Saturday, June 09, 2012

Dated Writing Styles

Edna Ferber dated?


On a blog last week, someone said they were not able to read older books (a century or so older) because of the dated writing style in many of them. Some writers seem able to write books that don't suffer from that as much as others. I guess the best way to avoid becoming dated is not to rely too much on current slang, current politics, current technology, etc. This is hard to do because we are often not aware of what is strictly current and embedded in a specific time and consequently will date the book eventually.

What writers from the early 20th century and earlier hold up especially well? Now here is a case where descriptions are probably more timeless than dialog. Nothing nails down a time more than dialog.

25 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Patti - Interesting question about writing styles! Hmm.. I have to say that I notice that a lot actually (I mean writing style). I'd say that some of Wilkie Collins' and G.K. Chesterton's stuff have held up. So has Conan Doyle's. Admittedly there are -isms in them, but still, not as clunky as some of their contemporaries.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Patti, I am currently reading, online, fiction and non-fiction literature published during the 1850-to-1950 period. For instance, I have been reading some very fascinating historical texts on pre-independent India written mainly by the English who either lived in India during the occupation or were closely associated with it. These books came out of their desire to understand the country and its people. The writing style is not dated in the sense that I might not understand easily but it is old-world English where one sentence reads like a whole paragraph and where the lengthy descriptions and documentation of facts and figures, with little or no dialogue, rarely take away interest. A timeless discovery…

In terms of writing style of early writers, I remember liking ANTHONY TROLLOPE: AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY a lot. There was something magical about his prose but then you can say the same about so many writers of his time.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Prashant-does it make you at all uncomfortable to read about these nineteenth century occupiers exploiting all of Asia and Africa. I know they were trying to learn about the people to some extent, but they were also learning how to keep them in line, to get them to accept colonial rule from what I learned in history classes.
Good examples, Margot. The style is different with them but in a good way.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am particularly thinking of THINGS FALL APART by Achebe, I think.

Anonymous said...

Chinua Achebe, yes. THINGS FALL APART was published in 1958.

I'd say Conan Doyle, Dickens, Trollope and Wilkie Collins are certainly readable today, though depending on how you define it you could call all of them "dated" in some way. But then, I prefer 19th Century British to other "dated" writers.

I wonder more about early (first half?) 20th Century writers, people like Sinclair Lewis and Pearl S. Buck. It's been decades since I've read them and wonder if they are readable today. To be honest I was never all that fond of them in the first place.

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I am referring to books about colonialism (with Prashant). Sorry to switch topics there.
I liked Sinclair Lewis very much when I read him although never Buck.
I wonder about John Dos Passos.

Scott Parker said...

Edgar Rice Burroughs, even though some of his sentences read strangely, stands up well.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Good point, Patti. Yes, they did that too. However, the few books I have read so far actually detailed the Indian way of life as the English writers, many of whom worked for Her Majesty’s Government, saw them, and I believe they were sincere efforts. I have yet to read works pertaining to exploitation under British rule of which there is an awful lot out there too. I love world history and I don’t think I would enjoy reading about it if I didn’t keep an open mind.

Richard S. Wheeler said...

Jack London. His prose is universal and modern.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Rudyard Kipling, G.B. Shaw, Maugham and E.M. Forster hold up well too. Some of their books need to be back on my TBR pile.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I have not read Maugham in years and I need to correct that. I knew London would hold up. That paired down style serves writers well.
I am glad it is not offensive, Prashant. It always dismays me when I read certain passages in books like A PASSAGE TO INDIA. In one sense, these writers are bringing foreign cultures to the West that didn't know them. In another sense books like that and OUT OF AFRICA take for granted their superiority over any locals, much as we did with the Indians here.

Deb said...

There's a difference between dated writing and dated subject matter. All those "bold" and "frank" paperbacks from the 1950s where, gasp!, a woman might live with a man before marrying him or have a baby out-of-wedlock, they seem terribly dated, regardless of style, because we no longer live in a time where those things raise much of an eyebrow.

I think if you read a variety of books from a variety of eras, styles and language don't seem so dated, as long as the subject matter focuses of human interactions which are always interesting. But if the entire focus of novel is a social issue that we've moved away from, yes, it can seem extremely dated and boring.

Deb said...

I think the writing in a lot of experimental stream-of-consciousness books, written in the wake of novels like ULYSSES and MRS. DALLOWAY, seem dreadfully dated today. When it's done well, it's excellent; but when it's done as a poor imitation, it's awful.

Ron Scheer said...

I mean to talk about this subject on my blog, too, Patti. Reading early western fiction, I am often surprised by how readable it is. Obsolete idioms and slang aren't a problem, as you understand them from context.

A few things make a book dated for me: a lapse into sentimentality is one; assumptions about race and and use of racial slurs is another; writing in dialect and more frequent use of adverbs are others.

I'd say that "literary" styles go in and out of fashion more than the mainstream style of authors aiming for a broad, popular audience.

Anonymous said...

I've read Maugham's short stories in recent years and, while they are obviously period pieces, I found them quite readable. What about someone like arnold Bennett?

We've seen several of Shaw's plays and some seem quite modern.


Jeff M.

George said...

Anthony Trollope is readable and so is P.G. Wodehouse.

Charles Gramlich said...

dialogue is certainly an issue, but so is pace, and a bigger one for me. I read books from the 1800s and enjoy them, but I tend to read them slowly because the pace is so leisurely compared with modern books. This is especially true of the more literary side of writers in the 1800s,

Ron Scheer said...

OK, look for my extended comments on this subject tomorrow at Buddies in the Saddle.

Anonymous said...

I had never read BLEAK HOUSE but it was always on my TBR list, so I made a point of getting a copy and reading a certain amount (several chapters) every day. I'm glad I did. The first book I read online (as a test) was HUCKLEBERRY FINN, which worked quite well in an episodic way. And yes, Twain is as readable as ever. (I followed that with a hundred or so stories by Chekhov, by the way.)

Jeff M.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Love Chekov's stories but his plays always disappoint me.

Brian Lindenmuth said...

One of my favorite books of all time is Moby Dick (no really, it is!). I think that it probably has a dated style. I think a lot of writers today, particularly in mystery/crime fiction, strive for transparent prose (lots of journalists turned novelists) and would consider a lot of older and or different styles of fiction to be akin to purple prose. And they would be wrong to do so because in many cases we are talking about prose written in a denser style or that has layers to it.

Somewhere along the line Elmore Leonard’s famed rules of writing became carved in stone for a genre that already worshipped at the altar of transparent prose. The problem that I have with this is that “The Rulz” shouldn’t stand as the only entry point into the crime genre and the writing of crime fiction. I’m not railing against transparent prose here (or even Leonard); I’m just saying it cannot and should not be the only way.

WE should have room for passages like:

"Strange weather tonight in Bughouse Square. Both wind and smog, and a man is wind-blown in one spot and smogbound only feet away. A night for ghosts. The ghosts of old inequities, old violence, Socialists, anarchists, immigrants, hobos, madmen, eccentrics - they are everywhere. They haunt the high windows of the library across the street, looking down upon the haunted square. They grumble in the dust and smoke and shreds of newspapers that blow beneath the street lights. They crowd the park benches until they overlap their arms and legs. They lie upon the grass like corpses worked up from the graves. They become a mob that sweeps along the pavement, splintering their clubs upon the wind, breaking bricks against the smog. "Remember the Pullman Strike," they mean to shout but only whisper. "Remember Haymarket Square. Remember --" a good many things."

[Apparently my comment was too long pt. 2 below]

Brian Lindenmuth said...

Or a passage with a sentence that has hundreds of words:

"At some point Tom or Jerry began feeding the juke, and eventually Jimmy found himself slow dancing with one Nicole Braddock, dark-haired and olive-skinned, the shapely daughter of a BMW dealer in Palm Springs and who was an absolute dead ringer for Jimmy’s high school sweetheart, Jean Page — the same hair, eyes, mouth, skin — and in his arms Nicole felt like the stamp to his envelope, her head on his shoulder, Jimmy taking in thee smell of her hair as they moved, Jimmy remembering all the make-out sessions with Jean, both of them seventeen, the universe running under their skin, and every necessary truth found in tongues and fingers and the sweet ache of breath, Jimmy dancing with a COD boner, and Nicole right there, not leaning away from it, Jimmy whispering in her ear, the music pouring around them, Jimmy not hearing the bass notes, only the melody line, and with Nicole pressed tight against him, Jimmy could conveniently ignore the arithmetic of passion, the very real fact obliterated by the false dawn of six rounds of tequila sunrises that the twenty-year-old girl in his arms could technically have been his daughter if jean had run off and married him like he had asked her to instead of going along with her mom and old man’s plans for her, Jimmy following the music instead, matching his moves to Nicole’s, Jimmy leaning over and putting his lips on her neck, lightly kissing kissing her hair, tasting perfume and the warmth of her skin, Jimmy whispering that it was a beautiful night for a ride in the desert, they could catch some stars, Cassiopeia is on the rise and a new moon out there, just the two of them, Nicole shuddering under his touch and Jimmy closing his eyes, it taking him longer then he should have to realize the shudder came from her trying to stop laughing, because that’s what she was doing, laughing, even while she kept her breasts pressed against him, she was laughing, Jimmy lifting his head and looking over at the table of friends, all of them toasting Jimmy and Nicole and laughing, too, and that’s when Nicole did it, put her hand gently on his cheek and in a low breathy voice told him that he was the genuine article, a true anachronism, one a girl like her found hard to resist, Nicole keeping her eyes locked on his, letting that little purr run loose behind her words, and Jimmy could see how much she was enjoying herself, how certain she was that someone like him wouldn’t know what an anachronism was, the college girl toying with and putting one of the local yokels in his place, the whole thing a big joke, and Jimmy got pissed, leaned in and whispered, “This is your Local Color Station with a late-breaking bulletin. One day, honey-pie, you’re going to wake up and discover those firm Tahitis you’re now so proud of are sagging and chasing your navel, and you’re going to panic and look around for that young Republican you married, but he’s going to be on the seventeenth hole of of the Scottsdale Country Club wielding his nine iron and working on his second coronary, and right then, when you’re absolutely alone and up against it, you’re going to remember this dance. It’s going to ghost your bones.” Jimmy kissed her cheek, then stepped back and walked out."

So yes, writing styles can seem "dated", but I'm not fully convinced that they should. I would hope that writers and readers won't fall into a false battle between this or that and would remain open to as much as possible.

Side note: Books that are written in a more dense style are the ones that I'll just grab off the shelf and open to a random page to enjoy a passage.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, I agree. I read too many writers that write interchangeably in terms of style. The stories might vary but the author seems the same.

Richard R. said...

Yes, Maugham, also Conrad, Forester, Stevenson, many British crime and mystery writers.

Amanda C. Davis said...

Chandler and Hammett hold up amazingly well. And I have to shout-out Three Men and a Boat, which is still the funniest book I've ever read, despite being 125 years old.