Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Friday, August 1, 2008

Writing styles, old and new

Earlier today, I was directed to Anita Davison, Historical Fiction Author a published author, unlike me. In her latest blog, she raised some interesting questions about style, using a book by one Elizabeth Von Arnim, who wrote The Enchanted April in 1922.

Looking through the excerpt provided by Ms. Davison, I thought to myself that I would probably have used about half that verbiage --- in that one paragraph. And even then, my critiquers probably would find "flabby" parts or words that simply don't need to be there.

I must say, for the record, that I've pretty much learned writing technique by "the seat of my pants". I've never really had any formal writing courses, and I majored in anthropology, not English literature. Which is probably why I find it a lot easier to deal with Neandertals and other prehistoric humans, or "exotic" cultures, than I do with the "nuts and bolts" of literature.

Furthermore, I can remember reading books written more or less like Mrs. Von Arnim's. Styles like this were used right up through the 1950's, though by that time there was some "editing" going on. Nowadays, though, editors probably wouldn't put up with a style like this, no matter how good the story was. The only exception might be if the person doing the writing was employing this style for "comic" effect.

Today, we're accustomed to reading "cleaner" and leaner books. This is especially true where the author is writing something "plot driven"(most genre fiction). Knowing this, I've done my best not to write "run-on" sentences(this was one of the first stylistic rules I learned). I've also learned not to use a lot of adjectives and adverbs("ly" endings), unless they are necessary, for example in describing something about a character when they first are introduced. I've also learned, more recently, that you don't have to have "he said"/"she said" tags in every conversation. Finding other ways of writing dialogue is what I've learned about the cardinal rule of "showing, not telling". Showing, rather than telling, is more likely to "grab" a contemporary reader. And I'm still learning. I probably always will.

But in a different era --- probably in a time when, as Ms. Davison points out, people had more time to read for pure pleasure, --- editors were either more forgiving of these things, or they were more likely to be looking for an interesting story told in a unique way, never mind the "style". So nowadays, the convoluted style Mrs. Von Arnim employed in The Enchanted April just seems old-fashioned. And if anyone loves Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, they will notice that he wrote in an even more convoluted style than Mrs. Von Arnim. Yet Lord of the Rings has plenty of readers. It's a wonderful story, in its way.

Still, styles, lives, and attitudes change. And what seemed "normal" for Elizabeth Von Arnim and J.R.R Tolkien, often seems "wordy" and old-fashioned today. I don't think Mrs. Von Arnim was a bad writer. And though I've read plenty of bad modern writing, I've read some quite good stuff, as well. I also think there may well be a place for some usages --- for example, an "omniscient" point of view --- which used to be commonly used, but are frowned upon in most writing now. And I tend to think(I've mentioned this elsewhere) that the creeping trend of writing a story in the present tense usually isn't even necessary, though some good writers can pull it off. I'll be talking about that more, in another post. But that's another story. I suspect that part of the reason writing has become "leaner" is simply that most people don't have the time they used to have for reading. Too many people juggle jobs, kids, household chores, to just sit down and read something. Which is quite understandable. So books get shorter and leaner, unless the writer is someone like Stephen King, who is so well known that he has a following who will read his latest.

Add to this the sheer cost of publishing a book, and the reasons for changes in writing styles become even more painfully obvious. This is not, in itself, a bad thing, but in a way, it's too bad that writers like Elizabeth Von Arnim are now considered "old-fashioned". According to Anita Davison, they're truly wonderful reads, although, being a published author, she herself doesn't read "for pelasure" any more. I do, but the way I do it is different than the way I read things before I started writing. And that's food for another blog, somewhere down the line!
Anne G

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