Friday, February 13, 2009

Craft: They Don't Write Like They Used To

Lately, I've been revisiting some of the classics in the form of audiobooks. By way of background, being a slow reader I hate to "waste" time re-reading books when I could be spending time with something new. However, I've found that listening to books on my iPod helps me to sleep at night––kind of like a bedtime story. Only it has to be something where I already know the plot and the ending. Otherwise I'd stay awake so as not to miss anything. So the logical solution was to purchase some of the classics from I set my sleep timer for 15 minute intervals, and since I'll fall asleep at different points in the story–-and often turn it on again if I wake during the night––I can listen to the same book several times over and, as I'm not listening for story line, I can concentrate more on the writing and the style.

Which brings me, finally, to why I am posting about this on a writing blog rather than a health blog. The writing style of these books is vastly different than what is being written today. The language is definitely more "flowery" almost "baroque" for lack of a better word. Why is it that any writer worth her salt has read and probably appreciates at least certain of these classic novels like Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Ethan Fromme, Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, yet, if anyone wrote in that style today, they'd be laughed out of the business? Why is it that we see those styles as too old fashioned to use, but still wonderful to read?

I can understand certain aspects of these classics being outdated in our modern times, for example, the way authors like Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte often manufacture misunderstandings by having their characters take three pages to get to the point. Or the way Thomas Hardy will go into great detail explaining the architecture of the chapel where the ill-fated lovers are supposed to meet. I can only think when books were one of the few ways to fill leisure time, readers liked to have the stories drawn out so they would last longer. Now we want our books to "cut to the chase."

What I do wish we could see more of now, though, is that wonderful third person omniscient POV and that rich language that created such marvelous images. Try as I might, I can't think of one book I've read that was written since World War II, by an American at least, that creates the same atmosphere as a Wuthering Heights. When I read that book as a teen, I had never visited the English moors and knew nothing about them, yet I could see Cathy and Heathcliffe riding across the barren landscape and the dark, cold, crumbling manor houses they lived in.

This may sound odd from someone whose first inspriration was Ernest Hemingway. It was probably junior year in high school before we were ever assigned anything more recent than A Tale of Two Cities, and by that time I was tired of what seemed like overly wordy old-fashioned writing. Eventually, though, I came to realize how a minimalist style can restrict subject matter. I can't imagine the opulence of The Gilded Age told in anything but the long opulent sentences of Edith Wharton. And certainly Poe's over-the-top language was a perfect match for his over-the-top themes. Pare down the language and they could seem downright silly.

That's not to say I'd like everything I read written with such flourish. That would be a little like eating too much rich food, but a rich treat is an appreciated indulgence from time to time, and I'd enjoy the opportunity, now and again, to read and write the long opulent sentences that worked so well in those classic novels of old.


Kathryn Magendie said...

I put a link to your story from SV on the blog today....couldn't remember if I'd done that before....

now, on to read your post....

Kathryn Magendie said...

by the way - I nominated you on "famous blogs" for a blog of the day award.

ooh the word verification has a word that would make a great name for a characther: zathen

sapheyerblu said...

I was never really into the classics until I read The Scarlet Letter in high school. After that, I went back and re-read several of them and have to agree that it was a lot more flowery.

The thing to remember is that these types of novels were the television programs of their day. However, it's just not the same watching the movie remakes of these stories, as it was reading them.

Great post, hon. I may have to get me some of those audible books as I never have time to sit down and enjoy a good book anymore. :)


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