“By what seemed then and still seems a chance, the suggestion of a moment’s idle thought followed up upon familiar lines and paths that I had tracked a hundred times already, the great truth burst upon me, and I saw, mapped out in lines of light, a whole world, a sphere unknown; continents and islands, and great oceans in which no ship has sailed (to my belief) since a Man first lifted up his eyes and beheld the sun, and the stars of heaven, and the quiet earth beneath.”
Arthur Machen – The Great God Pan
I have just finished reading this (short) novel, and besides being a great tale, there was one thing that struck me most of all. It is about the style of writing. The structure of the work.
Nowadays, we are all about speed, everything needs to be set up in a fashion that minimizes time investment, while maximizing results. Be it in the workplace or at home, having fun. Even relaxing and enjoying hobbies, it would seem has become a quest for fulfilling ones desires in as short a time as possible.
Because we are all too busy. Too many places to go, people to see. We have emails to check, blogs to read, blogs to write, friends to call, acquaintances to text, we have YouTube videos to watch, likes to return, respects and tweets that need to be favorited, and re-tweeted, not to mention the required responses and ensuing 140 character conversations. There are hash-tags to remember and create, and of course, real relationships to be maintained, household chores to do, TV programs to watch, record and download. It is no wonder we are all in such a rush.
Back in the 1890’s there was not such a rush in the way of life, not as we see it today. That relaxed, laid back way was part of that generation, and it is displayed in the writing. Especially within the Great God Pan. I brushed on this in my review of the book here.
The long flowing sentences of the book, and I daresay of other writings at that time, exude a decadence that even the best modern writers cannot truly reproduce, because, deep down, we are no wired to think that way anymore.
Personally, I find is a disheartening truth, and I hope that you all agree with me, when I say that we rush needlessly through life, and all often forget to stop and smell the roses, or spend a few hours watching the world go by for no reason other than the fact we wanted to. We felt like stopping and letting go.
I am by no means claiming that we should be lazy, or that the people of previous centuries were lazy, rather, I aim my views at the way of life that society dictates we follow.
This post has strayed somewhat away from the topic I had planned to write about, and so that shall come at a later day, but in the meantime, let us consider the tempo with which we live out lives.
How often do we really just sit back and let things go, completely.
E-readers, as great as they are, have not helped. They delivery books instantly, they have lowered the cost of books so we can buy more, and therefore as an indirect result, read more. With freebie promotions being thrown around like a cake at a birthday party, we are being inundated with reading material, and I at least, feel obligated to read them all.
To revert back to the Great God Pan, as a mere singular example. There were passages in the book where one paragraph consumed multiple pages. Nowadays, with the modern style of writing, this would be an assault on our senses, as well as an affront to our speed conscious sensibilities. How can we monitor our progress reading through one big chunk of text, while short, sharp paragraphs help us monitor our march that much more efficiently.
However, in this text, with the flowing words and the grace with which each one was slotted into position, the blocks of text became not a challenge, but a pleasure. Maybe it is just me, maybe I am sentimental and possibly even a man born in the wrong era, but I found myself growing sad at the loss of such sentence structure and languid style prose.
Is there a place for such free-flowing thoughts and bodies of fiction in modern life, or are they outdated. Could a modern author pull it off, and even is so successful, would readers accept it, or jump upon with negativity?
Do we all move too fast, or am I just slow and holding onto something that I wish I had been able to experience.
5 thoughts on “Where’s The Fire?”
I grew up on prose like that and a part of me still expects prose to /be/ beautiful but all too often it’s not. I know I can’t write like that but like you I sort of wish that someone in this modern age could. Just to prove that it’s still possible. I have read some modern literary books and some have caught a little bit of the magic while others struck me as ‘trying too hard’.
Really enjoyed this post Alex. 🙂
Thanks Andrea, that means a lot.
I was forever being told off in school and by my first editor for using sentences that were too long and flowy! (that was the exact term my English teacher used one time). I said nothing, but inside I was screaming at them.
To me, being a writer is almost an invitation to break the mold and to stand out from the crowd. In a time where everything is being remade and re-released in movies, maybe it is time we re-released language in the glorious form it once had.
Well said Alex!
“What is this life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare.”
– William Henry Davies, Songs Of Joy and Others, 1911
It has always been part of human nature to find ways of making our lives easier – trains and planes for travel and transport, microwaveable meals, the internet – the list is endless. Of course, every thing that is meant to free us of some old problem inevitably brings problems of its own and so we work to solve those and so on. I don’t think, though, that we have beceome lazy as a species simply because we desire things to be available when we want them. I think that’s always been the case. There are still more people reading today than there were in 1890 (it’s not really a fair comparison, since in 1890 not everyone *could* read, literacy rates were low, people couldn’t afford to buy books, and there are more people alive now than at any other time in human history). But Davies’ poem, Leisure – quoted above – , shows us that even 20 years on from The Great God Plan people needed reminding that there’s more to life than work and so on. It’s a constant theme of poetry through the ages. I think there is a wider breadth of things to do now, a wider breadth of activities to distract us from others, and having more choice means we choose to do more things quickly so as to take advantage of them all, but I don’t think that we differ significantly in attitude from the people of the past. They were constricted by a lack of choice, but they were by no means more willing to spend hours and hours doing things they didn’t want to do. They still communicated on trivial matters. They still placed duty and work and other such things ahead of personal reflection or pursuit of hobbies like reading. All in all, I think that our looking back and seeing previous periods as simpler, less caffeine-culture, less quick fix, is just a desire for an imagined past – we construct the past we want based on what we think are the evils or problems of our time. Technology is a wonderful helpmate that solves many of our problems and it’s also a terrible trap. We do need to be reminded that we can turn off the television, set the phone to silent, and just sit and be for a while. We need to be reminded once in a while, but we haven’t, so far as I can tell, forgotten our desire for it.
Regarding whether long-windedness or rather lengthy paragraphing can be sustained by modern fiction – well, yes it can where it is necessary. As a massive Tolkien and Robert Jordan fan I can say that long paragraphs are absolutely fine, but there are points where Tolkien is describing a field for a page where it becomes a bit dry. I don’t personally find too short paragraphs appealling. The job of the author is to narrate or otherwise describe what is happening, and they’re not doing their job if they make paragraphs too short. Sometimes you do want a quick fix of action and plot, but other times it’s nice to have the characters reflect on what they’re doing, what they’ve done, and what they want to do. Character development is just as important as plot development. Modern styles are of course very different from the prose style of the late 1800s, but I don’t think it’s a lack of desire to give completeness to a book. It also depends very much on what genre we’re talking about – fantasy worlds necessitate more description, familiar ones less so. But it’s also a question of shifting market places and a shift in book production practices that have affected how we write and what sells. But let’s put it this way, if a book is good it can be 300,000 words or it can be 150,000; if it sustains your interest as a reader, you’ll read it and make time to do so. If not, not. Simple.
Enjoyed reading your post, Alex. It was very thought provoking – apologies for the essay!
Nick, that is probably the best comment I have ever received. Glad you enjoyed the post enough to take the time to write something of such proportions.
I really liked your statement
“All in all, I think that our looking back and seeing previous periods as simpler, less caffeine-culture, less quick fix, is just a desire for an imagined past – we construct the past we want based on what we think are the evils or problems of our time.”
I had not considered it from that perspective, but it makes a lot of sense and pretty much closes off my argument of simpler times etc.
Thanks again for reading.