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Thread: How Does Today's Writing Differ from 19/20th Century Writing?

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    How Does Today's Writing Differ from 19/20th Century Writing?

    When you read recently-written books and compare them to books written during the 19th/early 20th century, what sort of differences do you notice?


    Overall, how does the tone and language of today's writing differ from that of the 19th/early 20th century?


    Which writing style do you appreciate more? And why?
    Last edited by astrum; 01-30-2013 at 03:24 PM.

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    Registered User Calidore's Avatar
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    Sounds an awful lot like homework questions, which we shouldn't be doing for you. What are your own thoughts?
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    This is not homework. This is something that I'm curious about, especially after browsing several public domain works on Google Books.

    I'll share my thoughts, but I hope they won't bias that of others. That is, if you have a different opinion or disagree, please feel free to say so. I enjoy listening to different point of views.


    Here it goes: To me, it seems that modern writing is more direct, matter-of-fact, and concise. Whereas, writing from the 1800s/early 1900s seems more circuitous, sentimental, and introspective; it also tends to be wordier though not necessarily in a bad way. I've also noticed greater variety in sentence structure and diction in writing from that time period. While there are exceptions, this seems like the general trend.

    The evolution of the English language is truly fascinating. I wonder what spurred these changes and whether the advent of industrialization is partly responsible.
    Last edited by astrum; 01-30-2013 at 04:50 PM.

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    It is an interesting topic, and there are several factors that cause such changes.

    Let's start with the advent of the novel (18th century - with a few pre-cursers in the late 17th century). The earlier forms of industrialism in the 18th century had the same, albeit smaller, effect as the original agricultural revolution. That is, from the 18th century, people (upper class people) tended to have more free time, and thus, were able to sit down and read such books as Clarissa, or Tom Jones, or other lengthy novels. This culture bloomed throughout the 19th century, wherein novels began to appear both in long forms, but also in newspapers. Industrialization created a sort of schedule, a normalcy that was new to this society. People were able to keep up with the chapters spread out throughout the months' editions of the newspaper, the same way we today keep up with weekly tv shows. Because this was a growing market, the "pay by word" system became a thing in England: this accounts for the wordiness that you point out.

    Let's jump ahead. The start of the 20th century saw a reaction against the pedantry and over intellectualism of the Victorians. WWI furthered this cause. No longer was there room in literature for the escapism that the Victorian texts provided. The world underwent such a horror that had to be faced and dealt with, not hidden behind stories. Post-WWI literature therefore became more succinct (Hemingway being the epitome of this). Of course, this is all very generalized - and there was still escapism being produced (Fantasy and early sci-fi) and still some wordy authors.

    I don't think your assessments of contemporary literature are wholly accurate. There is a great mishmash of work out there today - maybe not reaching the level of Dickens' works when it comes to wordiness, but certainly not as condensed as you make it seem. There are two overly-general strands of books out there: those that exist for the story, sort of, a movie in print - and those that exist for the language: where the beauty of the book lies in the words. Postmodernism and its residues exist in the second category. Some of the more mainstream literature of today fall into the first.
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    Interesting observations, Charles Darnay.

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    confidentially pleased cacian's Avatar
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    I think the one thing that stands out from me is this: Modern writing has a lot of abbreviations slang and swearing.
    Language has change and so the content is less and less impressive.
    Last edited by cacian; 01-31-2013 at 04:09 AM.
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    The Ghost of Laszlo Jamf islandclimber's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by astrum View Post
    Here it goes: To me, it seems that modern writing is more direct, matter-of-fact, and concise. Whereas, writing from the 1800s/early 1900s seems more circuitous, sentimental, and introspective; it also tends to be wordier though not necessarily in a bad way. I've also noticed greater variety in sentence structure and diction in writing from that time period. While there are exceptions, this seems like the general trend.
    Are you serious here? Have you not read anything of post-modernism, the biggest literary movement of the post-ww2 era? Pynchon, McElroy, Gass, Nądas, DFW, Krasznahorkai... Not one of these writers could be described as direct, matter-of-fact, concise... McElroy's Women and Men and Peter Nądas' Parallel Stories might be two of the most "wordy" novels ever written... Alongside being disjointed, obfuscatory at times, labyrinthine, and certainly experimental to some extent. Krasznahorkai writes novels that seem like fiercely personal apocalypses... The apocalypse of but a single man. And his prose spirals off endlessly, several page sentences are frequent discoveries. Prose doesn't get much more beautifully grotesque than with William Gass... The Tunnel might be one of the most bizarre, yet captivating novels I have read... And these are just a few writers. I could provide a list of 100s... Even more, dependent on cutoff date... Do we throw Beckett's magnificently jarring prose in now? Nabokov's? They were certainly post ww2 to a large extent.

    I can only imagine you are referencing modern mass market type works for this statement to bear even a semblance to reality. Besides Joyce, it would be quite a challenge to name another writer from the late 19th/early 20th as "difficult" or "challenging" as any one of those mentioned above.

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    The Ghost of Laszlo Jamf islandclimber's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cacian View Post
    I think the one thing that stands out from me is this: Modern writing has a lot of abbreviations slang and swearing.
    Language has change and so the content is less and less impressive.
    The content is less impressive because language has changed? Because there are abbreviations, slang, and swearing? How much of the modern literary canon have you read? It seems little from this statement.

    Regardless of what you have read, a writer of the earlier period in question, Joyce: is his prose less impressive because Ulysses is full of colloquialisms? Because Finnegan's Wake is likely incomprehensible to the average reader? Laurence Sterne and Rabelais wrote bawdy masterpieces of essentially vulgar toilet humour in this more impressive past...

    Have you read Pynchon, DFW, Nabokov, Krasznahorkai, Nądas, Burroughs, McElroy, Carter, Beckett, Gass, Gaddis, Barnes,Barth, Vollmann, Kirino, Perec, Bolano, Ducornet, Ackers, Burgess, Murakami, Smith, Federmen, Queneau, Delillo, Roth, Ballard, Munro, Rushdie, Borges, Llosa, Kundera, Amis, Roy etc etc etc? If not, how can you qualify such a statement about content being less impressive?
    Last edited by islandclimber; 01-31-2013 at 06:01 AM.

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    confidentially pleased cacian's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by islandclimber View Post
    The content is less impressive because language has changed? Because there are abbreviations, slang, and swearing? How much of the modern literary canon have you read? It seems little from this statement.

    Regardless of what you have read, a writer of the earlier period in question, Joyce: is his prose less impressive because Ulysses is full of colloquialisms? Because Finnegan's Wake is likely incomprehensible to the average reader? Laurence Sterne and Rabelais wrote bawdy masterpieces of essentially vulgar toilet humour in this more impressive past...

    Have you read Pynchon, DFW, Nabokov, Krasznahorkai, Nądas, Burroughs, McElroy, Carter, Beckett, Gass, Gaddis, Barnes,Barth, Vollmann, Kirino, Perec, Bolano, Ducornet, Ackers, Burgess, Murakami, Smith, Federmen, Queneau, Delillo, Roth, Ballard, Borges, Llosa, etc etc etc? If not, how can you qualify such a statement about content being less impressive?
    Hi islandclimber I have picked few books at the airport through sheer boredom and I can promise you the content was much less apparent then the language. The writing was crammed with swear words abbreviations and literally littered with attitude and violence. I mean I am talking broadly speaking. The English language today is slang and half spelled. Just look at the average cheap newspapers and mobile texting. The language ihas become half lettered and half numbered. The computer does not help either.
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    The Ghost of Laszlo Jamf islandclimber's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cacian View Post
    Hi islandclimber I have picked few books at the airport through sheer boredom and I can promise you the content was much less apparent then the language. The writing was crammed with swear words abbreviations and literally littered with attitude and violence. I mean I am talking broadly speaking. The English language today is slang and half spelled. Just look at the average cheap newspapers and mobile texting. The language ihas become half lettered and half numbered. The computer does not help either.
    Do you not see the problem with the connections you make? You have picked up a few airport novels, which are widely considered trash, and you are extrapolating from this extraordinary discovery that all modern literature is lacking in content, vulgar, crude, trash. Shouldn't little red logic flags being going up in your head? You're comparing today's trash novels to the classics of the past; you're suggesting that literature today is the equivalent of cheap newspapers and mobile texting because you have read a few airport novels. The problem is that you haven't read anything of contemporary literature that will someday achieve classic status. Therefore, how could you possibly be qualified to make a judgment on contemporary literature?

    That list of contemporary/modern writers I began above... how many of them have you read? Better yet, check the modern libraries list of 100 greatest books of the century, or other such lists and tell me how many you have read from the past 50 years of listings... Then tell me if you feel qualified to make broad generalizations about modern literature...

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    I'm not just referring to literature but rather the era's overall language/voice.
    Last edited by astrum; 02-03-2013 at 08:47 AM.

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    even this is a bit myopic - but you're in fair company there. It's part of romanticizing the past, but the truth is, if you read 19th century essays, you will find complaints that the English language is dying and people are becoming lazy in writing and speech.
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    The Ghost of Laszlo Jamf islandclimber's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by astrum View Post
    islandclimber,

    By "modern writing," I'm not only referring to highbrow literature but rather the overall language of the era as well.
    Myopic, certainly. You are comparing the works that survived the test of time - the classics of the past - to every piece of genre trash that gets published today.

    What do you know of mediocre writers from the 19th/early 20th century such as Sax Rohmer, Emilio Salgari, H Rider Haggard, RM Ballantyne, William Morris, Abraham Merritt, Georgette Heyer, EM Hull, Karl May, Owen Wister, Simon Mohler Landis, and so on? There were countless authors penning awful literature 100+ years ago, they just haven't survived to this day. We no longer know anything of the penny dreadfuls that were prevalent then, because today no one reads this junk. But it was some of the most popular literature of the Victoria Era. Thomas Peckett Prest, James Malcom Rymer, Horatio Alger, Oliver Optic, Harry Castlemon; any of these names ring a bell? Unlikely. But they created some of the most atrocious fiction ever...

    You cannot compare a macrocosmic view of contemporary literature to a microcosmic view of 19th/early 20th century literature. Just as there is highbrow and lowbrow now, there was also highbrow and lowbrow then. A failure to take this into account reduces an opinion to irrelevancy.

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    In the fog Charles Darnay's Avatar
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    hey now - what is Morris doing on that list?
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    Quote Originally Posted by islandclimber View Post
    Are you serious here? Have you not read anything of post-modernism, the biggest literary movement of the post-ww2 era? Pynchon, McElroy, Gass, Nądas, DFW, Krasznahorkai... Not one of these writers could be described as direct, matter-of-fact, concise... McElroy's Women and Men and Peter Nądas' Parallel Stories might be two of the most "wordy" novels ever written... Alongside being disjointed, obfuscatory at times, labyrinthine, and certainly experimental to some extent. Krasznahorkai writes novels that seem like fiercely personal apocalypses... The apocalypse of but a single man. And his prose spirals off endlessly, several page sentences are frequent discoveries. Prose doesn't get much more beautifully grotesque than with William Gass... The Tunnel might be one of the most bizarre, yet captivating novels I have read... And these are just a few writers. I could provide a list of 100s... Even more, dependent on cutoff date... Do we throw Beckett's magnificently jarring prose in now? Nabokov's? They were certainly post ww2 to a large extent.

    I can only imagine you are referencing modern mass market type works for this statement to bear even a semblance to reality. Besides Joyce, it would be quite a challenge to name another writer from the late 19th/early 20th as "difficult" or "challenging" as any one of those mentioned above.


    Take a random book/article written during the 1800s and compare that to a random book/article written recently. Then, you will probably see what I mean. For example, compare the following books on Jay Gould, a 19th-century industrialist. The first was written during the late 1800s while the second was written in our times. Do you not notice the differences in language?:


    Life of Jay Gould: How He Made His Millions


    The Life and Legend of Jay Gould
    Last edited by astrum; 11-26-2013 at 09:27 AM.

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