They way they were-Part One …


The Brownstoner, A Brooklyn Blog

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.



Filed under Random Thoughts

24 responses to “They way they were-Part One …

  1. Florence – You raise many interesting questions in this blog. I’m not sure anyone other than those studying ‘pure’ literature will understand the meaning of the word ‘classics’ in another 20 years.
    Many of the new book list and discussions I currently read are broken down into generational influences and legacies. I’m of the opinion that some of the novels and non-fiction that will carry forward from the baby-boomer generation will be something I’m not happy to be a part of, but I’m part of that generation so will therefore own the list.
    Christi Corbet raised an interesting question regarding book reviews on her blog and somehow this subject seems all tied together for me. It’s true for me when we look at writing and the mechanics involved. Could that be the reason I haven’t had a truly good read that I swore deserved 10 or more stars in a very long time?


    • Thanks, Sheri … I think in part that “the times, they are a changin” holds true for books like music like traditions. Will the classics of 100 years ago be added to 100 years from now? Can’t say. Wish I could be there to find out 🙂


  2. What I respond to as a reader is authenticity — a hard quality to pin down, but I know it when I see it. IT is the sense that this story could be told only by this author. Chasiing trends is like writing down to children — the end result is mediocrity.


    • Lindsay, I also agree that chasing trends is like chasing one’s tail. It gets you nowhere. And though we see a ton of pulp to a pound of flesh, I wait patiently to bite into the meat of a good story 🙂


  3. ah, soul sistah, I can’t remember a book that I’ve read from page one to the end without flipping backward and forward many times.
    And why does everything have to be a high speed chase, breakneck pacing, putting your heroine out on a limb, make it worse, make it faster, makes me feel like rush hour in Manhattan. Give me a get lost in a book feeling not a page turner so gripping I couldn’t put it down. I’ve got nothing against “page turners” I enjoy them if they let me get lost in them. I don’t want to be out of breath when I finish a book, I want to be breathless.
    And might I add, e-readers are great, especially for changeable print size and for trips and for people who have trouble holding a book for long periods, and for pure convenience. But when conversations runs to, I can’t stand holding a book, they’re too heavy, holding a book is boring, irritating, so yesterday, etc.
    Reminds me of the old Star Trek episode with the brains in bowls.

    Did you hit a few of my set-me-off buttons? I guess so. Whew I feel so much better.


    • You tell it like it is, girlfriend. Yes, Shelly … those are buttons I hit daily for a couple of decades now. I love the idea of a fast paced book, but resent the idea that all mysteries need to knock my socks off … all WF needs to be so deep you can’t see the bottom of the well and of course, romance … what on earth can one say about romance that has not been written a half million times ??

      I also love my e-reader … the font is nice and large … I can travel with dozens of books that don’t weigh a pound and of course, I never have to wait for delivery.

      Nora has a futuristic series “In Death” series with the main characters of Roarke and Eve Dallas. Dallas doesn’t understand why in 2059 he bothers with real books, but he has a giant library with the ancient stuff and it baffles her that he would bother.

      Oh my … my grandchildren’s children will look back on us and laugh. In the mean time, I miss so much of the “old ways” 🙂


  4. Hi, Florence, My book club recently read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and we determined it to be a collection of short stories, not a book with an over-arching plot.

    As for are books different/better… The reader has changed. Look how we went kicking and screaming into reading older fiction. My kids did the same thing. Fortunately, some schools have turned to more contemporary fiction–but the Hunger Games isn’t the right one IMHO.

    I think the reader has changed the same way movies did. Long ago, movies had Dad leaving the house, walking down the sidewalk to the car, getting in the car, starting the car, backing down the drive. Now, we see Dad leave by the front door and drive away. The same goes for reading. There is less detail like this.

    As for a book that leaves one breathless… that has happened to me twice: A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Deveraux and Come to Grief by Dick Francis. I finished the books, sat back and went wow, and instantly, read again. But I don’t think every book can be…is…or should be like this.


    • Vicki, first of all I love, love, love A Knight in Shinning Armor and have read it several times for the pure fun. Read and reread all of Dick Francis’ books and miss him dearly.

      Perhaps Smith would have had to pub Tree in five installments if she were publishing today . Perhaps schools are resisting “old” books … but what is old?

      Do we think Conan Doyle or Dickens are too old? Is Shakespeare too old, Chaucer, Emily Dickinson? At one point do we cut off the old classics or rob our children of the joy of knowing them?

      In film, will they always study Alfred Hitchcock and will the old silent film stars not shine their stars for students to learn film techniques?

      I love the old black and white, love the old melodrama. Just watched A Room With a View again and still love it. When or how do we cheat future readers and viewers of the rich history that has made us who we are? Can we send out children to music school who do not teach Bach?

      Of the millions of sound bites and pulp we churn out these days, I still believe the thick, rich, heavy cream will rise to the top and thrill future generations 🙂


  5. Ah, Florence, the questions you ask are “heavy duty”. I am so sick of reading that we have to follow all of these rules in order to write a “readable” novel, I want to throw up my hands and stop writing. Then I think that I would only be doing myself a disservice, so I continue writing anyway. There shouldn’t be any rules to how to write a good book. A book will speak to many or few people and you never know who it will appeal to until it’s published. I believe it’s pure luck and good writing that make a book popular. But it will be popular to the people now (or not) and maybe more popular to people at some other time (or not). It’s all random and I don’t think I’ll ever figure it out.


    • Congratulations, Patti … and I hope none of us ever does figure it out. It is in the not knowing that we continue to search for the light at the end of the tunnel. It is in the pursuit of excellence that the few gems we have been given to share will float to the surface to dazzle 🙂


  6. christicorbett

    I think focusing too much on the mechanics of writing, and fiddling with it for hours, months, and even years, creates a book that is void of any hint of the author and the unique thing called “voice” that so many strive to capture. Sometimes as a writer it’s best to learn all the rules, and then pitch them out the window as you sit down to the blank page/screen 🙂

    Christi Corbett


    • Brava to you, Christi Corbett. Throw the rule book out the window and let your true vice be heard. It’s like teaching a student cords … once they know the cords and can recite the scales, the millions of variations are for them to discover 🙂


  7. You bring up some great points, Florence. I totally agree about flipping pages. Really annoying on a Kindle. We’ve lost a number of genres along the way–the family saga like the Thornbirds, the historical sweeping novel like James Michener’s Hawaii and all his subsequent bestsellers. The big-canvas small town novel like Peyton Place (or Middlemarch). The “friendship” novel like The Group, and all its steamier versions like Valley of the Dolls and Lace. All gone. I remember how I used to love to immerse myself in those big, fat books and know I had weeks of great reading ahead of me.

    But we live in the era of the short attention span. Readers want short books with one story arc and short, I-can-read-just-one-more chapters. Now I think A Tree Grows in Brooklyn would be published as a series of novellas. Maybe all those “friendship” novels would be short romances in a series. I’m not sure. But I know I miss them.

    Great post. I don’t see people mentioning this enough. We’ve lost a whole lot of genres that some of us would like to see revived.


    • Anne, how I delighted in those sagas … those long, meandering sojourns into the world the writer created just for us alone. To have the pure joy of losing ones self in the words of another is hard to find anywhere else.

      I suppose that is one of the issues my book club will discuss. Would Tree have been cut up into five novellas? Would Michener’s books been published as the Hawaii series and so on ???

      I love to get lost in those great big, fat books, to know that after I finished my homework … later in life … after the kids were sleeping … now … after a long day of doing whatever … I can find my bookmark and with a tickle of anticipation … read for a few more hours. The old adage that we don’t want a book to end can surely be applied to many. What would publishers today have done with Dear and Glorious Physician or others by Taylor Caldwell??

      Yet, we still have Barbara Kingsolver and Jody Picoult and the most popular YA series of the century Harry Potter was in seven books that averaged 500-600 pages each. Why do we sell our kids and our readers short ??? When the work is good no matter the age … we will wait until after our homework is done and with a hot cup of tea … sit down for a grand evening of grand story-telling.

      Airplane books and on-the-John-reading will get pumped out by the million, but there will always be room for the grand journey 🙂


  8. If all writers left their individuality behind, IMHO, we would not have the Noras,the Stephens, the Harlans, and so on.


    • Yes, Sherry … and they are three very good examples as well. Popular fiction with a bang. Stephen King’s books are long, long and longer. Harlan takes you on an exciting ride and Nora never seems to tire from telling us one good story after another. Good to see that the best will always win out 🙂


  9. Individuality is key, Florence. It’s what makes a great writer great, and lack of it will make a great writer only mediocre. We must be true to ourselves or we begin to sound like every other voice. 🙂


  10. As always, you pose some interesting questions! As usual, I don’t have the answers. I do know that going with a smaller publisher has enabled me to have freedom over my work & go against the flow a little bit . . . the downside of that is it’s hard to get my work in front of those rabid fans who don’t know I exist.


  11. The only way I’ve protected, if that is the best word for it, my books style is to write what’s in my heart and on my mind. So far I’m pleased with what I’ve produced.


  12. All the rules drive me crazy. I love this jewel from you: “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.”

    So true. Sometimes I want to ignore everything I’ve been taught and write from my soul instead.


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