Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dated writing styles

Rex Beach
Patti Abbott over at her blog is forever bringing up topics about books and movies that turn into brainteasers. They start as simple questions that can’t really be answered in a few words. Yesterday, she asked how much writing styles from 100 years ago have become dated and got a lot of interesting responses. Since I intended to blog about this subject some day anyway, now seems as good a time as any. 

Reading early westerns from the turn of the last century, I have been amazed over and again by how readable I find them. I can think of only one book out of about 75 so far that I gave up on and didn’t finish. The problem wasn’t in the style but the simple-mindedness of the story. There wasn’t an ounce of depth or complexity.

In general, these writers were competent storytellers, and that is what keeps me turning pages. Often it’s impossible to tell whether the writing is 100 years old or brand new. Writers were aiming for a broad, popular audience that Owen Wister eventually scored with—not literary, not pulp, but “middle brow.” That audience hasn’t changed much.
Willa Cather

Give-aways. However, there are some stylistic give-aways that reveal a writer is from another generation. First for me would be a lapse into Victorian sentimentality. A novel can go along for a hundred or more pages, and suddenly you find yourself knee-deep in gushy schmaltz. The subject is usually children or a woman getting put on a pedestal, especially if she is somebody’s mother.

Writers and readers seemed to have a high tolerance for portrayal of these as sweetly vulnerable and innocent. I cringe when a young child is introduced into a story because you can bet that they and the adults around them will communicate with each other in baby talk.

This habit is maybe part of a larger practice of turn-of-the-century writers—the frequent use of regional and ethnic dialects. Not only will an Irish character, for instance, speak in a broad accent, but he will be more than necessarily talkative. Reading early westerns, I’ve simply had to get used to this as an obsession of the time.

Writers are a) showing off their ear for accents, b) trying to reflect the “melting pot” of a country full of immigrants, c) stereotyping, e.g., the cowboy, or d) indicating a character’s social position, much as the Brits do in those period productions that get shown on PBS. I’d say, all four.

Alfred Henry Lewis
Obsolescence. You may think that the use of obsolete slang and regionalisms dates a writer’s style, but while I’ve gleaned hundreds of these for the “Old West glossaries” I post here at BITS, I don’t think that’s an issue. Normally you can tell the intended meaning from the context, like you do any unfamiliar word.

Topical references are a little more distracting. In a novel I recently read, a character was referred to as being more protective than the McKinley Bill. You’d need to know that the McKinley Bill imposed stiff tariffs on trade to understand the reference. But a cognitive psychologist would tell you that the brain outsorts meaningless information like this so efficiently that you don’t even have a memory later of having read it.

Could just be me, but I give characters and narrators liberty to use the language of the time they live in. It adds to the verisimilitude.

Where that breaks down a little for a modern reader, however, is the self-conscious avoidance of impolite language. A story might have characters who cuss and swear, but a writer could only make a roundabout reference to it—with a euphemism, a break in the dialogue along the lines of "He uttered an oath," or simply a blank for the reader to mentally fill in. It was the equivalent of bleeping, though so cleverly done sometimes, it's not all that intrusive.

Dane Coolidge
Showstoppers. Modern readers will notice a practice of providing detailed descriptions of characters’ appearance. They really want you to see the man or woman they have imagined, right down to specific facial features. Heroes are, of course, handsome and villains are butt ugly. Heroines typically have stunningly described hair that would qualify them as models for shampoo commercials.

The western terrain is often rendered in the form of prose poems, although it may be as breathtakingly beautiful and inspiring to one narrator as it is barren and depressing to another.  Occasionally places and events are described in extensive detail, which is a delight to a reader like myself, interested in social history and willing to let the plot take a back seat for a while.

Pauline Bradford Mackie
What will stop a lot of modern readers is the liberal use of racial epithets and stereotyping. It’s what makes people uncomfortable about Huckleberry Finn. Reading these old novels, I’ve simply had to steel myself to them. The assumption of white supremacy is so common in these novels, you begin to understand how deeply embedded it is in the culture.

On the other hand, modern readers would be surprised by how progressive many of these writers could be on other issues. The dislike for the excesses of capitalism is common, in particular the contempt for the robber barons who ran the railroads. Attitudes toward women, at a time when women could not vote, are surprisingly liberated. This owes in part to the individualism celebrated in the West, where strongly independent women are often admired and applauded.

Treatment of the issue of temperance, however, will strike modern readers as being dated. Early western writers exhibit a kind of political correctness about the subject. Opposing temperance meant being opposed to the “family values” of the day, which centered on the sanctity of the home and of motherhood. Most tiptoed around the subject. They did not—could not—foresee the debacle that Prohibition was to be.

Harold Bell Wright
Elmore’s 10 rules. If you apply Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for writing, the early western writers observed most of them pretty routinely. They 1) seldom if ever opened a book with weather, 2) avoided prologues, 3) rarely used verbs other than “said” for dialogue, 4) rarely used an adverb to modify “said,” 5) rarely used exclamation points, and 6) rarely if ever used the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.”

Where they part company with Leonard is in 7) the use of regional dialects and patois, 8) detailed descriptions of characters, and 9) detailed description of places and things.

As for 10) leaving out the parts that readers tend to skip, I’m not much of a judge of this. I don’t skip as I read fiction; my brain doesn’t work that way. I’m always worried I’ll miss something.

Stewart Edward White
It’s worth remembering that early westerns were written at a time when a proper novel was around 300 pages, which is two to three times as long as they came to be by Louis L’Amour’s time. He and Leonard wrote westerns in the stripped down style that became inseparable from the generic western being written by mid-century.

Thus, a modern reader of genre westerns will find these early novels difficult to read in one or two sittings. There’s more of character, plot and subplot in them, and because they lack a recognizable formula—which was to come later—they don’t lend themselves easily to skimming. Anyone is welcome to try, however.

So, back to the question, how dated is fiction writing from 100 years ago? Depends, I guess, on who you ask. I continue to find these old novels engaging. Starting a new one is always like getting another present from under the tree to open. Dated they may be in some ways, but often surprisingly not.

Coming up: A. B. Ward, The Sage Brush Parson (1905)


  1. A good thoughtful evaluation of the issue. I know I mind stuff from the 20s and 30s very readable, but turn of the century stuff is often a different issue. Of course, I've not made any kind of systematic examination of the dates on the books I'm reading. I've been enjoying the Clarence Mulford tales a lot. On the other hand, with movies I can seldom watch anything older than the 60s.

    1. I think of Antiques Roadshow. There's a wave-length to get onto with old things if you can just tune into it.

  2. Since I collect and read old fiction magazines, I'm always on the lookout for dated writing styles, mainly because I want to avoid reading them. Even the best of them can fall into the Victorian trap for instance. Charles Dickens wrote 15 excellent novels but is there anyone who nowadays does not laugh at Little Nell? In fact after the first laugh it is not funny anymore and you have to start skipping Little Nell and others like her.

    The a blanks being used for hell and damn can drive you crazy. To read early 1900's fiction is to read all sorts of racial stuff that is frowned on today. I keep reminding myself that this is the way most people acted and talked in the earlier days. In other words, it is not dated at all for the period. That's how they acted.

    I did see one funny thing that shows even 2012 can be dated as hell. One of Joseph Conrads most famous novels came out in an edition, e-book or real book, I forget which. It was called THE N WORD OF THE NARCISSUS.

  3. This is a fine essay, and introduced complexities I hadn't thought of. There is a quality that could be called classical English, and those who worked within its confines remain fresh now. Jack London and Somerset Maugham come to mind. Both avoided Victorian excess. Oddly, Ernest Hemingway's prose seems more dated than, say, London's, because of Hemingway's own excesses. Many of today's slangy novels seem ephemeral because they are not written in classic English. For generations, people with a good background in journalism, with its economy of language, have come closer to the timeless norm than those without that background.

    1. Yes, it's interesting how frequently these older writers also wrote for the newspapers at some point in their lives. And newspapers in, say, 1880, were written in a more "literary" style.

  4. Hi Ron. I've been away from the blogs for a while but I'm slowly getting back to it. I've got a new site and I've posted a few updates if you wanted to catch up. Thanks.

  5. Very nice blog piece, Ron. I think the thing that most often turns me off in older books is racism or classicism. I find it very hard to read such things. Of course, with what's going on right now, I have to hear it in sound bytes.

    1. What you're calling "classicism" bothers me when it sounds stilted or self-important. Otherwise, if it doesn't draw attention to itself, I'm OK with it.

  6. Good information, thanks for the essay.

  7. What a great post!!!

    I hate the baby-talk stuff. I also hate lisping.

    I read one of the Anne of Green Gables books (maybe Rainbow Valley?) a few years ago. There was a poor girl who was friends with Anne's kids. She talked tough and slangy and the girls would admonish her for the least little thing (like "gosh", for example). But at one point, she said that she'd "been working like a [n-word]" and no one turned a hair! The conversation continued as before.

  8. Another indicator of dated writing is how the author deals with violence. The editors made Owen Wister tone down the final gunfight in The Virginian. In the published version, it goes by so fast, it surprises a modern reader.

    1. James, I remember reading, maybe in Wister's journals, that his editors at Harper's wanted him to write specifically against the practice of lynching. I think he resisted that request.

  9. I second Mr. Best. Modern westerns trivialize death and boost the body count, but the dead are barely named and not grieved. (I.e., murder doesn't matter.)In Shane and High Noon, the theme was courage, not gun-fighting. In Shane, when the boy-narrator starts to idolize Shane, the gunman sharply rebukes him. It seems hard to believe, but there was a time when westerns had little to do with gun-fighting and killing, and a lot to do with courage and character.

    1. Richard and Jim,

      I agree. The West has been a crucible to refine character and expose courage. Those are the stories we need, about the people who settled the West, not the gunfights and the body counts.


    2. The obsession with killing seems to come out of the dime novel. The exception among early writers was Clarence Mulford, who was way off the norm. His cowboys, including Hopalong Cassidy, were gleeful killers.

  10. A thought-provoking and excellent post, Ron. Thank you for writing it.

    I'm not bothered by so-called dated writing because in another hundred years much of our modern fiction will be dated, too.

    All writers write for the current audience. We might hope our books will not end up in someone's curiosity pile or be forgotten altogether, but that's ultimately not up to us.

    People nowadays have generally never lived without radio or movies, and a great many can't imagine a time without TV. Moving pictures have influenced the way we view narrative and write narrative, whether for reading or watching.

    For example, until movies became widespread, the authors had to make up for the lack of visuals on the printed page, so they described in detail the characters and settings.

    Thank you for writing this essay.

    1. The B-western with its emphasis on action, chases, and gun fights may have done a lot to shift the western novel away from what it had been in the past--an opportunity to look at character and less visually engaging dilemmas.

  11. Ron, thanks for a perceptive essay on dated writing styles. "Often it’s impossible to tell whether the writing is 100 years old or brand new." — that's what I think, too, when I read turn-of-the-century writers like Jerome K. Jerome, Rudyard Kipling and W. Somerset Maugham among others. Their books might as well have been written at the turn of the millennium.

    I don't mind reading books in dated writing style as long as they are not esoteric both in style and content. I must understand what I am reading. Incidentally, I loved Daniel Defoe's ROBINSON CRUSOE written in early 18th century and I didn't find it dated in the least bit.