Does old prose have a chance?

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    Hope Ann

    I have an interesting discussion question posed by one of our newsletter subscribers, Madelyn.

    I write in an older style of prose, older words and descriptions, often moving  slowly instead of the modern fast paced simpler prose. Does old prose have a chance nowadays? How can I keep it, yet still keep my readers hooked? Can old prose still hold the fascination of an intriguing story?

    What do you think? @devastate-lasting, @princess-foo, @the-inkspiller, @r-m-archer

    Victory in the march. Hope in the destination.

    Linyang Zhang

    @hope-ann I’m afraid I can’t be much help. Just a couple of things, then:

    1. My sister likes old prose, and is determined to write in that style

    2. Classics are written in old prose and still enjoyable (For the most part)

    I think every author has their own unique writing voice, and if yours is old prose, then go for it! I would suggest reading a lot of classic lit though, to get the feel of how to use it.

    "I set a melody upon the scenery I saw outside my window;
    It's beginning in my spacy world."
    - TK



    Is this a discussion for everyone? I have some comments, but I’m not sure if I’m included in this or not… *shrugs*

    Even the smallest person can change the course of the future. -JRR Tolkien



    Madelyn, great questions! With one of my favorite books being written in the 1800’s and being 900+ solid pages long (Bleak House by Charles Dickens, his longest and least read book), I have thought about this and the conclusion I arrived at was that the style of old prose has strengths and values that the style of new prose does not, and vis versa.

    Most people these days believe that old prose:

    1.            occurred because authors like Charles Dickens were paid per word (true)

    2.            is purely wordy for the sake of wordy (false)

    Charles Dickens, notorious for being wordy, was a master of his craft not because he knew fancy words and used them a lot, but because even when he did, he managed to layer meaning after meaning in them.

    Let’s compare one of his shorter novels, Great Expectations, with Bleak House.

    In the case of Bleak House, it is wordier because it is very satirical and takes time to introduce characters because he was exploring their hypocritical natures and failings and virtues. It also is a more complicated book with 22+ characters and complicated plots that intertwine.  The wordiness is extremely pointed and layered and symbolic. Everything is charged with meaning, and every time I go back and read it I find myself digger deeper and deeper. That is one of the powers of Charles Dickens. Sometimes you will read a passage and think that it is nothing more than words to fill a page, and then it will end with a line that stuns you, and you realize that is what the paragraphs before were all leading up to and you have to back up and read it again. That is something you do not find in modern YA fiction, and that is one of the opportunities that “old prose” holds.

    Now, let’s look at the book Great Expectations. It is more of a straightforward story than Bleak House, the complicated satire that mixes five or so stories. It’s shorter, has fewer characters, yet displays many of these same hallmarks of Dickens: depth in descriptions, strong symbolism, layered characters, and intense foreshadowing – hallmarks that are served by his habit of using many words.

    The two scenes that keep coming to mind here are 1. the lengthy description (as in a couple solid pages) of the renaissance mural on the ceiling above a murdered man (Bleak House) and 2. Description of the way the main character’s aunt cuts bread (Great Expectations).

    The first granted is very long and hard to redeem. But the thoughtfulness that analyzes the painting and turns it into a metaphor for the human struggles beneath it, is something I only learned to appreciate my last reading of the novel (though I still say, boy that is a long passage). The first couple times I read the book I completely skipped over that part. I wanted to get back to the story and didn’t realize the profound meaning behind it.

    The second is shorter and much much more obvious. It’s a dissection, not of bread, but of the main character’s life and the personality and character of the aunt (who has a big part in the story.)

    Wordiness is not bad. Not necessarily.

    But how are you defining “old prose”? Because some of the style of Charles Dickens has carried over to present day authors. Secular post modernism novels (heaven forbid I’m actually referring to these on a Christian site, don’t go read them) are based heavily on characters and delve into their depths. This results in lots of wordiness, often loss of specific scenes, and they analyze the simple ways characters approach things (like cutting bread) and how it gives insight about their life. Yet those have a very modern feel to them. In both topic (hence don’t go read them) but also voice.

    But for the “old prose” which is merely a burst of classical mechanics, and older unfamiliar vocabulary words for the sole purpose of using older unfamiliar vocabulary words, then I would say, don’t try to write “old prose.” Trying to sound smart or elite is not a passable excuse for style choices or word choices. It’s not natural.

    The truth is “old prose” and “new prose” can both be done with equal sloppiness. As to your project and your writing, consider your target audience and the purpose of the book.

    (and these days if you’re planning to actually sell the book imagine pitching Bleak House to a modern publisher ha. 😉 )

    With that in mind, there is so much a writer can learn from authors of “old prose” about its mechanics, its power, and its depth. Even authors who experiment with things like contemporary first person narratives should not pass it off as useless nothingness. As the truth in the over worn piece of advice promotes: don’t just read books in the genre you write in. Read other books. Compare, analyze, ask questions. Don’t assume things.

    To be fair, I grabbed one of the wordiest authors of “old prose” for my example and his wordiest book (of which I only know one person in my entire life that has read it in full beyond me), but in your case Madelyn, I would tell you that if the mood of “old prose” is your style, stick to it. But make sure you execute it well. I would suggest you ask the following questions of your writing:

    1.       Is your wordiness thoughtful and purpose-full? Or is it just wordy and old sounding for a grand taste?

    And then for proof that a good story can be served in old prose: read Great Expectations. It holds a good balance of the old prose with a good story and some engaging pacing, insight into human nature, as well as a first person voice which draws the reader in immediately.

    This was long, so to summarize:

    1.       “Old Prose” is not as different from other prose styles as you might think

    2.       Modern authors can learn a lot from the masters of “old prose”

    3.       Wordiness in novels is not bad, as long as it all has a purpose

    4.       Wordiness in prose to sound smart or elite is not a redeemable purpose of its presence

    Or something like that…

    Hopefully this is helpful!

    Madelyn I applaud you in your writing and truly hope it goes well. Good luck!  🙂

    Linyang Zhang

    @olivia Anyone can post! 🙂

    "I set a melody upon the scenery I saw outside my window;
    It's beginning in my spacy world."
    - TK


    @devastate-lasting  Thanks, even though I’ve been on here for a while, I still like making sure. 🙂 Lol

    So about old prose… I’d mostly say that yes, there is a chance for old prose, since it is used for older books, and I like a quite a few old books written in old prose. Such as The Hobbit and so on.

    But one thing I’d say (and this is from the perspective of a reader, since I’ve never written in old prose) is that you need to be careful how stressed you make the prose. I’ve read some books where they were written in old prose, and the story itself was fine, but I sorta got lost when reading, because we don’t talk that way anymore. Language has evolved a lot, so I’d make sure to not make the pros too old fashioned, so to speak, or you might just end up losing your readers miles behind. (Or pages… Lol) 😉

    Even the smallest person can change the course of the future. -JRR Tolkien

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