Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Friday, 24 February 2012

Fashion

I am sorry to disappoint you if the title has prompted anyone to expect a dissertation on ladies clothes or footwear, fascinating though the subject may be. The following is merely my opinion on the changing fashion of books and what readers, writers and, most importantly, publishers seem to prefer at the present time, compared with one hundred years ago, or even thirty. I may be wrong in my conclusions, and limited in my experience of publishers, so I shall be interested to hear what other people think.
 

 Recently we have been celebrating the birth of Charles Dickens in 1812 so perhaps we could start with his style of writing. My mother was a great lover of Dickens’ novels because she felt he made the people and places seem so alive and real. Due to her influence I started reading them when I was at school and I enjoyed them then. I am not sure whether I would have the patience to read some of them now. There is no doubt that he painted very real pictures in our minds with his (often lengthy) descriptions of scenes and characters. He made us share the dread of poverty and the possibility of the workhouse. We heard the clatter of horses’ hooves as they drew the wealthy in their carriages. The stench of the gutters seemed to invade our nostrils and the moorland mist with the lurking of an escaped prisoner (in Great Expectations) created an atmosphere of tension and fear. He was equally good at drawing his characters, making us like some, and loathe others, share their satisfaction and anticipation, or disappointment and grief. Neither he nor his publishers shied away from life in the raw.

Most readers today want to experience the emotions and see the settings in their mind but do they have the time and patience to read through several paragraphs of scene description? Many prefer to jump straight into the story discovering the “who”, “when”, “where” and “why” in the first paragraph. “Aim to grab the readers’ interest in the first paragraph” is advice now given to new writers. In spite of all the modern gadgets which are supposed to make life easier time often seems too short. Also there are so many other distractions in the form of television, Sunday shopping, football matches and other sports, to name but a few. Many people still enjoy a “good read” but curling up for a few precious hours of peace with a good novel no longer has the same appeal in busy lives. Some read in snatches while travelling on the train, bus or tube.Recently one author, with over forty published novels, was preparing her early stories for uploading as digital editions for e-readers. She was surprised to find she had been so verbose when she began writing and she is determined to change them. `Why did my editor let me get away with it?’ she asks. This is what I mean by changing fashion. Longer descriptions and a scattering of adverbs and adjectives were perfectly acceptable thirty years ago. Today many publishers, including mine, have very set rules about the length of novel they will accept. Is this changing fashion due to the influence of readers who prefer shorter novels and short story collections? Or is it the economics of production and cost of storage? Paper is expensive and we are all under continual pressure to consider resources and the future of the planet.
 

What do other people think? Do fashions change when it comes to books?

12 comments:

  1. I love blogs that make me think and this definitely does! I've actually started reading a Dickens again this year (Tale of Two Cities), encouraged by the recent publicity, and am finding myself both impressed by his descriptions and infuriated by his slow pace. So yes, the way of telling stories has definitely changed. For the better? I'm not sure.
    And I'm also not sure how much is real reader preference and how much is just what publishers assume to be reader preference - or, as you say, a need to save paper. Interesting that when a writer has the clout of say J K Rowling and can make the book as long as they want, readers are not actually put off by that.

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  2. This is a really interesting post, Gwen. I'm not sure why fashions in writing style change or whether the changes are instigated by publishers or readers. Gill makes the point about J K Rowling's readers not being put off by their length but they are very fast-paced novels compared to Dickens so I think it isn't only the length of the book but something else to do with the way of telling the story. I remember being daunted by the size of A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth and put off reading it for ages but as soon as I began it I was drawn into the lives of the people and couldn't put it down.
    Maybe it is more to do with our changing lifestyles, doing everything in a hurry because for some reason we have so much to do - or think we do. Believe me, Gwen, the idea of 'curling up' with a good book for a few hours is my idea of bliss - but I feel so guilty if I do it because I feeel I should be doing something else.
    So, don't really know the answers tot he questions you pose, Gwen, but it is certainly a thought-provoking subject.

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  3. I absolutely concur with Mary - the idea of snatching a few hours for uninterrupted reading is total bliss and yet on the rare occasions I manage to do it, I'm horribly aware of all the other things I should be doing instead.
    I think personal reading tastes change as well as reading fashions - so that the books we loved a few years ago may not have the same appeal now. This certainly doesn't apply to all - some are timeless like my beloved Sunset Song, but I suspect others I once loved would now seem dated.
    I've just started re-reading my own Mills & Boon books with a view to re-publishing them - and almost with the very first sentence I was reaching for the editing pen to change, alter, delete, rewrite completely - all of the above. But what a joy to be able to do it!

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  4. Thank you Gill, Mary, and Gilly for taking time to comment. As with many things in life, if you are a great success you can get away with most things as JK Rowling can, but then again she does make a good job and continue to draw in the customers. I see her first book for adults is in the pipeline. Perhaps the guilty pleasure feeling comes with adulthood and being responsible for other people or tasks? Our own pleasures take second place - maybe/sometimes?

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  5. Seems we're all in agreement on this one, Gwen. Even for someone like myself - retired and at liberty to do whatever I want whenever I want to - there are so many things competing for our attention. But it's a generational thing too. Older readers are aware of reading less and know there's something missing as a consequence; the kids - even the Harry Potter fans - have entirely different priorities. I visited the London Aquarium with a 6 year old granddaughter a couple of weeks ago. She was excited at the prospect, spent a few minutes at each of the first few tanks past which we walked, then glanced at the others as she walked past, eager for the next type of stimulation. They're not prepared to wait for Godot.

    How different from being made to study Proust paragraph by paragraph. And that's not a cue for a Monty Python sketch because close study revealed so much more than the skim reading we're all getting used to. (Yours truly, a grumpy old man.)

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    1. I'm supposed to be retired too, Bill, but time still seems short. As for grandchildren I think they have been indoctrined to expect instant gratification and enteratinment with so much media available these days. This makes me wonder if they will ever appreciate "good, satisfying, meaty reads" as we learned to do.

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  6. I think styles have definitely changed. My grandfather absolutely adored Walter Scott's novels, thought there was no author to touch him, but even I who read his books forty years ago thought, 'Oh, for heaven's sake, get on with the story!' and my niece and nephew are of the opinion that if you tore out at least half of the pages you might then get, 'a half decent read.' I think people's attention spans are shorter, and they want to be instantly hooked into a book, and kept there by constant action/events. Is there still room for the thoughtful novel, the introspective book? I think there is, but in a world where it can sometimes feel as though we are being constantly bombarded from all sides by information, you have to search very hard to find these gentler, slower, books

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    1. On the subject of gentler, slower books, it was the main criticsm from publishers of my novel No More Mulberries. They said for a story set in Afghanistan there wasn't enough action - more war, more violence against women would have made it more appealing to readers. I'm pleased to say readers have told me it is the very fact that this book sheds light on how people do just get on with life even when war is a constant backdrop that makes it appealing.

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    2. Maggie I think most modern authors try to please the publishers and not many publishers seem to want the longer, slower paced reads which were often more satisfying once we got into them. I agree about No More Mulberries, Mary. It was the details of ordinary people and the way they lived which I enjoyed. It has take years in this country for television producers to get round to portarying everyday life of ordinary people during war time instead of battles.

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    3. Thanks, Gwen, for your kind comment about No More Mulberries. It was exactly that kind of reaction I was hoping for when I wrote the book. There probably is a place for a more adventurous type of book set in Afghanistan but I don't think I'm the person to write it.

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  7. I think that apart from having less time for reading, people are just more impatient now. It's the same with movies really, the action usually starts almost straight away and there are no lengthy descriptions (although of course there are exceptions).
    I agree that Dickens' descriptions are too long, but once you are into the stories, they are wonderful! When Bleak House was on TV, I couldn't wait for the end of the series to find out what happened, so I bought the book and read it instead - loved it.
    Some stories take a while to get into, but if you persevere they turn out to be some of the best reads ever - for me, Possession by A.S. Byatt was one such. I put off reading it for ages, because it looked so long and daunting, but I just couldn't put it down.

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  8. Thank you for this thoughtful comment, Christina. I agree we all seem to be more impatient these days. I have two ancient books which my mother was sure I would enjoy. They have very small print and some long descriptions which I might enjoy once I get into them, but will the day ever come when I can set other things aside, including my own writing, and simply enjoy them.
    Also I think it takes an established track record, or great perseverance, for authors today who want to write a long and deeply satisfying read.

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