Sunday, October 19, 2014

Language, Time and the Reader

I'd planned for today's post to be yet another review of a serialized novel at JukePop Serials. But then I saw a particularly interesting article over at Mad Genius Club, Sarah Hoyt's writing blog. So I've decided to delay my review of C. Rye's Sibling Moons to a later date, and we'll have a little change of pace.

Cedar Sanderson takes us through a Fantastic Journey Through Time, examining the language used in some of her favorite fantasy works, from the Red Fairy Book, which was published at the close of the nineteenth century, through one of Jim Butcher's most recent novels. A span of a little over a century, not nearly enough for language to change to the point of being incomprehensible, but certainly enough that, even with  mass literacy, stylistic changes become noticeable.

The most obvious change is the move from a more formal and scholarly level of diction toward a more conversational style. The earliest examples have a bookish feel to them, a sense of an elevated phraseology even with the occasional contraction or other construction generally stigmatized in formal writing. It's not just what is often called a timeless style -- instead, the prose seems almost deliberately constructed to create a sense of antiquity, of the story having been transmitted from the distant past.

By the time we come to JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, we see a shift in tone away from that effort to imitate the (sometimes ponderous) diction of the classics of Greece and Rome, and toward a more contemporary tone. Not yet casual or breezy, but almost the sense of a father sitting by the fire and telling the story to a circle of wide-eyed children. Maybe a Victorian or Edwardian father, but still a recognizably modern one telling a story in a contemporary voice rather than one intended to hearken back to older forms of storytelling.

With Robert A. Heinlein's Glory Road the transformation is complete. Our hero's speech is casual, down-home and unpretentious, even when addressing the princess. And he's genre-savvy, referring to Edgar Rice Burroughs' fictional Mars -- not to mention his suggestion that the princess might be wearing a cave-woman outfit of fake fur made by a chemical company.

The last two novels Cedar mentions are notable for being crossovers with other genres. In the Discworld series Terry Pratchett isn't just writing fantasy, but humorous fantasy. Instead of the larger-than-life characters of epic fantasy, we have absurd characters who elicit a chuckle by their antics. In this bit of dialog we have several standard fairy tale tropes, but all back-to-front and turned on their heads, to the point it becomes ridiculous.

Similarly, in the Henry Dresden novels Jim Butcher is writing urban fantasy, a subgenre in which magic intrudes into a contemporary setting to create a world in which wonder takes on a modern industrial sensibility rather than that of the pre-scientific world we see in epic and heroic fantasy. Furthermore, we have the elements of detective fiction, and specifically the hardboiled detective. The presentation of Maeve could be any femme fatale from any of a dozen hardboiled detective novels by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler or the like.

And thus we have, at the conclusion of this look backward, the question of whether it is obligatory for a contemporary writer to use contemporary language, especially when retelling classic stories. And then I think of Vera Nazarian, a contemporary fantasist whose immigrant background resulted in her having relatively little exposure to contemporary literature, instead growing up immersed in classical fairy tales and mythology of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, a very different literary tradition from that familiar to most readers. As a result, her English prose has a richness and intricacy that often strikes readers accustomed to minimalist transparent prose as  heavy, even overworked. Because so many of the gatekeepers of traditional publishing have been educated in the minimalist mainstream, Ms. Nazarian has struggled for the better part of three decades just to get published, and only with the emergence of indie e-publishing has she finally been able to come into her own as a writer.

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