I borrowed books from the library, borrowed from friends, and assembled quite a collection of my own books, mostly sci-fi.
Recently, I got my hands on some of those old novels and started reading, to see how my memory lived up to reality.
It's been a remarkable trip down memory lane, and a stark reminder of changing fashions.
These were stories written in the middle of last century. Let's set aside the strongly "Boy's Own" style, the highly stereotyped characters, stilted dialogue, and the inevitably dated descriptions of technology. The breadth of imagination is still amazing, and this is what drew me in originally.
What struck me most, though, looking through the lens of current trends, was the style of the writing itself. Most of the action was written in passive voice - shields were raised, torpedoes were launched, etc. The whole text was laden with more adverbs than ants on a picnic. And much of it was delivered in full-on narrative lecture mode, interspersed with dips into a more immersive style.
I found myself skimming long passages because I was tired and it was just too much like hard work to read.
I won't comment on whether or not these stories would get published nowadays, but I'm sure they wouldn't survive five minutes in any of the critique groups I've been part of.
The question is, does that make it bad writing?
I think that some of the "rules" we hear so much about are probably founded in good practice. But many of them, I think, are not so much rules as current fashions.
In my writing journey, I've had to unlearn years of schoolboy indoctrination to be expressive with lots of descriptive words. Were my English teachers teaching bad writing, or did I just misunderstand?
And I'm struggling to pinpoint exactly when "He walked quickly" became such a pariah. Adverb! Kill! Maybe it's the programmer in me, but there's actually a certain design elegance in separating reusable qualifiers from the primary verb, rather than insisting on a distinct word for each possible nuance.
How about "show, don't tell"? At times, I've gotten seriously peeved at critiques that pick up on Every. Single. "Tell".
"Don't tell me she's angry/frightened/upset (delete as applicable) - show me!" You know, sometimes I just want to get the emotion across (quickly!) and get on with the action.
So, is it inherently wrong, or a passing phase? Let's think. Isn't this called "storytelling" for a reason? The oral traditions were highly narrative.
In fact, I would argue that too much emphasis on showing can be dangerous and lead to misunderstandings. For example, I am extremely bad at reading emotions in faces, so giving me descriptive clues about the expressions a character is pulling is likely to fall flat for me. What description is so unambiguous that you can be sure every reader is going to get what you intended? Just tell me she looked angry, and get on with the story. Believe it or not, I can fill in the gaps for myself. I do have a vivid imagination.
And that brings me back to why I started skimming in so many places. As a reader, I think I've become soft and lazy from being spoon-fed too much easy-to-digest writing. Maybe today's writing fashions are influenced by shortening attention spans and the demand to have everything painted for us. The old style of storytelling, of narrating, placed a great burden on us as readers to envisage the scene for ourselves. We had to work at it. But at the time, for me anyway, that wasn't a burden, it was part of the joy of reading!
So, my question for you is, do you think there are any absolute and timeless measures of good writing, or are they all fashions subject to change?