I’ve read interviews with William Faulkner, Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe and as I’ve compared the questions those legends were asked to the questions I’m now asked by interviewers, I’ve become aware of the changes in readers’ tastes, and in the measures by which we judge “good writing”, and of the change in expectations when readers purchase fiction.
Writers in the golden age of fiction, when the aforementioned legends were atop best seller lists, were expected to dazzle the reader with adroit sentence construction and an expansive vocabulary. Faulkner’s complex constructions, Fitzgerald’s elegance, Wolfe’s paragraph-long sentences, were not only admired but demanded by discerning readers. Many agents and editors still search for these qualities but today readers prefer easily digested prose that can be understood while sitting on the beach watching with one eye as toddlers cavort in the surf.
Once upon a time we depended upon writers to describe exotic locales and privileged activities such as the Florida Keys and Marlin fishing or Southern Plantations. Today readers have all been-there-done-that, either in person or vicariously through cable TV networks, the Internet and YouTube.
One measure of greatness that remains in vogue is the ability to describe the emotions of the characters and evoke the emotions of the reader. However, the emotions we seek have changed. The legends dealt in base, visceral emotions but today we expect a greater degree of sophistication and nuance from characters and we challenge writers to move readers whose emotions have been calcified by 24-hour news reports of atrocities.
Perhaps the biggest change, however, is that today the story is king, plot is dominant. Readers want to be amazed by the miraculous escape, stunned by the ingenious solution, awed by unexpected twists. For today’s fiction, the lack of a shocking denouement is the fast path to the remainder pile.
Thankfully, one dividing line between dime-store fiction and great fiction still exists: the ability to describe the human condition, the universal truth, that what is true for one of us is true for all of us. Faulkner explained the novel as, “An instance of man in his struggle, within his predicament … the whole history of the human heart, all the anguish …”
That my friends, is what makes for great fiction.