The most shocking thing my — admittedly very odd — sons ever told my brother was that the Beatles weren’t all that. Imagine supercilious teens saying “oh, they were all right, I suppose.”
This tied in with something we were talking about here yesterday. The internet, while seemingly innocuous and unobtrusive has changed our lives at such a fundamental level that even those of us who grew up through the shift don’t fully understand how different things are now. particularly for writers.
There is one well established author, for instance, whom I found myself fuming at because instead of simply looking up archaic forms of common names for her supposedly “alive since the middle ages” characters, just sort of made modern names sound old timey.
Now, I had some reason to fume, because even pre-internet I knew how to find this. But then I was trained in linguistics and my mind contained concepts like “find a book with archaic forms and tracing of given names.” Also, given the erratic nature of book supply and demand in the 80s, I was probably just immensely lucky to find THAT book in a used bookstore near home.
Which probably means that she wasn’t as sloppy as I thought.
But for people younger than me, this is a really difficult concept.
Can I see my sons listening to the Beatles and going “Yeah, that’s okay.” Sure. I mean, how do you take what the band did away from “but they were the first to do it this way” and/or “Oh, but I remember listening to ‘I wanna hold your hand’ while holding hands with my first crush.” For some people, they’ll always be very special. but not for everyone.
In the same way, I ADORED McCaffrey’s Pern when it first came out. I read the books as soon as they were released. Then — well, kids, life — I wandered away from them for a while. Now a lot of my audio buying are what I call “nostalgia trips.” Books I read as a young woman, or books that meant a lot to me get an edge of newness by being experienced for the first time in audio. So I bought Pern. I couldn’t. I think I listened to half the first book before giving up.
There is absolutely NOTHING wrong with the books, and I know that intellectually. The problem is that so many people (mostly meh fantasy) have imitated her style and plots, and taken some of the vocabulary that me-now keeps thinking “oh, this is so derivative.” Even if I know it isn’t. The books are just victims of their massive success.
So, what does any of this mean?
Nothing, really. We’re all now competing in a “all time” market. Pixels on screen don’t show their age. I find it interesting that I’m discovering some classic mysteries, and I don’t know if I’m reading books written in the era compared to books written now set in the era.
The only way I’ve found to distinguish is when a description trips me. You see, writers writing in the era didn’t describe some things that sound odd to present day readers. I no longer remember which series, but one of the ones I was reading tripped me with the assumption that OF COURSE a car was open, except for a windshield. Went to check, and it was written in the 20s (I THINK.)
Of course, the author at the time couldn’t say “and this car didn’t have a roof” even if he/she had been a clairvoyant because people at the time would think he/she was zany. It would be like us writing, say “and the suit fabric didn’t have adjustments to keep the ideal temperature.” Or “and the wall didn’t have treatment to repeal dirt.” People reading it now would go “what in heck world do you come from, buddy, that you need to tell us that.”
All this taken into account, how should a writer write to avoid this dread curse? Meh. Write the way you were going to, anyway.
I have this theory that in the fullness of time all the “sounds like Pern” books will be forgotten and McCaffrey’s work will again sound new, shiny and special to new generations. I think Pern will endure (as far as it’s possible for us to predict what our great great great grands will like. I mean, maybe Chuck Tingle is writing for the ages.)
There is that too, you know, the amnesia of each new generation, or even a new market. My brother was very mad at me when Harry Potter came out because “you could have written that.”
He was right to an extent. I could have written SOMETHING like that. (What he missed is that there was no guarantee wit would go that big, because book marketing is as much a feature of luck and timing and the author catching the publisher’s eye as anything else.)
I grew up reading British Boarding School YAs. (Pratchett lampoons some of the stereotypical characters brilliantly in Pyramids.) And I write fantasy. Mashing the two was a concept I didn’t even think about because it was so OBVIOUS. And I assumed they would be obvious to everyone else, missing the fact that even when I was a kid these books were already passe and old fashioned and that for Americans they were completely innovative.
Note I’m not saying “I could have been Rowling.” Even if I’d written books with that inspiration (and I probably wouldn’t have. I don’t write YA very easily) it is highly doubtful my execution would have been as appealing as hers. My brother has the layman’s belief that the important thing about books is the idea. Pros know it’s the execution. I’m just illustrating the fact that everything old is new again, to a new generation or people far far away.
So, if you’re a writer, write whatever you want. In the end, with a little bit of luck, cream will rise. And heck, even not-cream can make a lot of money if it hits just right. If you want immortal fame, otoh, that I can’t help with. It’s all a matter of guessing what the future will like, which is even harder than predicting what the future will BE.
And if you’re a reader… exercise a little charity. No one is asking you to suffer through a book you’re not enjoying. But keep in mind that sloppy author might not be so much sloppy as from a time far far away when information was more difficult to come by.