Preferences change. Just take a look at fashion throughout the centuries or even just the past few decades. What was considered cool and hip in the 1980s and 1990s draws snide laughter now. The same goes for literature.
Way back in the 16th century when Miguel de Cervantes was penning The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, only a minority of Europe’s population could read. That minority was split into three factions: the (slowly) rising merchant class who read primarily for business purposes, the clergy (who read for religious purposes), and the nobility. (Let’s not get into gender, because we all know that education was considered wasted on females.) Of them, the nobility read for leisure.
For those who had the sublime luxury of leisure, novels became a dubious pleasure. Women dared not read too much for fear of weakening their vision or being considered overly cerebral. High society did not appreciate literate intelligence in women. Aristocratic males, however, could and did read whatever they pleased and, true to genetics, they enjoyed tales of grand and perilous adventure with themselves as the heroes.
This little history lesson has a point, so bear with me.
Women as novelists remained scandalous well into the 20th century. It just wasn’t respectable. With literature being written mostly by men for men, female characters tended toward certain ideals and stereotypes according to their categorization of heroine or villainess. For female readers seeking tales of derring-do with female protagonists, the pickings were slim.
Fast forward a few decades into the 1970s and 1980s when the effect of Women’s Lib rippled through Western society. Long venerated stereotypes were smashed left and right. Women demanded equal agency, and “assume the position” did not mean “wait for rescue.” Heroines could be the rescuers.
But I digress. This is not a diatribe against male authors and old fashioned stereotypes.
To return to the original concept of this article, the composition and preferences of readers changed. The radical concept of education for all ignited the change. Readers wanted stories that did not take winding, circuitous routes from beginning to end across several volumes. Their valuable and limited leisure time demanded stories that stayed on track and got to the point.
This led to changing preferences. In the first half of the 20th century, novels typically ran 40,000 to 60,000 words. Enter Ernest Hemingway with his pithy, succinct storytelling that set the world on fire and set a new standard for effective storytelling.
Societal tastes in storytelling changed and students dreaded having to read the classics. From Charles Dickens to James Fenimore Cooper, the long, leisurely novels that could be savored over weeks or even months fell into disfavor. The plots wandered and disappeared beneath a deluge of author commentary and seemingly irrelevant subplots. Archaic phrasing and old fashioned characterization further buried the plots which readers no longer felt obligated to unearth.
The most obvious example of this phenomenon that I can think of is The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper. It’s a thrilling tale, once you’ve dug it out of the heaps of extraneous other stuff in which it’s buried. I love the story, but never managed to slog through the entire book. I always bogged down and quit because I couldn’t endure more of all that unnecessary stuff. (For what it’s worth, I have the same complaint about everything Charles Dicken wrote.)
As novel writing matured and evolved through the centuries, the reading public’s expectations also evolved. Literature separated into genres, then began to span genres once again. Standards for “good” writing and “good” storytelling evolved, primarily set by publishing house gatekeepers and partially influenced by the book-buying public. That which sold best was deemed well-written. Commercial success became a pseudo-objective standard for quality, with Stephen King and Nora Roberts leading the charge.
Back to the classics.
We return to them time and time again. Those stories don’t die, because there’s gold in them thar hills. Buried beneath tons of dross–which could be otherwise described as expository description, tangential subplots, verbosity, purple prose, and other flaws that deliver the kiss of death to novels today–lies the elusive gleam of a golden story. Whether it’s the tale of a man’s obsessive revenge (see Moby Dick by Herman Melville) or the Gothic Victorian melodrama of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, the essence of a grand story shines through and rewards those who dig. That’s why filmmakers return again and again to these stories: they know they can rely upon the fabulous tales of yore if only they stick to the meat and cut out the fat. And it works every time.
Today’s savvy authors know that: stick to the meat and cut out the fat.