Novel writing down the years

authors of a feather

authors of a feather

Do authors of a given generation tend to be analogous in their novel writing styles? To put it differently, are authors more influenced by the writing styles of their contemporaries than by those of authors past?

Those two questions give rise to an ancillary one: are today’s authors also influenced by a “keep it short, stupid” tendency in communication, exemplified by Twitter’s 140-character limitation?

Yes, yes and yes, I think. The near-extinction of “flowery” language—meaning both ornate words and the tendency to use 25 words where 14 will do—is obvious to anyone who has read books written over the span of the last couple of centuries, coming down to the present.

We live in an age where every second writer seems to do vampires and other ghoulish creatures, and in deference to that phenomenon, I present as examples extracts in this genre. The words emphasized in the extract below are “flowery”.

I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the grave-worms crawling in the folds of the flannel. I started from my sleep with horror; a cold dew covered my forehead, my teeth chattered, and every limb became convulsed: when, by the dim and yellow light of the moon, as it forced its way through the window shutters, I beheld the wretch — the miserable monster whom I had created.
– Mary Shelly, Frankenstein, published 1818

Let’s look at one more extract.

When the caleche stopped, the driver jumped down and held out his hand to assist me to alight. Again I could not but notice his prodigious strength. His hand actually seemed like a steel vice that could have crushed mine if he had chosen. Then he took my traps, and placed them on the ground beside me as I stood close to a great door, old and studded with large iron nails, and set in a projecting doorway of massive stone. I could see even in the dim light that the stone was massively carved, but that the carving had been much worn by time and weather.
– Bram Stoker, Dracula, published 1897

To me, it appears that there is less floweriness in Stoker’s novel writing than in Shelley’s: a tendency in writing that has continued to the present.

A large part of our tendency to keep it short is the declining influence of classics. I am unable to remember the last classic I read; my reading list now is composed almost entirely of contemporary authors. I suspect this is true of pretty much all authors nowadays. Part of the reason is the proliferation both in the number of authors and in the proportion of those authors who are mass word production machines, delighting in churning out 5,000 words a day or whatever. Every other human is an author and every other author is a word machine.

I must admit this, though: some authors have styles that defy definition, no matter how much you bend your medulla oblongata to the task.

the medulla oblangatoad

the medulla oblangatoad

“Vaguely, I’m aware that I’m still in my sweats, unshowered, yucky, and he’s just gloriously yummy, his pants doing that hanging from the hips thing, and what’s more, he’s here in my bedroom… Finally, my medulla oblongata recalls its purpose. I breathe….”
50 Shades of Grey, E L James

This glut of writers and twitterized written material means few people now have the patience to labor through the weightier offerings (speaking in terms of verbiage and philosophy) of Tolstoy, Austen or Poe. I am willing to take a bet that modern authors who do happen to read Tolstoy, Austen or Poe do so because they are researching something.

And so was the tendency of modern writers to be similar in their novel writing styles born. The phenomenon is helped along by editors, proofreaders and agents who want to keep it simple, stupid, or no one is going to read you. In more recent years, the advent of the digital book has contributed further to this trend, as online ebook sources carry new books and old in proportions that are biased Jim Crow-style against older authors. The older the author, the more the crow.

We also need to consider the reality of reader preference for literature that reflects contemporary spoken language. It is obvious that today’s authors would tend to write present-day language, unless they are into period pieces. It is equally obvious that present-day language would resonate more with today’s readers, especially the youth.

And yes, most of today’s youth (and an increasing number of the fuddy-duddies) are twitterized. They express their opinions in imhos, laugh in lols and post script in btws.

And what about you? Wd <3 2 read yr comments below. Will suspend my novel writing to respond.

  • BB

    Its should be brief and to the point. Who goes to read a voluminous one ?

    • venkyiyer58

      Hi, BB. Not sure if you are commenting on the post, but if you are, it is 847 words, which is, I think, reasonable for a blog post.

  • BB

    1000 words are ideal for a blog. I do not understand ,how you are coming to this odd number

    • venkyiyer58

      Hi BB. There is no such thing as “ideal” for a blog. All the advice you read about how long a blog post should be are to be taken with a pinch of salt. The truth is that a blog post should be just as long as is required to convey what you want to say – like you said in your first comment, it should be brief and to the point – something I totally agree with, because I do not like “padding” a blog post to make it long. Do you know that some of the posts on Seth Godin’s blog – one of the most successful in blogging history – are not even 150 words long? And Seth Godin makes a post a day.

  • BB

    Yes, I agree with you!

Novel writing down the years

by Venkatesh Iyer time to read: 3 min
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