Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Do fashions in writing really change?

This post was inspired by Sally Rippin's comment on my previous post, Less is More, and the idea that it's never a good idea to bombard the reader with too much detail. Sally said:

'It's interesting you write about this... because...last night as I finished reading Roald Dahl's 'BFG' to my youngest son... I couldn't help much detail he uses in describing not only surroundings but also action, much more so than many contemporary children's writers do. I guess writing fashions change as do children's reading styles and expectations.'

I agree, I think writing fashions definitely change, though I'm not sure to what extent the changes are dictated by children's reading styles, and to what extent they are determined by the publishing industry. Or rather, could it be that a change in publishing standards has resulted in a corresponding change in reading styles?

Certainly, novels became shorter with the advent of television, and shorter still once the Internet became a ubiquitous part of daily life. There is so much competition for our leisure time, and recent surveys have suggested that attention spans are becoming shorter.

In the nineteenth century, long, highly descriptive novels were the norm. Few such books would be published today. But there are always exceptions.

A number of people in the Australian book industry agree that had JK Rowling sent her manuscript to Australian publishers, Harry Potter would never have been published, because it was just too long.

Which brings me to further distinctions: 1) fashions in writing are not neccessarily the same the world over - the Australian publishing industry in particular favours literature that is spare and concise, and 2) fashions differ between genres - fantasy writers can often get away with longer, more detailed descritpion where writers of realistic fiction cannot.

Now, more people are writing than ever before (writing itself has become more fashionable) and some readers will only read short books so that they can read more books in total. However, I believe there will always be readers who want a good, long story they can sink their teeth into.

Fashions aside, my suggestion to keep details to a minimum was really about the quality of writing. As Sallly observed, Roald Dahl's writing is very descriptive, and yet I don't believe it suffers from too much detail, since in his case, every word enhances the story. And in the end, that's what counts.


  1. I know this isn't perhaps EXACTLY what you're talking about, but I was recently thinking about how strange some "classic" novels actually are. My AP Lit class had a good laugh about how, if one were to write something precisely like Heart of Darkness, for instance, a publisher would reject you immediately. It's interesting how certain "older" books are classic, but if we were to write precisely the same way today, we probably wouldn't get published. Just a thought.

  2. Yes, this is also what I'm talking about. Expectations change in terms of both style and content. It's not just Heart of Darkness that wouldn't get published today, but most classics. And though we might think we're not conforming to any particular trends or fashions when we write, if our books are still around in a hundred or so years from now, I'm sure people then will be able to 'place' them in time.