Pride and Prejudice

I don’t get much time to read these days. Usually I read a couple paragraphs at a time as I nurse the baby. This means I am forced to be very choosy. First, my reading material must be a bound book — no manuscripts. Second, it must be a paperback, preferably a mass market sized one that’s easy to hold in one hand and balance precariously on my knee. Third, since I have to read the story very slowly, it can’t be too suspenseful or it would drive me crazy, but at the same time, it can’t be dull because, well, who wants to read something dull? I’ll admit, I’m not too fond of reading YA or middle grades because these are just a bit too close to work for me, although I have recently read both. Still, I’m always in search of that perfect book. And then I found it.

I’d seen the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice several times and loved it. Who wouldn’t? But I’d never actually read the book. So I took it out of the library and finished it today. I’m so sad that it’s over. What a wonderful world to immerse oneself in! What struck me though, as I read, was how different the writing style is from today’s style. With the infusion of writing programs, books, magazines, on-line sites, and general instructions galore on how writing is to be done, we tend to have this idea that there’s one correct way to write. Any of you who have invested yourselves in the writing process know what I’m talking about. Show, don’t tell. Omit needless words. Begin with the action, progress to the climax, then decrescendo. And to be honest, all of this advice is very wise for today’s market, but it strikes me that it’s also very much a result of the time period that we live in. It’s a style preference that may or may not last.

A friend of mine was telling me about a blogger who posted a short story on-line. One of his readers was curious (and one must imagine also very smart) so the reader designed a computer program to figure out how many lines in the blogger’s short story were tweetable. The answer: 79%. That’s staggering, and it shows the way things like Facebook and Twitter are shaping our language preferences and abilities whether we realize it or not. For the kids who grow up with texting, one can only imagine how wordy our present books may someday seem to them. Even in the picture book market the buzz is: keep the text short, make it funny. Yet as a mother, I want to encourage my son to have a rich and varied vocabulary, so I wonder where these directives are really coming from and whether we have any responsibilities as writers and/or publishers to try and preserve our language.

Jane Austen’s language in Pride and Prejudice is so complex and beautiful, and let’s admit it… by today’s standards, verbose. She tells and tells and tells throughout the story. In fact, one of the most important scenes is summed up by saying, “she immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure his present assurances.” And then he, “expressed himself on the occasion as sensibly and as warmly as a man violently in love can be sensible to do.

Ha! Is there anyone in publishing today who would not have written the words “show, don’t tell” in the margin of her manuscript? I don’t leave myself out of this censure. I’m sure I would have said, “use dialogue; let us see for ourselves what they say”. But did her telling lessen the pleasure of the book? Not in the least. I enjoyed sitting back and being told a great story and letting my imagination carry me away.

One of the wonderful messages (Oh heavens no! A message driven book?) is to be aware of the prejudices of the society that we live in, the false pride, the silly vanities. There’s a lesson in there for those of us who exist in the publishing world, where writers form social networking cliques that can easily be as catty as the social circles of Jane Austen’s time, and publishers deign to believe they have the final word on what makes good writing, and the credit given to the intelligence of readers is too often the same credit given to the flighty, coarse, embarrassing sensibility of Lizzy’s mother and little sisters. I imagine Jane Austen would have a field day with our current situation. She would see right through us, but would she get published?

I’ll leave that question to you, dear readers, and if I had but the wit I would close with the signature line of the modern author’s blog – an observation cloaked in self deprication meant to slyly reveal the magnitude of my cleverness. But of course, I have not the wit for that, so I’ll close instead by saying, get you to a library and remove the classics! Let us all be humbled together and let the power of the words work their magic.


Pride and Prejudice — 4 Comments

  1. When I was nursing my youngest, I read through all the Jane Austen books, starting with P&P. I had also watched the A&E version while pregnant, so it seemed natural. I first read P&P when I was about 25, and it has never lost its appeal. Either has the phrase “violently in love”!

  2. This is why I mostly read books from “verbose” authors. Often this turns out to be a select group of writers either from the past or from Britain, who are not afraid to use complicted phrases and words of more than 2 syllables.

    An interesting development that evolved from the Harry Potter series is that young readers began to demand more “grown up” writing. I worked in a bookstore during the long wait between the third and fourth book of the series. The children who were 9 and above were disgusted with the books aimed for their presumed reading ability. They were insulted by the simple language and began to read science fiction from the adult department.

    Side note: some American publishers have actual lists of “age appropriate” words that can be used in writing for specific grades. Needless to say, these are the simplest words possible. British writers and publishers appear to have a higher opinion of children’s ability to learn how to read at a higher level.

  3. Hi! My friend Georgia showed me your post – I think you’re referring to my analysis of Robin Sloan’s “Last Beautiful.”

    You can use the code I posted there to do a similar analysis for any story – is there a story of yours that you’d like to try?

    As to your overall point – I think it’s always true. The rules are always merely guidelines, and if you’ve got a good reason you should break them rather than be constrained.

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