Friday, April 8, 2016

Classics get a pass; modern books don't

I'll read things in classical literature that I wouldn't put up with in modern books.

Literary dinosaur: interesting to study,
but nobody wants to meet him today.
The classics don't have the same rules as modern fiction. They're bursting at the seams with wordiness, overburdened by extra pages of details, of backstory, of clauses and superfluous facts. Purple prose is the lay of the land. Every page you find sexism, classism, racism. Teenage girls get tossed off into marriage and poverty is cast as either noble, pastoral beauty or proof of inner worthlessness. It's, well, horrible.

And yet we still read classical literature. We even still find it beautiful, and admire the language.

The stories get a bit of a pass for being set in a different era. Every word we take with a grain of salt, because we recognize the classics are old.

Modern literature isn't. Modern literature doesn't get a pass to be overburdened with excessive backstory or giant blocks of text, just like it doesn't get to use dated social norms.

But we're trained in schools on older literature, and as such, while today's writers don't weigh down stories with dated social norms, new writers do often try to weigh down their works with dated writing styles.

It's important to read modern writing if you plan to write. Even genre classics have become dated, because just like any other field, writing is evolving. Readers who want classical writing styles can find that in the classics; but if you want readers to enjoy your stories of today, you need to write in today's techniques.

That doesn't mean you can't use some techniques learned from classics. Just don't completely model your writing style off them. If you want your books to sell, make sure your writing involves the current techniques, the methods of storytelling and plot development and pacing that today's literature uses. Like any other profession, writing has not stagnated; if your writing stagnates, it'll get left behind like a surgeon doing an open-incision surgery when laparoscopic is available.

Because we might be trained on classical literature as kids, but today's schools also teach modern literature as well. Because readers don't stick just to classic books, but read modern books as well, and readers are always on the look for the newest great book. Even if they're not studying writing styles, they're learning about them by reading, and if they don't know what the difference is, they still see it.

The modern classic doesn't look like the classic-classic. The 2016 fantasy doesn't look like the 1980 fantasy. Read some books published in the last three years, good ones that have been recommended, and learn from them.

In any other job, it'd be called professional development. In writing, it's called "an excuse to go read a new good book" ... and also professional development.

What recently published books do you recommend people read?


  1. Anything by Brent Weeks. He is an amazing writer.
    Or if you want to see the feel that people who fall prey to purple prose are probably trying to achieve, you can read Brian Switek's work. It harkens back to old-school travelogues in a good way.