Those who are … dare I say it … over fifty … might remember the way they were.
They were the classics we were assigned in school, the ones we discovered alone in the stacks of a library, the ones someone told us we should read. They were the books we could not afford to buy and thus we “borrowed” them, thousands of them.
We didn’t know they were part of history or that many of them would remain with us for decades, destined to become part of our children’s and grandchildren’s list of great books to be read.
As writers, we spend hours reading. Given my bent for mystery, I spend much of my reading time immersed in the who-done-it, thrill ride suspense, heart beating, nerve wracking world of mysteries.
But like my taste in music, my taste in reading spans the gamut from nineteenth century poetry to contemporary romance. I read from the NYT Best Seller’s list, and take note of those books featured in the NYT’s Book Review Section.
The easy read-popular fiction …
The Victorian Era (1837-1901) lasted longer than any other era in modern history. In over 63 years, it essentially changed the basic culture in England and then in the United States.
Most important for us, it transformed literature to what we have come to know as “popular fiction.”
Reflect for a moment on the classics from the nineteenth century, forward.
In 1897 Mark Twain was visiting London during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations honoring the sixtieth anniversary of Queen Victoria’s coming to the throne. “British history is two thousand years old,” Twain observed, “and yet in a good many ways the world has moved farther ahead since the Queen was born than it moved in all the rest of the two thousand put together.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature
What are the differences between popular fiction then, those such as Doyle and Dickens and popular fiction today?
What brought me to the topic of today’s post was the selection of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith for our February book club.
The new introduction, written by Anna Quindlen compares Tree to stories such as Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and other classics about girls growing up in difficult times. However, she separates Betty Smith’s story from all others because of the way Smith dealt with poverty, adversity, abuse and victory over insurmountable odds.
She also talks about the basic structure of the book … in that she felt it had none.
AS MUCH AS ANY OTHER BELOVED BOOK IN THE CANON, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn illustrates the limitations of plot description. In its nearly five hundred pages, nothing much happens. Of course that’s not really accurate: Everything that can happen in life happens, from birth and death to marriage and bigamy.
But those things happen in the slow, sure, meandering way that they happen in the slow, sure , meandering river of real existence , not as the clanking “and then” that lends itself easily to event synopsis.
If, afterwards , someone asked, “What is the book about?”— surely one of the most irritating and reductionist questions in the world for reader and writer alike— you would not say, well, it’s about the pedophile who grabs a little girl in the hall, or about the time a man went on a bender and lost his job, or about a woman who works as the janitor in a series of tenement buildings.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is not the sort of book that can be reduced to its plot line.
The best anyone can say is that it is a story about what it means to be human. Anna Quindlen
As I began to read Tree, it occurred to me that what we considered popular fiction sixty, fifty or even twenty years ago, is vastly different from our perception of the same books today.
What do our future classics have in common with the dozens of books we read as children? What would you look for in a classic novel today? Better, who do you read that you believe will stand the test of time and will still be widely read in one hundred years?
If you listen to every editor, consultant, expert, agent, guru and coach, and follow every rule, you might improve your writing … or you might lose your soul and then who cares what you write.
Betty Smith might never have found an audience for Tree in these modern times. But she stands strong in the library stacks and contained in the belly of the millions of selections on-line. She wrote one of those books we caressed, sniffed, and carried home with pride. Books that wait patiently for another generation of little girls in love with reading.
But what of the little girl who dreams of writing her story? What do we tell that little girl who knows above all else, she was meant to be a writer?
- Spark up the beginning.
- Put more tension in each chapter.
- Grab the reader by the throat and don’t let them go until THE END.
- Have a solid plot line and powerful characterizations.
- Don’t write to trends, but be mindful of what people want to read. Excuse me, but isn’t that an oxymoron?
When you read the classics pay attention to “style.” Authors used to head-hop a great deal back “then.” Agatha was notorious for jumping in and out of character’s thoughts and switching POV in mid paragraph. The POV in Wuthering Heights is so confusing, the first, second and this last time I read the book, I found myself flipping back pages. A digression: Kindle is nice, but flipping through pages to find my favorite passage or reread a certain chapter, is a whole lot more fun with an actual book.
Even today there are dozens of popular writers who employ the universal POV in their novels … Nora Roberts in romance and mystery, James Patterson in mysteries and fantasy, and in modern literature, Paulo Coelho.
What say you? Do you think the art of writing has given way to the mechanics of writing? Do we strive for individuality or do what we are told and thus become one of the proverbial sheep?
How can you protect your individuality
and still find an audience?
Do you think the quality of writing is better now or …
the way they were?
fOIS In The City
In Part Two I would like to discuss recent trends in the art vs. mechanics of writing and how they will affect that little girl.