought perplexed in the extreme, bristling with the breath of life, electricity, and flashes of the uncanny.


Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. A book of stories, Especially the Bad Things, was published by Splice. Zerogram Press will release a new and expanded version of See What I See in April 2021.

LARB Contributor

Greg Gerke has published See What I See (Zerogram Press, 2021), a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things (Splice, 2019), a book of stories. He edits the journal Socrates on the Beach.


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