Evolution of Writing (Part 2): Styles in Vogue

{Part of a series about how writing and writers and the books they write have changed over time. And why understanding these changes matters today. Part one here.}

The first accredited novel in English is a compilation of Romantic tales about a young king and his eventual death called Le Morte d’Arthur. Don’t let the fact that the title is in French throw you off– here was our first novel, officially, if you don’t find the Bible. This collection chronicled the tales of King Arthur and his knights of the round table. Like many oral tales told up until this point, this sort of story is what we now refer to as “a legend.” People have been telling legends for thousands and thousands of years.

Such legends include the Odyssey, an epic poem detailing Odysseus’ return home after the Trojan War. This folklore evolved eventually into fictional novels, derivatives on the original adventure stories. As centuries passed, many forms of in-vogue genres rose and fell. Literary ages overlapped each other from the religious-based, didactically moralistic narratives of Puritanism to the intuitive, emotionally-charged, and poetic life sagas of Romanticism, from the realist, social-minded accounts during the Civil war to the fantastical, nihilistic, crazy-mind-bending manifestos of Postmodernism.

With the times, our stories change. The way we approach different subjects changes. Take monsters for example. Centuries ago, Romantic writers approached vampires as vile beings while today writers use them as a metaphor for social outcasts, yet in both eras, the vampire serves as a symbol for sexual longing. Even as things change, they stay the same.

Genre changes as well as form. People have written novels and poems for a long time, but today, we also write scripts for television and movies, political speeches, song lyrics, and experimental theatre. This change in form has forayed a blossoming of new subject material which is being covered. We have essentially change what it is “okay” to write about. We whip out taboos like they’re Surrender flags and we’re the French army.

Over the past few decades, wars have been fought over controversial books. In schools, books like Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Cather in the Rye have been contended with time and time again. But today, most people are completely okay with reading such material. Who cares if our sophomores are reading a Nabokov tale about a child molester? Totally normal, right?

In some ways, this general apathy toward taboo is good. We’re allowed to criticize anything, include anything, and society as a whole will be okay with it. On the other hand, this has affected our writing. We can’t seem to write a story without cool, edgy taboo-ness. I’m still going through this phase. Everything I write, I want your mother to say, “Oh dear!” But I mean, now we have books like 120 Days of Sodom. Is that a good thing? Maybe.

In this era, we can write about anything. But this notion, that is why The Human Centipede exists.

We are restricted by our own ideas, though, of what we find taboo. Even then, it takes something truly disgusting and unique (ala Human Centipede) to truly shock people and get them talking. Write a book like The Color Purple today, and people will shrug. So what? Incestuous rape? Get with the times. I can see that on HBO!

Sure, we’ve jumped from boring old cliches like “the hero’s journey” and “slaying the dragon” to an era of stories that may seem too cutting-edge. Not just with plot, but also with form. We’ve created new forms that defy everything we’ve done before. To the point, the stories don’t exist anymore. People rely solely on the trumped up contrivance to carry the plot. Booksluts does an excellent job of summing up this problem on their blog: http://insatiablebooksluts.com/2012/03/06/reading-rage-tuesday-your-clever-writing-slays-me-literally-i-am-dying/?subscribe=success#blog_subscription-2.

Every decade, the story evolves. What we write about evolves. What is accepted in general society changes what and how we write, so we begin trying new things. What do you find about this?

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About Derek Berry

Derek Berry is a novelist and spoken word poet. Derek is the author of Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County (PRA Publishing, 2016). He co-founded and organizes The Unspoken Word, a literary non-profit based out of Charleston, SC, which provides an intendent home for the poetic arts through regular readings, workshops, and community fundraisers. He is on the Executive Board of the Charleston Poetry Festival, the inaugural production of which will be Fall 2017. His work has appeared in The Southern Tablet, Cattywampus, Charleston Currents, Illuminations, RiverSedge, and other journals.He has performed in venues across the United States and Germany. He has worked as a photographer’s assistant, busboy, and bookseller. He currently works at a curation facility for Cold War History.

Posted on March 10, 2012, in books, Controversy, Language, writer, Writing, writing advice and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Great commentary on the art (maybe not the best choice of words) of writing. I’d like to hear your thoughts on how POV and voice have changed over the years…

  1. Pingback: Evolution of Writing (Part 4): Where We Write Matters « Word Salad

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