Thursday, 2 December 2010

Classic Book Reviews

Over the period of the next few weeks, I will be reviewing classic novels and posting my comments here.

Before I start, I'll share some of my general observations thus far:

Classic novels in the period 1600-1900 seem to all have these features in common:
1. They are all told from the first-person perspective ("I did this, I did that")
2. They are written as diaries or letters ("Dear Sir, I just saw Dracula")
3. They have major sentence run-on (multiple clauses separated by commas instead of fullstops)
4. They tend to focus on descriptions of scenery or the environment or new discoveries of "Natural Philosophy", i.e. Science, rather than, say, the emotional states or internal monologues of the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s).
5. They seldom contain action or love scenes, typically describing such events after the fact, and in one sentence.
6. They are racist and sexist.
7. Spellings are varied (show/shew, burthen/burden, etc.)

I suspect there are reasons for the above which can be explained in terms of the sociocultural milieu that we are looking at: the Enlightenment period. During this period, there was a substantial prudishness around sex, a fascination with the achievements of science and colonialism, and yet, traditional Christian values such as chastity, women's roles, etc., prevail. So these novels do not hesitate to go on and on for pages upon pages, about wonderful new creatures or plants, or how life occurs, etc. It's almost as if they're trying to serve some educational purpose. They also go on and on about white supremacy and the lack of cultivation of "savages".

When we get to the 20th Century, there is suddenly a shift: all the above 6 points change rapidly, and start to disappear. 20th-Century novels are typified by:

1. They are all told from the 3rd-person perspective ("Joe Soap did this, Joe Soap did that"); they are written as impartial 3rd-person observer perspective.
2. They have short sentences.
3. They have present-tense or recent past-tense speech exchanges in quote marks.
4. They tend to focus on descriptions of the emotional states or internal monologues of the protagonist(s) and antagonist(s).
5. They can or do contain action or love scenes, venturing into more detail on these.
6. They avoid racism and sexism, giving more active and intelligent roles to non-white-males.

This reflects the changes in the surrounding society: Women have been given the vote, slaves from non-white nations have been freed. There has been a discovery, since the invention of radio and TV, that people have short attention spans, so the writing has to be spiced up with sex and action, and sentences kept short to keep peoples' attention. The 3rd-person is a continuation, however, of the scientific perspective and purported neutrality of the novel's narrator. It serves to make the author invisible.

Some modern writers have reverted to the first-person style of writing, but, accustomed to the neutral 3rd-person, we find this first-person style naive or childish. It will be interesting to see what happens next. I suspect the next biggest impact on writing will be the Internet, which favours brevity, and the use of characters such as underscores, stars and brackets to make emphasis clearer. I've often joked that we should expect to see Shakespeare written thus:

        out damn spot! :-(

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