You Are Not Tolstoy or Dickens

old-booksWhenever I talk about the guidelines and conventions that are expected in today’s fiction—for example, don’t go overboard with description, or… show, don’t tell—I always get writers pushing back with the classic “classics” argument.

They’ll say things like, “But what about Charlotte Bronte? What about F. Scott Fitzgerald? You’d probably reject THEM if they came across your desk, too.”

Yep, I just might. This is not 1925 nor is it 1847. This is 2011 and the trends today are different – readers want something different. Neither Bronte nor Fitzgerald were competing with television, video games, the world wide web or BLOGS to get readers’ attention.

How is a reader today different than a reader 100 years ago? Let us count the ways.

1. We are more worldly.

Typical educated people in the industrialized west have seen much of the world with their own eyes, whether through movies and television or by traveling. By contrast, the typical reader as little as 60 years ago may not have ventured beyond their own small corner of the world, and therefore when reading, enjoyed and even required long passages of description to understand the world in which a novel took place.

2. We’re more impatient and are easily bored.

It’s no secret, our lives seem to move at a much faster pace than generations past. People’s brains are wired differently now, and most of us need the stimulation of a faster moving story or we’ll lose interest. Quick-cut movies and TV shows, fast-paced computer games, the point-click-instant-gratification of the Internet, and our generally overly-busy and fragmented lives have all contributed.

3. We’re conditioned for “show, don’t tell.”

We’ve grown up on movies and TV; without even realizing it, we expect to be “shown” a story as on a movie screen, rather than “told” as in a book. Even when we’re reading a book.

4. Language itself changes over time.

And this is totally normal. While it’s tempting to lament the decline of the English language and declare that nobody cares anymore, people have had this same complaint for hundreds of years. The novels of today aren’t going to read like the novels of 50, 100 or 500 years ago simply due to the evolution of language.

What are some more reasons – cultural and psychological – that books and/or readers today are different from those 100+ years ago?

Meanwhile, resist the urge to compare today’s books to old classics! It won’t get you anywhere… least of all published.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  14. Taylor Napolsky on September 7, 2011 at 2:44 AM

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  15. Joanna Aislinn on September 5, 2011 at 10:03 AM

    Great points, Rachelle. Like any other form of communication, writing evolves. My 14 y/o had to read Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde as part of required reading last school year. Don’t know how a child of the technological age got through it. I can’t make it past a novel written in the 80s b/c of how different the writing is. Thanks for sharing this!

  16. james on September 3, 2011 at 3:09 PM

    I have read books by classic writers, William Faulker and Edith Wharton. Both writers write long paragraphs of description. Readers of today do not have patience to read this overabundance of descrption. We just need want to read compact writing with brief details of description

    • Ray on September 7, 2011 at 9:52 PM

      There are a great many writers today who write every bit as descriptively as the writers of the so-called classics: Cormac McCarthy, for instance, who has them all beat if you go by Blood Meridian and Suttree alone, James Salter, Nicholas Christopher, Mark Spry, Barry Hannah, Barry Gifford, Tom McGuane, John Updike (RIP), and so many others, all of whom write extraordinarily detailed prose.

      Also, not all writers of the so-called classics are equal — not by a damn sight. I, for example, don’t particularly care for Tolstoy or Turgenev, but I do like Dostoevsky and Pushkin — all for very specific reasons. Your article strikes me as over-generalized in the extreme, and not entirely accurate, if I may speak frankly. I understand your grievance: you’re tired of being told that you’d probably reject Tolstoy. Fair enough. This grievance does not, however, change the fact that the fundamental attributes of storytelling — plot, theme, character, and style — DO remain in essence the same, no matter how many centuries go. Technology doesn’t change that, because the human mind is conceptual by nature, and that is what gives rise to the art of storytelling. Language does evolve, yes, just as it always has and always will, and no one in her right mind would disagree with that. But for many of us in this day and age richness of expression, depth of style, originality of description — these attributes are every bit as satisfying and every bit as important as a driving plot.

  17. Suz on September 1, 2011 at 11:10 PM

    Psht! As if writers would seriously quote the classics today. You funny.

  18. Matthew Dickens on August 30, 2011 at 10:06 PM

    Rachelle, I couldn’t resist poking fun at the title of this blog article.

    I am Dickens.

    Matthew Dickens, that is. Does that mean I get a pass?

    Don’t worry I know the answer.

    You make good points in your article, but I think most of that is applicable to the CBA market tastes. My experience with ABA editors has been the opposite when it comes to depth of detail. One person I have built a repore with over the years is Victoria Wilson, a very accomplished editor at Knopf. Though I have yet to land a deal with her, she is one of the few editors in the biz who allows un-agented material to come her way.

    Victoria has been Anne Rice’s editor since 1976. Rice is a good example of an author who knows how to balance a lot of description with good pacing. Another perspective would be James Byron Huggins, an author friend of mine who has had several best-sellers in the CBA, and has also been published by Simon & Schuster. His descriptions are amazing and his pacing is break-neck in its quickness.

    It takes skill to combine the two. Not just anyone can throw the classics up as an example, because talent for this delicate art has to accompany the argument. I personally received over four hundred letters from readers, along with emails, thanking me for the depth of detail featured in my first novel that was published in 2004.

    Going totally off subject for a moment, I would like to tell you what happened to me last week during the east coast earthquake. I was sitting in my loft apartment overlooking the historic Kirby Theatre when the shaking started. As I recounted to Greg, it was the weirdest writing day of my life. I was making changes to my manuscript Greg has been submitting over the last few months. My book is about the supernatural history of the publishing industry. Bram Stoker’s most famous novel is at the heart of the plot.

    But what many people don’t know is that the original ending to his novel was changed. When Count Dracula was killed in the original draft his castle was subsequently destroyed by an earthquake, thus destroying the source of his powers and any possibility of his return. The publisher did this to leave it open for a sequel. I was writing about this when the quake shook my building. I live near the border with Virginia, so the shaking was pretty rough. And it happened right after I finished writing about the quake in Stoker’s original draft.

    But that’s not the weirdest part. Later that night I was watching the news and my jaw dropped. The news anchor said the quake was the largest in Virginia’s history since 1897, the same year Stoker published his novel.

    Weirdest writing day ever!

    Matthew Dickens

    • Rachelle Gardner on September 1, 2011 at 7:50 PM

      Dear Mr. Dickens,
      Thanks for the comment! Yes, that was a very weird writing day!

      I just want to mention that I think you misunderstood my post. It was not CBA related – I read 50 to 70 books a year that are not CBA. I’ve been a voracious reader of all fiction, from the classics to contemporary bestsellers, since elementary school. My thoughts are based on my lifetime of reading, not my few years focusing on CBA.

      And I certainly wasn’t saying that we should eschew thoughtfulness, depth, and detail in our work. That’s what I always look for in my own personal reading. (For example, I was reading Anne Rice back when her vampire series first started.)

      I can see how readers have extrapolated from my comments, but really, I was just trying to say that I’m sick of people criticizing agents and publishers by saying “You’d probably reject Tolstoy, too.” It’s just a lame thing to say, so I wanted to point out to everyone that styles in language and storytellng change over the years and that this is perfectl normal.

      • Matthew Dickens on September 1, 2011 at 9:24 PM

        Hello again, Rachelle.

        First of all, I agree with you. And like you, I was reading Anne Rice when Lestat first started making his rise through the ranks of the Literati.

        My point was made based on similar things I have heard other (CBA only) agents say to me. My intent was not to paint you into one corner of thought. I would have never come to Word Serve if I thought you and Greg were CBA agents only, and didn’t like depth. Your agency bio is proof of your diverse background.

        My comments after the initial salutation were meant to be for the general audience based on what I had personally experienced. I was trying to defend you as an agent when I wrote, “Not just anyone can throw the classics up as an example, because talent for this delicate art has to accompany the argument.”

        The topic of the article was my only aim. My apologies for any appearances of not understanding. Also, I was trying to be funny with the opening, hoping that would reveal my good will for you and the article.

        I like fiction that moves. Dickens and Tolstoy are not masters at that in the modern sense. I’m also a big reader of comics, another form of sparse writing I enjoy when it’s done right. Grant Morrison and Frank Miller are good examples.

        Again, my apologies for not appearing to understand.

        Take care.

        Matthew Dickens

        • Rachelle Gardner on September 1, 2011 at 9:58 PM

          And I was trying to be humorous with “Dear Mr. Dickens.” *sigh* I’m not very good at being funny.

          No worries, Matthew, no apologies necessary. My response, also, was not just for you but for everyone. I know that when I’m misunderstood, it’s because I didn’t communicate clearly, and I hate that!

          Sorry for seeming defensive, too. Clearly you and I are on the same page!

          Thanks for writing.

  19. K. J. Henry on August 30, 2011 at 6:02 PM

    I am disturbed by the push to destroy length, although I understand the feelings behind it. However, are we not sacrificing style for brevity? Just doesn’t seem right to me.

  20. H.G. Ferguson on August 30, 2011 at 3:54 PM

    See Jane run. See her pick up the ball. Be sure to keep sentence 8 words. More than 8 words bad. Destroy style. Keep it simple. Keep simple. Keep. Reduce words. Many words doubleplusungood. 2 + 2 = 5. Think about it.

  21. Kim Offenburger on August 30, 2011 at 12:58 PM

    We’ve been reading some classic stories in my Writer’s Reading group, and the pace and amount of description are two things that seem to separate novels of old and modern fiction.

    When I write description I try to include information that the reader may not be familiar with. I know that I love learning new things, and I hope that my readers do too!

  22. Susan Bourgeois on August 30, 2011 at 9:57 AM

    I agree with you Samantha. I am thankful each day for her incredible insight. I have learned so much from her blog.

    I think she makes the time because she has a passion for all areas of her work.

    I think she realizes that we appreciate the time and effort she puts forth to enlighten us.

  23. Samantha LaFantasie on August 29, 2011 at 11:23 PM

    How in the world do you find time for it all in a day? You are so awesome for lending us your professional advice so willingly! Thanks for the help! 🙂

  24. Roger Floyd on August 29, 2011 at 10:38 PM

    I’m not sure I agree completely with point #2. Sure, there are a lot of people whose lives are so chaotic and restless they need the quick fix of a fast-paced TV show or movie or computer game. I wonder if they read many books anyway. People still do exist, like me, who value the quiet time spent reading a book. If description is well done I’m ready to accept that, even if it is, like Dickens, a bit overly long. I read a book for the enjoyment of the read, and the length of time it takes to read it is of lesser importance. The books I’m trying to write are dedicated to those people.

  25. Wendy Lawton on August 29, 2011 at 9:55 PM

    Excellent advice, Rachelle. We can’t live in the past. Language and story is evolving. Do you notice no one compares their books to the dreck of the past– the dime novels, the potboilers and the penny dreadfuls? The dreck will always be with us.

    And about those who think books have generally been “dumbed down”– it’s a sign they don’t read widely. Today’s writing is challenging in a whole different way. When you come across one of those sparkling books– it doesn’t matter if it’s 1887, 1925 or 2011– the story lives on. Good writing is good writing whatever the milieu.

  26. Selina J.H. on August 29, 2011 at 9:33 PM

    I think many a writer has built their styles on the likes of Tolstoy, Fitzgerald and Bronte. How those great authors paid attention to details whether emotional, physical, environmental or characterizations. I read an article written by a writing professor at U.T. in Austin, Texas who said to always write the next logical step. Posing the question whether the next logical step is to describe or dialogue. This is a transcendent way of thinking that should inevitably enter the thoughts of writers in any given time. For the most part, we will write how we speak in that moment. To depart from that is what most times messes us up…..its difficult to express our passion in a language we don’t understand. That said, I would love to see some of the classics made into modern speak using today’s slang. What would that look like?

  27. Kathleen Freemna on August 29, 2011 at 9:26 PM

    I think publishing houses still have an eye for a classic as well as the cotton candy fun tale. I do believe that there are good differences to the modern editing process. Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates is a fantastic story. It’s filled with great tension and emotion. The characters are lovable, and we can all relate to wanting something. I imagine an edited version where there is not a ten page religious lecture about proper behavior in the middle. I imagine a version where you know the ice, the feel in the air like you skated it yourself. Rather than a dumbed-down version, it would be a work of art kept on the easel for a round that brings out the cold of the ice and the happy sparkle in the eyes. If the editor says the face is the most important part to detail, he or she might be right. I don’t think a good editor would say, “We need some romantic drama to sell this,” and I don’t think a high speed chase would be added either. Sure, there is tasty, simple writing out there. Nothing wrong with that. Some of us are called to write classics as well. I, personally, want my classics to engage, make the reader laugh and cry. I don’t want to make them skim or feel tortured just because I couldn’t figure out what exactly my point is for ten pages. Whatever you write, write it well and if it catches hearts and makes us dream, it will sell.

  28. Kristin Laughtin on August 29, 2011 at 8:26 PM

    People who cry that Fitzgerald or Tolstoy wouldn’t be published today (as anything more than an amusement to ponder) don’t understand that the reason anyone still reads Fitzgerald and Tolstoy is because they’ve got all that historical backing. Most of the books published today probably will not be the type of thing published in fifty years (assuming there are still traditional publishers, etc.). Your book doesn’t have 100 years of praise and cultural penetration behind it, and you have to write for the current market if you expect it to sell.

  29. Susan Mason on August 29, 2011 at 7:34 PM

    Well said, Rachelle! I agree completely. We live in a fast paced society and need fast faced fiction!


  30. Rachel Wilder on August 29, 2011 at 6:39 PM

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! I get so tired of people saying “well, that’s not how Dickens wrote and I write just like him” or Bronte or whoever. Yes they’re great writers. But could they sell today? Probably not. It would be very difficult, to say the least.

    We have to write for today’s readers. Not the readers of 150 years ago.

    • Alan Kurland on August 29, 2011 at 7:00 PM

      I’ve been recently reading the classics such as The Deerslayer, David Copperfield, Bleak House, and Sherlock Holmes. They may be archaic but they are classics for a reason, they still work today as great stories and great writing. Ive often asked myself; how the hell can I ever write that good, and the answer is never, but I can still write entertaining and informative historical fiction. And actually sell it, I hope!!

  31. Mary Allen on August 29, 2011 at 6:03 PM

    As someone already commented, it’s about story, story, story and knowing your audience.

    I recently read a new book that was all show. It was exhausting. I felt like saying, get on with the story already!

  32. Jane Steen on August 29, 2011 at 5:37 PM

    I grew up reading the classics and as a result I use words that are sometimes unfamiliar to my readers. If an editor felt strongly that I needed to simplify for the modern reader, would I do it? Of course. First, because writing something simple and writing it well is a great achievement. Second, because if I can’t find a suitable synonym I wouldn’t be much of a writer anyway.

    • Rachelle Gardner on August 29, 2011 at 6:03 PM

      It’s curious to me that people are interpreting my post to mean we need to “simplify” or as others have commented, “dumb down.”

      Just so you know, that absolutely wasn’t the point of my post.

      But you’ve got the right idea in terms of writing for today’s reader.

  33. Laura W. on August 29, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    No one likes Tolstoy or Dickens anyway. 😉

    • Rachelle Gardner on August 29, 2011 at 6:03 PM


  34. Crafty Mama on August 29, 2011 at 4:57 PM

    I remember watching Jane Eyre with a friend. I was SO engrossed and had no idea my friend was BORED out of her mind! She wanted more action, while I hadn’t even realized that the main characters were spending the whole movie talking! I guess I’m just an old-fashioned kinda gal.

  35. Frank DiCesare on August 29, 2011 at 4:33 PM

    Rachelle, I agree with every syllable of this post. Your comments about the classics are the tough love we literary fiction writers need to hear (or read) from time to time.

    Nevertheless, I hope editors and agents continue to keep an eye out for fiction that demonstrates a heightened sense of metaphor and a keen use of classical rhetoric. Remember, not everyone suffers from adult ADHD.

  36. Diana Dart on August 29, 2011 at 4:26 PM

    Funny enough, this was the talk at church yesterday. (Not 100% relevant, but bear with me.) There was massive upheaval in the English church when the Bible was translated into the “common language.” People who translated, copied and distributed these texts were killed for it. But hey, did their actions change the face of the world? Y’huh. Our pastor stated that their are so many versions of the Bible (a classic if I ever read one) because our language and methods of communication are changing. If we want to reach today’s audience with our writings, we must speak their language.

  37. Susie Finkbeiner on August 29, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    I think that writers like Hemingway and Faulkner brought about a tighter prose. And I am very thankful for that! I prefer to read a book that allows me to fill in some of the blanks. That’s also the kind of literature that I enjoy writing!

  38. Debbie Moorhouse on August 29, 2011 at 3:50 PM

    Yes, we have to write for today’s readers. But today’s readers, like every generation, have a variety of tastes, and include readers who love all those things that others hate (and vice versa).

  39. Erin on August 29, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    This made me want to try to find a pregnancy book from 100 years ago and see what it was like. Wouldn’t that be fun?

    • Ryan on May 21, 2012 at 12:26 PM

      Since you asked I’m not working on a meiomr so I come to your blog more or less to follow what you’re up to, see what you’re reading, etc. For that reason I don’t have a particular need for you to curate across this specific field at this time. I really appreciate your commitment to this community but sure want you to be working on your own meiomr as well. (You are, right?)

  40. TNeal on August 29, 2011 at 2:43 PM

    Yes but no.

    Yes, readers tend to get bored with fluff and extended description without moving forward in the story.

    But, no, not always. Dean Koontz makes a pretty good living as an author and his stories often describe the flora (more so than the fauna) and the weather more than the average author.

    I think, when someone writes in that way,he or she needs to enlighten me on a place, a plant, and/or a subject that tweaks my interest.

    Today I think a selling author needs two things–a good story and the ability to tell it well.

    • Gina Burgess on August 30, 2011 at 12:56 AM

      You are correct TNeal. The point is that Koontz’s descriptions set mood and tone and move the creepies. It’s all in how the description is done and how it moves the story along.

      B.J. Hoff wrote a short post a couple of years ago about writing description. When you say “Wind swept trash across the yard, and the house needed painting three years ago; and the railing wobbled in Tisha’s hand,” you don’t have to do a second paragraph describing the color of the lack of paint, or describing how trashy the front room was because the reader has already jumped to the unmade beds and the kitchen sink full of dishes, as well as the stench rising from the overflowing garbage pail.

  41. Lexus on August 29, 2011 at 2:42 PM

    Story, story, story. That’s my motto.

  42. Selina J.H. on August 29, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    I think the question one needs to ask is why Bronte, Fiztgerald, and Tolstoy made the cut for their time. What made them great? Perhaps it boils down to the same elements required for today’s writing and that is they were great storytellers! They knew what descriptions would develop their characters and lead the reader into the places of escape they were longing for each time they sat down to read. They knew how to tap into that voyeur in us; who for a brief moment of our day want to have a peak into someone else’s life and feel as though we’re a part of it. That’s the key, I think as a reader, to having a really good book in my hands, is whether the descriptions are a laundry list or do they take me away. Does it take that much description to attain the same goal today? No. And that…is where the challenge is for today’s writers.

  43. Theresa Froehlich on August 29, 2011 at 2:10 PM

    A very helpful article.

    Knowing your audience is really critical for communicating with them. I think contemporary readers also look for transparency and authenticity from the author. Sharing of my personal experience tends to build that bond to connect with my audience. I am still learning to do this well.

  44. […] Here’s the post, if you want to follow along at home: […]

    • Rachelle Gardner on August 29, 2011 at 4:33 PM

      I read your post and it doesn’t sound like you and I disagree very much – maybe some details, but mostly I like what you said. Good post!

      • Shawn Scarber on August 30, 2011 at 12:09 AM

        Thanks, Rachelle. I’m glad you liked the post.

  45. Jerry Eckert on August 29, 2011 at 1:41 PM

    For those of us who learned languages in the middle of the last century, for me – English, Spanish and French before 1950, it may be a fact of life but we don’t have to like it. Pursuing the almighty profit margin, newspapers write for the 9th grade, and nonfiction editors expect 7-8th grade readability. Our language is being stripped of nuance, coarsened, expressed in a simplistic 2500 word vocabulary. And as the language, driven by the need for profit, sinks toward some least common denominator, so also does our ability to think deeply, to craft finer emotions. The profit motive is making us all into cowherds.

    • Anna Labno on August 29, 2011 at 2:46 PM


      I agree.

  46. Jen on August 29, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    I think one of the major changes is that we are not a society of readers. I am finding that many of my friends don’t read novels at all. It is not because they are too descriptive or because they have seen too much of the world themselves. It is because they don’t read for fun. They don’t read to experience a different world. They read what they have to for information but not for the pleasure of reading. We no longer pass books among friends and talk about the book we are all reading this season. There is no longer a stigma about being unread. Instead I get comments questioning how I can have time to read in my day, as if I should be too busy doing important things instead of reading.

  47. Leah Petersen on August 29, 2011 at 1:27 PM

    It just occurred to me that publishing, like politics and, well, pretty much everything, suffers from the illusion that the good old days were better. I don’t think you can say modern literature isn’t “up to par” with the classics. It’s just different.

  48. Leah Petersen on August 29, 2011 at 1:21 PM

    #1 is such a great point and so exciting for the writer because now, if you give the reader one or two evocative descriptive phrases or sentences, they can extrapolate from their own experiences or things they’ve already seen to build a vision of the world/character for themselves. Then they’re part of the story, rather than being told it.

    If you describe too much and dictate your vision to them, it’s likely to force them out of the story rather than pull them in. Times are ‘a changin’.

  49. Michael Haynes on August 29, 2011 at 1:13 PM

    This is a great reminder that when writing for publication we need to be writing for TODAY’S readers, editors, agents, etc. and not the ones of our childhood or even further back in time.

    Changes in literary styles can be a good thing, too. We already HAVE the novels of Dickens, etc. to read. Newer authors with different approaches and styles and perspectives only serve to enrich the overall pool of literature available to readers.

    What a boring world of reading it would be if everyone wrote in the same way!

  50. Anna Labno on August 29, 2011 at 12:53 PM

    I do enjoy long passages. I love to read classics.
    I can only write in my own unique voice. I can’t compare or write like someone else. Writing for me is a craft through my own eyes. So, I won’t change to be a vision through somebody else.
    Thank God that we love different books.
    I like books more on deep level than just simple stories.
    I wouldn’t discourage an author who do write like Tolstoy or Dickens. There will be a publisher that will publish a story. The work can become a bestseller and be made into a movie. You just never know.
    Don’t be little your work because of your audience. Just do your best and strive for excelence. Your words may always live. I rather be known by a quality work than just a simple story.
    God deserves the best!

  51. Loree Huebner on August 29, 2011 at 12:19 PM

    As a writer and a reader, I think that in today’s world there are too many distractions. We have TV, texting, video games, twitter, ESPN, email, CNN, Internet…etc. We can watch anything with a press of a button. We flip channels until something appeals to us, but…we are never alone with ourselves – seems that someone is always talking at us over the TV or computer screen. Even when we are alone, we’re usually were checking the email, texts, or talking on the phone. We jump from one thing to the next.

    Back in the days of no TV, movies, phones, and internet, people read for entertainment and knowledge. They savored every written word of a good book, or sat around the fire and listened to storytelling of generations past. They experienced it without much distraction. Some of those stories told around the hearth have become the classics we read today.

    There just doesn’t seem to be enough time in a day for all the wasted information we absorb. It makes me stressed.

  52. Adam Porter on August 29, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    I would be interested to hear thoughts on what I refer to as the third method – “be.” Not the omniscient narrator voice, but a raw, first person account, almost like listening to a witness tell a harrowing story around a campfire.

    This is common in some modern mystery books, where the reader sees the entire story through the eyes of the protagonist – think Travis McGee, Doc Ford or Harry Dresden. This distinct filter neither exclusively shows or tells, but, instead allows the reader to “be” the hero. See everything through his or her thoughts, filters everything through his or her personal bias. Descriptions are often limited, what the character already understands is omitted. Just read a RW White passage where Doc is describing boats. I grew up on the water and had to Google a few things. Still, it keeps the pacing quick, the action and dialogue sharp.

    JD MacDonald used this device to let some genuinely poetic rumination slip into his mystery noir themes. Travis McGee utters some artful wisdom that, even decades later, remains equally relevant and beautiful.

  53. Sarah on August 29, 2011 at 12:06 PM

    It’s true, but it makes me sad. I love the meatiness of a novel by Henry James or Dostoevsky much more than most contemporary literature. Streamlining too much can remove depth and the immersive quality good literature should have. Books are a reflection of our time, but they’re also an opportunity to escape this time and live somewhere else for a while. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I prefer sci-fi and fantasy. There’s an amount of world-building required that isn’t always present in other forms of fiction.

    As a writer, my goal is to merge commercialism and art… we’ll see if it works.

  54. Adam Porter on August 29, 2011 at 11:58 AM

    There was Twilight Zone episode, “The Bard,” that dealt with this. One of the last hour-long episodes if I remember correctly. A failed screenwriter uses magic to conjure Shakespeare, who then writes for him. At one point the viewer is “treated” to a chillingly ironic conversation about the material among agents, producers and ad reps.

    Some of the same concerns expressed here were detailed in that exchange, written in 1963.

  55. Clarice James on August 29, 2011 at 11:43 AM

    Right again, Rachelle. I decided to download some classis on my Kindle to read while on the treadmill. By the time I finished Jane Austen’s Emma and Chesterton’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, I wondered how on earth they slipped by the publishers!

  56. Michael Wulf on August 29, 2011 at 11:33 AM

    I wonder what we lose with our short attention spans? Some books do a great job of building up to a penultimate showdown and the calm before the storm is just that.

    Video game designers have found that games are scarier and more intense with less action and suspense.

    I’m not suggesting the classics aren’t antiquated and old-school. But I also don’t think we can simply keep pushing the envelope towards more action and more intensity indefinitely.

  57. Andrea Nell on August 29, 2011 at 11:26 AM

    I have my classic favorites, but I just have to keep in mind that they were writing for their contemporaries and I must write for mine. Jane Austin is praised because she so accurately captured her world and the intricacies of the culture in which she lived. That is an example I can follow in my world and my culture today.

  58. Reba J. Hoffman on August 29, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    I am so easily bored, if an author doesn’t grab me by the collar, throw me headlong into the action and keep me there until the Happily Ever After, they don’t stand a chance at gaining my fanship. And, if I don’t write like that, I become bored with my own creativity. Yeah, I think I’ve made the jump to the present. 🙂

    • Lexus on August 29, 2011 at 2:45 PM


  59. David Todd on August 29, 2011 at 11:14 AM

    I wouldn’t want to be Tolstoy or Dickens. Michener or Wouk would do nicely.

    I can’t stand that “quick cut” stuff on TV or in movies. It drives me nuts. It doesn’t give time to focus on anything. Similarly, I find myself drawn more to older writing than to newer. I’m clearly out of step with the modern world, and believe I was born two centuries too late.

    • Gina Burgess on August 29, 2011 at 7:39 PM

      Me, too, David! Except I really, really love my a/c!

      I am in the midst of rereading all my Georgette Heyer novels. I am astounded at how completely different they are from the “more modern” Regency romances. Heyer is a wordsmith and a master at character development. She is also historically correct.

      Today’s authors just are not impressing me very much and I’ve read hundreds of books in the past two years–a lot of them 1st time novelists. Either they are so elementary I’m yawning after the first chapter, or the plots are so out of focus you don’t know who the protag is. The flipping back and forth from character to character seems like several dozen commercials strung together as the show.

  60. Jessica M on August 29, 2011 at 10:48 AM

    I’ve stopped comparing contemporary writing with classic literature because, well, there’s nothing to compare! What irks me to no end is when they compile book lists and include a book from the 1700’s and one that was written last year by someone who is hardly up to par or is written in the same style even a hundred years ago. I’m a big fan of classic literature and find modern literature very unsatisfying. The extent of depth, character development, description, and vocabulary are disappointing, at best. I don’t think this “reader pampering” is doing anyone any good.

    It’s funny because my old man told me a few years ago: “Stop trying to write like Dostoevsky, because you won’t get published that way.” Thanks Dad!

  61. Debbie Moorhouse on August 29, 2011 at 10:42 AM

    Few classics were popular in their day? I beg to differ. Their long-term popularity is what’s made them classics. They’ve survived while other, less-loved books have fallen by the wayside.

    That said, I find some of them unreadable. I’m looking at you, Don Quixote! I was reading Anne of Green Gables last week, and was struck by values that today would be unacceptable. The teacher who spends his time in the classroom chatting up one of his pupils? who chooses which students get extra help on the basis of which ones he fancies? Wow.

    Seems to me that the whole ‘shorter sentences, simpler words’ approach is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you feed readers pap, pap is all they’ll get. There’s nothing wrong in sending your reader to the dictionary occasionally, especially when they have one built into their ereader.

  62. Michelle DeRusha on August 29, 2011 at 10:37 AM

    I absolutely agree. While I love Edith Wharton, her contemporary, Henry James, has always made me want to run screaming from the room. Too much detail and infinitely long sentences and paragraphs — my 21st century attention span can’t take it!

    Speaking of which…have you read “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr? I found it to be an interesting, albeit frightening, explanation of how our brains are reshaping themselves due to our excessive media (specifically online) habits.

    • Olivia Newport on August 29, 2011 at 11:02 AM

      The Shallows contains several chapters that pertain specifically to writing and publishing. Fascinating stuff. As much as I want to think my brain has not succumbed to Internet-style reading, I have to admit my habits have changed considerably in the last decade. So why should I think my readers’ haven’t?

  63. Jay DiNitto on August 29, 2011 at 10:29 AM

    Never thought of number 1, but I think that makes the most sense. The rest might not apply to everyone.

  64. Angie Dicken on August 29, 2011 at 10:21 AM

    Ouch. I’ll never make that comparison again! It is so true, and I keep posts like these at the forefront of my mind when I find myself getting carried away with “fluffy” writing! Thanks for the reminder. 🙂

  65. Sharon A Lavy on August 29, 2011 at 10:19 AM

    We need to live in today’s world to get ahead in any venture.

  66. Sue Harrison on August 29, 2011 at 9:54 AM

    Great Post, Rachelle! Thank you I love thinking about this. A couple more points.

    1. We crave variety, so overly long books keep us penned up in one world longer than we’d like.

    2. We’re not as afraid of experimentation, which opens doors to new creative approaches to story-telling.

  67. Susan Bourgeois on August 29, 2011 at 9:51 AM

    Society itself has changed. There was a time when a kiss could do the trick in order to captivate a reader’s attention.

    Now writers have freedom to write detailed sexual descriptions.

    I am sure readers of 100 years ago would be shocked to see what’s written in some of today’s book.

    That brings up another point.

    Is a story more exciting when there are suggestions versus all out detailed descriptions?

    Leaving areas where the reader can tap into their own imagination provides the reader with a personal experience.

    This is another way books of today have changed.

  68. Claire Dyard on August 29, 2011 at 9:25 AM

    That’s what I keep telling my Dad. OK, he’s 91 and his favorite author is Jules Verne. A good author, who wrote good books but with far too much description for our time.

    Claire Dyard

  69. Diane Bailey on August 29, 2011 at 9:24 AM

    Agree with you, however I did enjoy reading the abridged version of War and Peace last year. I liked that the language was a little challenging at times. However I do not want to read old vernacular on a regular basis.

    I’m excited to announce that my first book came out last week called, String of Pearls and is available on Amazon.

    I have already begun research for my next book! Love it! Absolutely love it!

  70. Madison Johns on August 29, 2011 at 9:17 AM

    I agree and I may be bashed for it, but … I can’t read Stephen King because his books go into so much that I’m bored to tears.

    Whatever doesn’t move the story forward is unnecessary. Another writer that gives quick descriptions and short sentences is Janet Evanovich. I do agree historical romance or romance in general need more descriptions, that is what readers want and expect. You should be writing for your readers.

    As a reader, too many in depth descriptions lose me.

  71. otin on August 29, 2011 at 9:16 AM

    You are so right. There are some books I read years ago that took three hundred pages to develop. I don’t think people will wait that long anymore. As far as the classics go, I have yet to make it through a Shakespeare story without falling asleep. That’s not saying that it wasn’t brilliant, but just not for me.

  72. Paul Anthony Shortt on August 29, 2011 at 8:46 AM

    I agree with you, Rachelle. Any feelings I have on the way language and audience desires are changing aside, the fact is that every artist who wants their work to be appreciated by a modern audience must either change with the times, or change the times themselves. Looking to the past is a great way to learn, but art must also grow. It’s a living, breathing thing: A force of nature which we cannot, and should not, control.

  73. Elizabeth Ann West on August 29, 2011 at 8:44 AM

    Few classics were popular in their day, and we read them now to travel back in time.

    I have a thing for dialogue. You want me to read your words? Put them in quotation marks. I skim descriptions and only go back if I need to because I didn’t understand what was happening from the dialogue.

    One aspect of modern writing I think could help from studying the classics is true conflict. It’s easy to write bad things happening to a character, but this is boring if the character doesn’t have a real choice between two or more reactions. There’s a difference between dilemma and bad luck. But I see too many modern stories that use the later for both comic relief and as the only conflict in the story.

  74. Andrew on August 29, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    Thanks for the reminder. My tendency is to get too wordy, perhaps because I was raised with no TV and reading the classics (I devoured James Fenimore Cooper when I was 12). I have to remember that not everybody has the patience for long, wordy descriptions.

    • David Todd on August 29, 2011 at 11:22 AM

      I also loved Cooper. Read the complete Leatherstocking Saga books in 5th, 6th, and 7th grades. Recently picked them up used to re-read.

  75. Elaine Cougler on August 29, 2011 at 8:15 AM

    Hi Rachelle. You are always spot-on with your posts. Such a fount of just plain common sense. These four points are not new but we all need to be reminded of them. Thanks, yet again, for putting the world in perspective!

  76. Matthew Wood on August 29, 2011 at 8:12 AM

    Some great points here giving much food for thought! We spend so much time worrying about what critics and English Professors will think of our work we forget that we’re performing to an audience here, one which isn’t quite so adept at quoting Shakespeare as maybe a few generations ago.

  77. Catherine Johnson on August 29, 2011 at 7:58 AM

    So I can’t be the next Roald Dahl? Dang it 😉

  78. Rick Barry on August 29, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    Today’s reader is typically more savvy concerning research. Take for example, the classic novel Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss. From the comfort of home, with no Google to check his accuracy, Wyss populated his tropical island with a ridiculous array of animals, including flamingos, baboons, jackals, ostriches, elephants, antelopes, buffalo, wolves, bears, boa constrictors, penguins, seals, and kangaroos. If today’s writer doesn’t check his facts better than that, readers will toss aside his story in disgust.

    And I have to add that I hope no reader will ever open one of my novels and exclaim, “What the… Dickens!?” 😉

    • Sherri on August 29, 2011 at 7:29 AM

      I was just thinking that! We really are more sophisticated about many things. Crime scenes and fight scenes have to be written with care because people do want it to be as real as possible. Another area where this is true is the medical field. It’s the difference between watching a show from the 60’s where an ambulance shows up and they simply plop the patient on a gurney and haul him to the hospital, and watching one now where EMTs or paramedics haul equipment out of the trucks and proceed to perform medical procedures right there on site! Much more exciting and in the moment!

  79. Erastes on August 29, 2011 at 4:44 AM

    I think it’s a shame, and the dumbing down that some people insist on (not meaning you!) does make me sad. I’ve had to fight for words that my publishers think are too “difficult” for my readers which I think is rather insulting to my readers! Words like Bursary and forfend. I heard someone on the radio use both those words yesterday, they aren’t exactly antiquated!

    Like everything I think there’s a place for everything. I personally love writing and reading deep immersive prose, and I don’t mind if people want to read shorter sentences, simpler vocabulary, but I don’t intend to start dumbing down because my readers aren’t dumb.

    • Jen on August 29, 2011 at 1:28 PM

      Words the reader doesn’t know? It is not like we have to go far to find a dictionary if we want to look up a new word. Or wait for the word a day toilet paper to teach it to us. E-readers have dictionaries right in the book apps and google is just a cell phone away. Keep the big words! It makes me feel smart to read a book with big words even if I don’t know what they mean and just keep reading.

  80. Janet Jensen on August 29, 2011 at 3:46 AM

    I should add that I’m a huge fan of the classics. I still have many more to read. I wonder if there were “instant classics” declared back in the day? I sigh when I hear that phrase. What an oxymoron.

  81. DL Detherow on August 29, 2011 at 3:29 AM

    I understand that people have shorter attention spans today, but we can still learn from Tolstoy and Dickens. The authors of the past were diverse and inventive in their works. Authors today don’t take the time to create new phrases, they are busy using cliches. I believe that if authors were more inventive and original with their writing length and detail wouldn’t be a problem.

  82. Dean K Miller on August 29, 2011 at 3:11 AM

    Typically we “western edumacated” types really haven’t seen the world through our own eyes. If it’s in film, it’s through the eyes of the director, producer, editor, camera-man, and so on.

    When traveling our “ideas” are colored by prejudices, preconceived notions, culteral habits which filter how we “see” what is before us, as it stated in bullet #3: we expect to be shown, so it is not with our own eyes, other than to absorb what is set before us.

    Bullet 2 is one of the big “downfalls” of our technological advances. Even the nightly “news” is nothing but quick snippets of info meant to briefly spark our interest, and then moving on to something new.

    Even today’s critique advice is to capture the reader in the first 100 words. If so, are the following 100,000 thousand words really necessary?

    The true art of spinning a good story is fading. Maybe that’s why they call them “The Classics”, because they do so. We just don’t have the patience for it.

    • Lance C. on August 30, 2011 at 10:01 PM

      Whether we’ve seen something in person, in a photograph, on TV or in a film, we’ve seen it. It’s no longer necessary to spend five pages describing the Eiffel Tower or the Washington Monument; we all know what it looks like, so we can use those words to advance our plot or our characters. That couldn’t be said 150 years ago. Things are different now.

      You can complain all you want about the fast pace of modern Western civilization, but it’s not going away. What worked in 18th or 19th Century literature generally doesn’t work now, just like bygone theatre doesn’t generally work now (Moliere and Shakespeare are the exceptions that prove the rule) and 18th Century newspapers wouldn’t work now. If you can find an intact 18th-Century audience to sell to, congratulations. I think I’ll write for the much larger modern audience that thinks Moby Dick is windy, ponderous and overwrought. Things are different now.

      Storytelling isn’t fading. It’s changing. It’s been changing since Og and Gog painted pictures on the cave walls at Altamira, and will continue to change in the future. Recall that the printed word once was supposed to be the death of storytelling, as was every other communications medium that’s been devised. We’re still telling stories, and people are still consuming them.

  83. Nancy Kelley on August 29, 2011 at 3:08 AM

    The simple fact is agents aren’t trying to sell Tolstoy or Dickens to publishers. They’re trying to sell books which are supposedly written to modern style guides and with modern sensibilities.

    The modern reader often complains about the classics for the very reason authors try to hearken back to them–too wordy, bogged down in description, too much exposition, etc. Those modern readers are the same ones who might buy our books, so it might be worth listening to what they have to say.

  84. Ilima on August 29, 2011 at 3:02 AM

    Another major difference between today and 1847: Charlotte Bronte is already on bookstore shelves today. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the books that are “classic” today were fresh, surprising and revolutionary when they were first released.

  85. Janet Jensen on August 29, 2011 at 2:24 AM

    What would today’s editors do with Shakespeare, I wonder? “Hmmm, seems I’ve read that plot before, where characters assume other identities to spy on each other . . . . and, frankly, it’s quite wordy. You also need to brush up on your geography. Of course, this is just one editor’s opinion, and another editor might view this manuscript in an entirely different light. Best of luck as you pursue publication . . . .”

    • Zan Marie on August 29, 2011 at 9:21 AM

      *snicker* You reminded me of the “Reject a Hit” column in Writer’s Digest.

    • Sue Harrison on August 29, 2011 at 9:49 AM

      Thank you for my Monday morning laugh, Janet!

    • Kathleen Freemna on August 29, 2011 at 8:43 PM

      Clever response, Janet. Made me laugh.

  86. Janet Jensen on August 29, 2011 at 2:21 AM

    “World at our fingertips” is a good term. I read that when London newspapers arrived at the New York docks, people would ask, “Please, did Little Nell live?” Dickens, with his serialized book, had captivated his audience – – and they waited anxiously for each installment. I suppose this speaks to the lack of sophistication of the readers; plus, with high infant mortality rates, readers didn’t want a precious child to die. And Dickens didn’t have too much competition, either!

  87. Donna Pyle on August 29, 2011 at 2:09 AM

    Great, thought-provoking questions! Compared to 100 years ago, readers today have the world at their fingertips. If what we’re writing and the way we write it doesn’t grab a reader’s imagination, attention, or provide an answer to a perceived need, it quickly gets passed over by the sheer volume of choices. Just my two cents. 🙂

  88. Aimee L. Salter on August 29, 2011 at 1:33 AM

    I’m not Tolstoy? What?! *Sob*

    Seriously, though, I used to work in branding and what you’re talking about here is essentially the psychology of selling – and that changes almost every decade, let alone every century.

    Classics are popular now because of reputation and credibility – totally different selling tools to pop-culture word of mouth.

    The thing that intrigues me is, what names are out and about now that will be ‘classics’ in 100 years?

  89. Robert Michael on August 29, 2011 at 1:25 AM

    I am currently reading 10th Anniversary by James Patterson. At first I was struck by how short the chapters are. Then I noticed the short sentences. Then I noted that the sentences and paragraphs were almost totally unadorned. In addition, certain concrete details (a good-looking witness, for example) would be repeated over and over in the most simple terms or metaphors.

    I realize that writing for publication can be a tricky combination of outpouring our imagination and delicately telling a story to which readers will respond. However, I can also see some authors’ frustration in feeling like they are compromising their art. Again, it is the mix of art and craft that I must learn to adapt.

    Thanks for your advice. It is comforting. I didn’t think I could measure up to Dickens or Bronte, anyway. That weight is off my shoulders now and I can breathe easier.

    • mark williams international on August 29, 2011 at 5:48 AM

      Patterson and his team of writers outsell pretty much everyone apart from Rowling, and in the thriller genre his brand is the market leader by far.

      A perfect example of niche marketing to an audience. That this audience – thriller readers – happens to be huge is why Patterson is so incredibly succesful.

      Patterson ignores rules on POV, on show and tell and just about every other preconception about how a novel should be written.

      He writes for his readers, not English professors.

      I wonder how many agents and publishers would give a Patterson novel a second glance if it landed on their desk with an anonymous name…

  90. Reina on August 29, 2011 at 1:24 AM

    I agree with your point, but am curious how much genre conventions come into play here? For instance, in my (albiet limited) experience, readers of historical romance want more description than in a contemporary and, of course, there’s the difference between literary and genre fiction.

    • Rachelle Gardner on August 29, 2011 at 9:55 AM

      Of course different genres have different expectations.

    • Lissa on September 24, 2011 at 10:28 PM

      I wonder if the writers who push that have actually READ Dickens and Tolstoy. Maybe they have. I couldn’t read Tolstoy. I tried. I love historical fiction (mostly) but having read Bleak House (plus y’know – G.E. and TO2T in highschool), nobody wants that much description anymore. Nobody. I think you’re right. Nobody really listens to Palestrina or uses antimacassars either.

  91. Jo Murphey on August 29, 2011 at 1:07 AM

    Rachel, you are preaching to the choir with this one. I agree whole heartedly! Especially with #2 and #3. Today is all about instant gratification and get it yesterday.

  92. Olivia Newport on August 29, 2011 at 12:41 AM

    The purpose of writing has changed through the centuries, from preserving culture in a pre-Guttenberg age, to engaging with culture in print-literate centuries, to creating culture in the digital age. Even if a book is in traditional print, the purpose of its existence has to reflect its own time.

  93. Marla Taviano on August 29, 2011 at 12:41 AM

    Had to chuckle when I found myself skimming the paragraph under heading #2.

    • TNeal on August 29, 2011 at 2:47 PM

      I had to chuckle when your comment made take a second look. My first read: “We’re more IMPORTANT and easily bored.”

      In today’s mindset, my first read isn’t all that far off.

    • Nancy Petralia on August 29, 2011 at 3:07 PM

      I agree that we are no longer a society of readers, to my dismay. How grateful I am to be swept into another world and away from our frantic, over-stimulating, mind-numbing distractions.

      Elizabeth mentioned dialog. I think this is one of the biggest changes in “modern” literature. It’s certainly one that my writing group has helped me appreciate. Probably due to our constant exposure to TV, movies, YouTube, and Facebook, we expect a story to unfold through speech. I have to say, it’s certainly handy to be able to cover a lot of ground in a few lines of dialog. You can even slip in some “big” words!

      That said, I don’t think you must dumb down for the reader. It’s a matter of understanding who your audience is. There are plenty of readers out there who enjoy the experience of reading, not just a CSI plot-driven story. To quote Meredith Wilson, “You gotta know the territory.”

    • Gina Burgess on August 29, 2011 at 7:24 PM

      HA! Me, too, Marla 😀

    • Kathleen Freemna on August 29, 2011 at 8:39 PM

      I laughed at myself for the same reason. Blush.