Thursday, May 5, 2011

Writing for an Era

One lament often heard among writers is that, because the publishing industry has changed so much, such-and-such famous writer from the past could never get published in today’s marketplace. Sometimes the classic writer mentioned is C. S. Lewis, who might have chafed under today’s insistence that authors market themselves with a particular “brand” and genre. Since Lewis penned such diverse genres as theological apologetics, children’s fantasy, adult science fiction and contemporary spiritual warfare, if he had lived in our own time, would literary agents have rolled their eyes at his assorted proposals?
Several years ago, I attended a Write to Publish conference and returned to the dorm to find a young writer trying to interpret the critique note a faculty member had jotted onto his sample chapter. The cryptic comment said his writing reminded her of Charles Dickens’s style.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” my fellow conferee asked a circle of listeners.
“Dickens wrote for the 1800s,” someone noted. “He couldn’t get published today with his style.”
“Exactly!” said the man with the man who’d received the note. “So is this a compliment, or just the opposite? Is she saying I better change if I hope to get published nowadays?”
Because classic writers of the past, like cream in fresh milk, rose to the top of bestseller lists in their time, modern authors who love their works debate whether Don Quixote could last ten seconds with a modern editor without a car chase on the first page. Or, if Herman Melville lived now and refused to cut those chapters in Moby Dick that detail how to catch whales and extract blubber and oil from them, would any publishing pro work with him?
Such questions might be fun to pose, but the same truth holds in reverse. Pick a modern bestseller, for instance, The Bourne Identity. Send the manuscript back in time to 1750. Would writer/editor Benjamin Franklin ooh and ah over it? Not a chance. “Readers prefer things like Poor Richard’s Almanack,” he might respond. Probably the same could be argued for all or most novels on the current New York Times bestseller list, not to mention that story you’re working on right now.
So, is it helpful to argue whether proven authors of the past could survive in today’s literary environment? Not particularly. The challenge for every writer is to zero in on a subject or plot that will capture the interest of readers in his/her own era and to develop an engaging style that doesn’t mimic anyone else’s. 

Question: Have any writers of the past provided you with inspiration to write for your own generation? What do you especially appreciate in their styles? 
Rick Barry


  1. I'm currently reading the children's book "Countess Kate" by Charlotte Yonge, who was a prolific writer in the latter half of the 19th Century. The book contains a lot of sermonizing in the author's POV that brings you out of the story. I was thinking as I was reading yesterday that people were used to preaching then but wouldn't tolerate it today.

    I was also thinking how C.S. Lewis and the Narnia series are different. Lewis makes the same moral/Christian points without taking us out of the story, which is what today's reader expects. It's harder to do, but I can't believe that the person who succeeds will ever be out of fashion.

    Dickens was a genius. He probably would have changed his writing style and been just as successful if he were writing today.

  2. Not so much the past, but Sharon Hinck's books have inspired me.
    Nice post, by the way. Really get's you thinking about all the "how-to" books I have read.

  3. Rick, I think, both then and now, it all boils down to the old adage, "Don't just say something, have something to say." Sure, all things are important in their place, but a good story, told well, will win out every time.

  4. I do think if you had talent "then," that it means you have any less talent if you had been brought to the "now."

  5. Comment to Darren's last comment -- I found your sentence hard to understand -- it almost sounds like your saying that a person with talent "then" has less talent "now", and I doubt that's what you're trying to say.


  6. Rick, excellent post.

    On a critique group, one person used Agatha Christie as the example of someone who wouldn't be publishable today.

    The fact is that we are influenced by what we read and by our surroundings and unless we stay cooped up with Agatha Christie Ministries, John Calvin's Institutes, the Chronicles of Narnia, and the King James Version of the Bible, we'll reflect the contemporary time.

    To answer Rick's question, out of the writers I read a lot of the ones I find most inspirational and influential are Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. Rex Stout is another example, though I didn't like Nero Wolfe mysteries as much because I always had the impression that two thirds of the way through the book Stout threw all the suspects names in a hat, pulled out one, and left you with the feeling you had no clues to figure it out yourself.

    Other authors I've read multiple novels by include youth baseball novelist John R. Cooper, George Orwell, Steven King, Allistair MacLean, Frank Peretti, C.S. Lewis, Randy Singer, and Amy Wallace. Non-fiction writers that I've read a lot by would feature Dave Hunt (including one of his two novels), Francis Schaeffer, and John MacArthur, and I've probably been influenced by the writing styles of newspaper columnists Cal Thomas and Debra Saunders as well as commentaries by Arno C. Gaeblein, Matthew Henry, and Dr. J. Vernon McGee. I can also consider Ron Benray on the list, after reading one book on writing by him and a novel in a similar genre to my own. I find that even though this group of authors are not ones I would compare myself to, they still make an impact and may have some unnoticed influences.