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.
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.
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.