February 08, 2010

An old fashioned mode

One of the participants in Elizabeth Baines's reading group criticised a novel recently (I am plucking one sentence from a very interesting blogpost about what seems to be a fascinating discussion). She said it was put in an

an old-fashioned long-winded mode which nowadays she just can't stand any more.

The phrase interested me. Firstly because it opens up a possibility- that no idea of the beauty of a text can ever be separated from its time- ie that fashions change and that that means that what was acceptable for people to laud a work for in 1900 has become a flaw today. Secondly it opens up the reversal of that possibility- that a virtue in a novel by Dosteovsky has become a flaw in a novel written today. There may be something in that- afterall Dosteovsky, my representative classic author, did whatever he did for the first time- copying is not a creative virtue. But there is a deeper sense in which this is interesting- in the sense that it is acceptable for Shakespeare to use 'thou' but not for Zadie Smith.

I wonder if this can be explained if we expand what we mean by conventions within story writing. Let me expand: novels tell a story through a set of conventions- the most commonly known are a set called languages, these are generally accepted norms of communicating in that community. In a sense though the structure of the story, the way it works, the types of incident and the types of explanation are also conventions- like the camera movement in cinema- and those become acceptable and unacceptable and are anchored to a period of time as much as language is or camera work is. In this sense Elizabeth Baines' contributor is exactly right: having long philosophical passages in novels might be as misplaced as seeing a modern English novel written with thee and thou used instead of you. That brings us though to a question that I have never thought about as much as I should which is the ways that conventions change, the ways that languages slip and the ways that innovations in the convention of writing are accepted.