Two Basic Differences Between Modern And Older Novels

Ever since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago, one of the things that has surprised me so much are the differences between older and modern fiction. For the purposes of this article, I’ll define “modern fiction” as stories first published in the 21st century and “older fiction” as anything published before then (with a focus on the 20th century).

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been trying to do is to read a mixture of older and more modern fiction. This is mostly to give modern fiction a chance. After all, during previous times when I’ve read regularly for enjoyment (eg: during most of the 2000s and the early-mid 2010s), I’ve often tended to focus slightly more on older 20th century novels than on 21st century ones.

So, let’s look two of the most basic differences between older and modern fiction. However, I should point out that these are generalisations and there will be exceptions to everything I mention here. Likewise, I’ve probably mentioned all of these things before too, but they’re always interesting to look at.

1) Complexity: At the time of writing this article, I’m reading a novel from 1962 called “Something Wicked This Way Comes” by Ray Bradbury. One of the surprising things about this novel is that, technically speaking, it would probably fit into the modern “young adult” (YA) category if it was published today.

It bears all of the hallmarks of this genre – the protagonists are teenagers, it is a novel about being a teenager and it seems to be a fairly “PG-13” kind of story (to use an American phrase). Yet, it contains something that the modern novels (in a variety of genres) I’ve read over the past decade or so often don’t contain – linguistic complexity.

To give you an example, here’s a spectacular sentence from “Something Wicked This Way Comes”: ‘Then the calliope gave a particularly violent cry of foul murder which made dogs howl in far countries, and Mr Cooger, spinning, ran and leaped on the back-whirling universe of animals who, tail first, head last, pursued an endless circling night towards unfound and never to be discovered destinations.

This is a long, complex, formal, poetic and descriptive sentence. It has been carefully designed to make the reader feel like they’re watching the endless spinning of a merry-go-round in a mysterious old circus. It is meant to be vivid and disorientating. Yet, unless you’ve had a fair amount of practice reading older novels, it may confuse you. In a modern novel ( whether general fiction or YA), the language would probably be less formal and it would be broken up into several shorter sentences in order to achieve the same effect.

So, older novels are often written in a more complex and formal way. Yes, there are exceptions to this but, even if you look at that most high-brow of genres – paperback action-thriller novels – you’ll also notice that examples from the 1970s-90s often tend to be written in a slightly slower paced and more descriptive way than modern action-thriller novels are. The sentences are often longer and there are more descriptions.

This is kind of a double-edged sword though. Since, although all of this extra complexity really helps to give older novels a sense of uniqueness, personality, depth and atmosphere that modern novels sometimes lack, modern novels can often be a lot more gripping and readable. Because they have to compete with videogames, boxsets, smartphones and the internet, modern novels are often a lot more streamlined, efficient and readable than older novels.

2) Length: Whilst longer novels are nothing new (just look at the Victorians!), one of the really interesting differences between 20th and 21st century fiction is how longer novels have gone from being the exception to being the rule.

When you look at paperback books from the 20th century, the average length often tends to be somewhere in the region of 200-300 pages. This is a length that helps to keep the story focused and helps to ensure that the reader can finish the book without getting bored by it.

In contrast, modern 21st century novels will often be about 300-400 pages in length at the least. Yes, I have found shorter modern novels (in fact, I usually try to seek them out), but they tend to be less common than they used to be.

As with all of these things, there are advantages and…. Oh, who am I kidding? Older fiction has all of the advantages here. Because shorter novels were more acceptable in the 20th century, these stories tend to cram more storytelling into a shorter length – which resulted in better fiction. When an older 20th century novel is long, it usually has to justify this length by telling a story that cannot be crammed into a smaller number of pages.

Still, I find it ironic that, for all of the moaning about how people’s attention spans are getting shorter – books keep getting longer. Still, this increase in novel length seems to be part of a more general trend these days. I mean, just look at films. Back in the 1980s/90s, a film usually tended to be a fairly efficient 90-110 minutes in length. These days, even superhero movies can easily pass the two-hour mark.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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