Reader Drew Turney wrote to me recently with an interesting question. There’s so much advice, commentary, and opinion about stripping away anything unessential to a book’s plot. Writing in the modern era emphasizes moving the plot forward at all costs, and everything else is “ruthlessly killed off no matter how darling.” Digressions and detritus that might otherwise be compelling on their own are eliminated.
Is this a purely modern phenomenon? And is it for the best?
My opinion: Yes to both.
Yes, I do think it’s a modern phenomenon. I also think that stripping the unessential is a reflection of the fact that people are getting better at writing books.
But it’s complicated.
We’re living in a golden era
We tend to view the present in a negative light, especially when it comes to books and literature. Today’s books can’t hold a candle to Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s, today’s readers aren’t as noble and patient as readers in the 1950s, social media and distraction and e-books are killing literature (even though studies have shown people with e-readers read more).
We always think things are getting worse relative to some golden era in the past.
Partly this is because the only books we read from past eras are the good ones. All the pulp, all the duds, all the forgettable ones have largely been forgotten and have been lost to history. We tend to forget that the classics we read were very rarely the most popular books of their time. Every era had its pulp, its celebrity books, and its, well, crap.
And because we elevate whole eras above our own, we also tend to treat classics as sacred and perfect. We don’t spend much time thinking about how the books from the canon could have been improved upon or how, say, Dickens could been that much better if he had just reined himself in a little.
When you compare a writer like Marcel Proust to a writer like Jonathan Franzen, you can see the way literature has progressed. Both have incredible insight into human nature and a compellingly unique worldview, but Proust’s insights are buried in a tangled mess of digressions, false starts, and drudgery where Franzen’s are delivered in the context of a compelling plot.
We think of books like vegetables. If they don’t taste good they must be good for you. But does consuming good literature really have to be wholly difficult?
Stripping away the unessential is, I would argue, both a product of how books are now written (it’s way easier to strip when you’re writing on a computer or typewriter than when you’re writing by hand), but also because it makes the books better. The modern era has proven that books can be both great and readable.
That’s the point, isn’t it? Can’t meals be both healthy and delicious?
But even still, I have mixed feelings. After all, my favorite book is Moby-Dick precisely because of its scope and its digressions and the sheer insanity of its vision.
Moby-Dick stripped down just to the plot would be about a hundred pages of a crazy captain chasing a white whale. But it’s so much more than that. In Moby-Dick, the unessential is the essential.
There are modern writers who embrace Melvillian levels of digressions and detail (David Foster Wallace springs to mind), but it’s extremely hard to imagine Moby-Dick making it through the modern day editorial process.
As much as I believe we don’t give modern readers enough credit, I do think we’re ultimately less patient with digressions. We’re so bombarded by polish and economic storytelling in books, TV and movies that it can be jarring to sit through something that meanders and takes a while to get to the entertaining bits. I find it really difficult to focus while reading older books.
So in our drive to making things polished and entertaining are we losing moments that are otherwise great on their own? Can economy of storytelling be taken too far?
The power of choice
I still believe that people will look at the beginning of the self-publishing era as the start of a golden period.
For one, there’s now a whole lot more competition. For most of the history of publishing, the vast majority the books were written by a privileged few in small circles. If you weren’t rich, white and knew the right people, good luck. I fail to see how those really can be considered golden eras. Now the process is opening up to everyone, which means more competition and more choice.
There’s also now room in the market for things that the publishing industry wouldn’t have published in earlier eras, which, sure, means a lot of subpar books out there, but it also means that books that are quirky and strange and digressive will also be out there too.
The pressure to sell books and get a publisher drove a lot of literary writers to strive for both literary appeal and readability, and I don’t know that that was necessarily a bad thing. But now the freedom of self-publishing will allow people with a non-mainstream vision to have their work out there too. Books won’t have to be readable in order to find their audience.
So while the modern era of books drove us all to focus on economy and kill our darlings, things may well be changing. Writers won’t have to sacrifice their vision in order to find their readers.
Maybe digressions will make a comeback.
Art: Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick