Nothing is so constant as change, and writing has certainly changed over the years. Take Shakespeare’s popularity in the late sixteenth century. People trooped to his open air theatre and stood to watch men pretend to be female characters and deliver their lines in iambic pentameter. Today iambs are only studied in English class and quickly forgotten afterwards. Of course there are those who still love to go to Shakespearean theatre but those places now offer many other varieties of entertaining performances, not just the bard’s plays–a consequence of tailoring to the tastes of the audience.
In the eighteenth century Charles Dickens brought the plight of the common people to light. In this excerpt from Great Expectations, Pip explains his frustration with Joe in their meeting with Miss Havisham. “It was quite in vain for me to endeavour to make him sensible that he ought to speak to Miss Havisham. The more I made faces and gestures to him to do it, the more confidential, argumentative, and polite, he persisted in being to Me.” The language is pedantic and overdone by today’s standards but Dickens’ characters and themes are so compelling that modern readers wade through in spite of the language.
The same cannot be said for Anthony Trollope a set of whose books I bought during my Book-of-the-Month Club, library-building years back in the eighties and nineties. I cannot even remember which of Trollope’s novels I attacked first, only that it was so thick with description and wordiness that I gave up and never read another. And this from a reader who has only given up on three or four books in my whole reading life. From that time on the matched set held a lovely, showy spot on my top shelf, but never was opened again.
Not only have books changed over time but even in my lifetime magazines have become almost a different genre from the one I remember as a child. My mother would pick up the Star Weekly at Bernath’s Drug Store in Woodstock once a week, bringing it home for all of us to pore over. Greg Clark had a column which I always wanted to read. Homey, Canadian and interesting stories of fishing come to mind. Now, I don’t fish. Never have fished. Never wanted to fish. But I loved Clark’s easy-going, laconic style as did the rest of my large family, adults and children.
Today the Reader’s Digest excels in the short article, its version of one-minute sound bytes. Never assume the reader’s attention will last beyond a minute or two. Even getting readers to turn the page can be problematic. Short is the word I have heard so often on my writing road. Chapters should be only a few pages as the reader will get restless and put your book down. And last week another writer carried it even further railing against long paragraphs. For him the shorter the better. Surely this is all a product of our hurry, hurry, busy, busy world, and its proliferation of text messaging. Words have been shortened to one or two letters, vowels almost extinguished. Some say that young people are losing the ability to communicate orally since they text so much instead of telephoning their friends.
And so the writer needs to consider audience and genre when deciding on style. I read a lot of historical fiction and am happy with long chapters and paragraphs, interspersed with the odd short bits for emphasis. And, last night when I wondered aloud if my chapter was too long at fifteen pages, my writing group assured me it was not. One major topic, one chapter. I was so glad to hear that and to reaffirm that there are still those whose tastes reflect pleasure in the written word. Sharon Kay Penman, your history novels are still my favorites.