What I learned from William Makepeace Thackeray

Only a week or so ago, I posted a blog here entitled, what I learned from Ernest Hemingway. In it I said that Hemingway was good writer because he let the dialogue of the characters do most of the heavy lifting-that is the writer could convey emotion, mood, feeling etc., to the reader. To do otherwise was tantamount to having an annoying stage director come out in the middle of a scene to comment on what the characters were thinking and feeling.

The very next book I picked up was Vanity Fair by William Thackeray-a fine nineteenth century novel which, although written about the same time as Dickens’ novels, it never achieved that degree of popularity.

Thackeray was all too aware of the difficulties in competing with Dickens. When it was published, Vanity Fair was considered too cynical and misanthropic for the general readership. But then, many writers have had to hunt down and build up their audiences. Even so, Vanity Fair has certainly met the test of time and has achieved much distinction.

Within a few pages of beginning to read it, I was laughing at myself. It was very clear that so much of writing advice has to do with the style of the moment. And who is to say that styles never return?

Thackeray is very much like that annoying stage director, whom I mentioned earlier. Except he’s not annoying at all. As he tells his story, Thackeray frequently buttonholes his readers and seems to have a direct conversations with them. While he is speaking to the reader, the characters stand motionless and in silence waiting to be brought back to life.

Does this seem stilted and overly formal? Not to the nineteenth century reader. Don’t forget, these stories [especially Dickens'] which were published in instalments in the press, they were eagerly anticipated by the public.

But what is Thackeray saying to his readers? Sometimes, he is telling a relevant tidbit about the character’s past or even hinting at what may befall him in the immediate future. He might observe something about the individual’s nature with a sort of wry aside. I think it is that habit which drew the criticism of cynicism.

Why wasn’t this style irritating? For some reason, I felt as if it added depth or even another dimension to the writing-as if the party had become bigger and better. Not only were there the characters present in the story, but also the writer and the reader seemed to have their own more active, assigned roles. The reader was to observe what the writer showed him and was almost invited to enter into a conversation with him. At times, I felt on an intimate, first name basis with Thackeray after several of these “chats”.

In the twentieth century, we are so used to a smooth and streamlined style and this is not confined to the writing of dialogue. Today writers don’t usually jounce the reader about with sudden changes of voice. Rarely does he or she step out from behind the stage curtain to add commentary.

Why do we no longer write in that style? I have always thought that the movies have had a huge effect upon how we write stories. Just think of all those nineteenth century novels you had to read in school. Every blade of grass in the English countryside was described in loving detail. And then there were paragraphs heaped upon paragraphs of descriptions of clouds and sunsets. Of course, life moved at a much slower pace and so did people-more time to observe.

However, since moving pictures we’ve become used, in the hands of an expert cinematographer, to taking in a scene in a second or two. No time for paragraphs of descriptive prose. Now, in order to grab the reader’s attention, the author fears he has to get the action going right away or else his book is dead in the water. You can hear the potential publisher saying when is the story going to start? And so, such a novel will never see the light of day-especially when publishers only want blockbusters.

You may ask why does it matter? Of course each era has its own style! It matters because we might well think about the permanence of any one writing style. When a creative writing teacher says that a particular style is outdated and that we must do this or that to our story, perhaps we should think long and hard about the advice given.

Naturally, stories will reflect the times in which they were written. If we are all products of a particular time and place, how can it be otherwise? Perhaps that is true, but how then does anyone strive for originality? How does a writer break away from the present writing of the day and try something new.

I would suggest that a real writer wants to aim for exactly that and not be stuck in the style of his own time. Who knows? Maybe someone will learn something from a nineteenth century author and adapt it to this time and place. Just try writing like that!

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