We live in an age of film and digital media, which often exists uncomfortably with the world of the book, that wayward child of libraries and cathedrals, thinkers and scoundrels. Since most books today are novels, their direct pedigree goes back to the eighteenth century, when diverse literary forms such as the romance, the travel narrative, and the spiritual autobiography became entangled in a hodge-podge contraption which captured the emerging middle-class’ imagination. Indeed, some of the first novels were dramatic collections of letters detailing the melodramatic pursuit of a young girl’s chastity (Richardson’s Pamela and Clarissa), or the no-nonsense journal of a castaway forced to create a replica of England in “savage” lands (Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe).
While few people can see this line of descent, it remains just behind the page, informing the way we write narration, the way characters speak and interact, even the way we arrange paragraphs and chapters. In short, a novel can be made into many things, but it will always remain what it was: a unique way to fold human experience into the lives of fictional characters who act—and speak—like idealized versions of our friends and enemies. The stories novels tell are not new, cribbing from Shakespeare and the Greeks in the same way that movies do (though this usually makes the source material worse as a result). Yet what makes a novel a novel is not the story told, or even the characters, but how it tells a story. A novel speaks like a novel, manipulates time like a novel, arranges life like a novel, and has the luxury to digress as long as it deems necessary. To quote Henry Fielding, whose novel, Tom Jones, basically set the paradigm for a hundred thousand novels to follow: “I intend to digress, through this whole History, as often as I see occasion: Of which I am a myself a better Judge than any pitiful Critic whatever” (Ch.2).
When I read an old novel, I feel like I’m traveling to a foreign country, where instead of protesting “this isn’t how I do things at home!”, you must surrender to the customs of the country. Language is different; characters are strange; chapters are long; plots are diverse; endings are at times perfunctory. Yet the most distinct sense I get from the golden age of novel writing is the pace: the writers are rarely interested in that one aspect which seems to haunt every modern writer who puts pen to paper—er, I should say, finger to keyboard: the reader. Fielding often addresses the Reader, as does Austen; but this isn’t because they desire a 5-star review, but simply because they know someone is listening, someone desperate for entertainment. Our forefathers/mothers consumed novels the way we consume television shows, hungering for a marathon of every season of Game of Thrones or Top Chef. The longer the novel the better, since that kept life and the elements at bay. It is a playful, endearing relationship, which is why Austen and others could speak directly to us: they knew us because they, too, were “readers.” A novel was less like a product than an old friend, one who could be quite garrulous and eccentric—but aren’t those the most entertaining friends? Crack open any 18th or 19th century novel and catalogue the “rules” each novel breaks, starting on the very first page. Similarly, look at any modern review of a classic work on Goodreads and Amazon and you’ll find the following zingers: “So, I finally managed to finish Borincula. I wasn't expecting it not to be boring, since most classics are, but I wasn't expecting this book to be so useless either” (from a review of Dracula).
In general, people weaned on movies and television—and increasingly, YA fiction—find it difficult to warm up to classic literature. They complain about the “boredom factor,” the slow plot, the stiff characters, the pointless dialogue, the anticlimactic endings. This begs the question, how did these works become classics in the first place? Were we so desperate for entertainment that we could take up anything that came along: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pride and Prejudice, Dracula—I guess, if that’s all you’ve got! Too bad you didn’t bring along any Hunger Games or The Living Dead.
Hmm...not convinced. In fact, the older we go back in literary “time,” the more diverse the storytelling. While the stories might follow some predictable genres and patterns, the style of individual authors is more distinct. The way Jane Austen tells a story is miles away from Charlotte Bronte, to say nothing of Thomas Hardy. Or compare Stoker and H.G. Wells; Kipling and Burroughs; Woolf and Joyce. Even when their genre (or ideas) are similar, the stories are remarkably different, which is why each of their individual books survived. Anyone could write stories about vampires of men who grow up with apes (pretty boring, on the face of it). What makes them live is how they used to novel to find their voice, and develop a unique rapport with the “reader” which is a true relationship. And like any relationship, it requires a very important component, without which the novel falls flat and the couple never makes it down the aisle. Of course I’m speaking of time. It’s notable that the most predictable criticism level at older literature is boredom. After all, who has time to get to know someone these days? Reading is speed dating taken to its logical extreme: hook me at the first sentence or I’m outta here!
But why should this be? Reading is something done in solitude, a conversation between one reader and one writer/book. Why should speed be an essential component of something so basic and monastic? The answer might be because of our cultural expectations of entertainment. We watch movies, television, and any number of videos and games on the computer, so we naturally expect our novels to follow suit. Novels, like films, should be constantly “selling” to us. When you think about it, every form of entertainment today is a sales pitch, trying to “buy” its audience in the first few minutes. A product is expected to announce itself quickly, stating its purpose/genre so that people can decide whether to keep watching. Note how many movies start great-guns, with some explosive action sequence that really has nothing to do with the film, but to get everyone settled in their seats and not “bored” (Avengers: Age of Ultron comes to mind). While there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s no longer an aesthetic question for the author or director—it’s an artistic necessity. Indeed, if you really want to see how beholden movies and books are to our modern attention span, watch a spate of movie trailers and commercials. That’s the ideal, to reduce everything to the most concise common denominator. Everything has to be snappy, to-the-point, streamlined, and simple. Not an extraneous word or thought in sight.
I think this explains the eternal “sameness” that has crept into books over the past few decades, and has utterly overtaken YA fiction. Crack open almost any YA book (though you could extend this to other genres and types as well), and you’ll see the same thing: short paragraphs, short sentences, spare dialogue, short (or shortish) chapters, and a lot of first sentences like this: “X followed one simple rule in his life: don’t die.” Is there something in the air? Why is everyone writing such similar books? Not just the stories, mind you, but the sentences, the cadences, the syntax? While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with writing this way, why has it become the norm—and indeed, become the “rule” to follow? Query agents and publishers today, and they will admonish you against writing (a) long sentences, (b) long paragraphs, (c) using any punctuation aside from commas and periods, (d) extended dialogue, (e) a first sentence that doesn’t sell and a last sentence that doesn’t end in a cliffhanger. If this is the recipe for good writing, why wasn’t it invented during the first 200+ years of the novel? I suppose I understand why Goodreads reader hated Dracula so much—it broke every one of these rules with gusto.
If there is a problem with modern genre fiction (and I think there is), it might be simply this: we’re trying to make novels into movies. Most novels are written like screenplays, with a minimum of description, with quick, snappy dialogue (hell, most characters sound like characters in movies—who never sound like people in real life), and all following a basic three-act structure, complete with inciting incident in the first 15 pages ala Syd Field (see his once-classic book on Screenwriting). I’ve read so many YA, fantasy, science fiction, and even at times non-fiction books that make me forget whether or not I already watched this in a theater. In many ways I think the authors are banking on the fact that the book will be turned into a movie—the ultimate sign of success in our culture. But novels aren’t movies, since they come from a world long before moving pictures: they come from a world of oral storytelling, where people were expected to read works aloud and to truly ‘hear’ the voices of the characters. A writer like Austen or Dickens exploited this sense to capture the unique class dialects of characters, knowing that the readers would hear each one and give voice to them, even if only in their heads. Too many novels today read like newscaster speak—all in the same, monotone, clipped style, with dialogue that sounds like it exists in Everywhere, USA. It’s almost the equivalent of painting a house beige so as not to offend the aesthetic of people shopping for a new home.
I truly think that novels were meant to be novels; they are machines built to do extraordinary things, but they are not designed to do the work of a movie. You get the best sense of this when you read a novelization of a movie: it reads like so much firewood, lumbering through the plot with perfunctory dialogue and perfunctory narration. In short, it’s a pale imitation of the movie, since none of the bells and whistles of the novels are being used. A novel should be a celebration of voice, an improvisation of narration, and befitting the name “novel,” truly unpredictable. There shouldn’t be a blueprint for writing a novel, and following the structure and customs of a movie is the least “novel” thing I can imagine. Movies are great works of art, but why must everything be a movie to be successful? A famous author recently said that one must write so the “movie screen turns on in the reader’s head.” The metaphor already shows that the game is lost. Why does writing have to create motion picture magic? The same author also said that style was less important than story: a fast-paced story sells books, not an artful sentence (which he says he never bothers with). Again, novels were meant to showcase style and language—not merely trace a glorified outline of a movie plot. We watch movies for that! Why can’t our books offer us something different, something again, novel?
In short, a book should play with language—it should make us aware of how we use language in our culture, and how many “Englishes” we use in every level of society. A novel shouldn’t read like a novelization of a popular film, it should be it’s own story, it’s own universe. Ever wonder why so many people say “the book was better”? It’s because the book wasn’t just telling a story; it was creating a world, full of small details and turns of phrase that have to be read, said aloud, and lingered over. You can’t really do that in a movie, which has to be continually moving forward. Indeed, one of the great advantages of a book is that it can stop dead—or go backwards. So why are we blaming novels (especially older novels) for doing just that? Don’t blame the machine, blame the readers who have forgotten the joy of a reading a book without searching for the movie behind it. So I say let’s have more books, less book-movies, and stop declaring a work “boring” for simply being what it is. If most great works of literature bore you, then perhaps you’re reading them wrong rather than the reverse. After all, some of the best books in the world stubbornly resist being made into films because they are so anti-film in their storytelling and structure, Dracula among them. Try to meet these books on their own terms and realize that there were thousands of years of stories before movies came around. Surely our forefathers and mothers weren’t completely devoid of taste: they knew a good story when they saw one. Of course, they also knew how to read one, too.