Monday, September 12, 2011

Dated Writing?

Happy Monday, everyone!

Over the weekend I was reviewing some work that felt dated to me. It was a chapter from a travel memoir about a couple of women traveling through Italy during the 60s. The writing was beautiful. The language was tight. It was funny. And I learned something about Italian culture that I didn't already know. Yet I couldn't shake this feeling that the writing felt "old."

Often when people talk about books they love, old or new, they talk about the work being timeless. I've felt it myself, and the timelessness seems to be independent of subject matter or the date when the story itself takes place.

If it's not either of those things, then what is it? What makes something feel dated as opposed to being timeless?

As I reflect on it a bit, I wonder if a story starts to feel dated when the emotional backbone of the piece relies on something current, say a story about how important cell phones are. The story can maybe become timeless when the elements can be extracted to something more universal. A story about a cell phone might become timeless when it can be thought of as a story that is about communication in general. In one sense, my current WIP, Cyberlama is about scientists working to allow some people to live a lot longer. If I keep it at that level, the story will quickly become dated. But as I'm working on it and reflecting on it, I realize that the themes of the story can extend beyond modern science to ideas about aging in general. Maybe that is the thing that will make my story feel more worthwhile to the reader. I'm not sure.

What do you think? Are some works more dated than others? Do you think our attempts to identify what is dated versus what is timeless is arbitrary? How do you make sure your own works will endure?


  1. Like a lot of people I was hugely influenced by Catcher in the Rye when I was a kid of about thirteen. Twenty years later I read the book again and found the book terribly dated and, let’s face it, it wasn’t even that old a book. It was a book of its time but time has moved on clearly. On the other hand I’ve read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich every ten years since I first bought it in 1975 and the work has just got better and better as I’ve become more capable of appreciating it. It works because it deals with fundamentals. And it will continue to work. It’s exactly the point you make about the mobile phone; it’s just a means of communication once you get down to it. But with Catcher in the Rye I came away thinking, People don’t think like that anymore. I suppose some would argue that is why Shakespeare has survived down till our day but I’m not entirely convinced there.

  2. Jim, "Fundamentals" is a great term to capture what I was trying to get at. I think a story feels timeless when it deals with basic human or natural needs. I hadn't read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich before. I'll look it up!

  3. Stories based on humans can be timeless, but the writing that conveys the story can be dated. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen, Dickens have lasted because of the stories, not the writing or the language.

    I'm still waiting for some brave soul to update Shakespeare as his language is so far removed from us it's almost a foreign langauge.

  4. Excellent question, Davin. I've asked myself this because I want to write timeless works. Look at Jules Verne. He was doing something the opposite - projecting into the future as he saw it and even though we've surpassed some of that future his works still feel timeless. I think it comes about when a story focuses on the basic things that make us human - even if they are layered beneath a million other things.

  5. Sometimes I've loved books and they've felt fresh and new to me every time I've read them. Then I share them with someone else and that person felt it was dated or out of touch.

    I think not only does the "fundamentals" come into play but also an attachment to a reader. A reader who has had the experiences that lead to an emotional connection with whichever fundamental is spotlighted will find that novel more timeless than others. (is my convoluted sentence clear?)

    This being said we can't control our reader's connections. Just write the best we can and hope that our soul will speak to theirs.

  6. P.S. Love, love, love, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

  7. Martin: I cannot disagree with you more about Shakespeare. His language remains beautiful and quite readable. He is still the greatest writer of English. There are some modern-English versions of Shakespeare plays out there, and all of them fall very far short of Shakespeare's originals.

    Austen and Dickens remain quite readable as well. Compare either of them to, say, David Foster Wallace.

    I don't know if language (aside from slang, of course, and the names of technological devices (who calls a car a "flivver" any more?)) dates as much as--as Domey says--stories themselves date. I agree that if the story is about humanity it may have staying power but if it's about some ephemeral aspect of current culture, it's probably going to be vapid and empty and not last. Look at Stewart Copeland's novels about being part of "generation x" or working for software firms: they seemed so vibrant and meaningful when they first came out but now they're sort of like empty fast-food wrappers.

  8. I think the beautiful part of the writing art form is that every period of time carries its great works and when you read them you are transported to that time period. The writing feels dated because it was written in the language of the times. That, to me, is one of the most important elements of transporting a reader to a time period.

  9. Martin, language is a really interesting component of writing because it would be so impossible for a writer to be forward thinking in terms of language unless they invented their own language, or added to it, the way Shakespeare or Dante did (from what little of this I know). When I feel that a book is timeless or dated, I usually don't let language come into play, I guess...which is odd and interesting. Shakespeare is hard for me to read when I am out of practice, but I also appreciate that the way he wrote allowed him to simultaneously discuss topics on different levels, which is totally impressive to me.

    Michelle, yes, as long as one of the layers goes back to human need I think the story has the potential to be timeless. And it really can be buried under several contemporary or even trendy elements.

    S.P., Yeah, I have to agree with that even though it makes me a bit sad. :P There are some books that I think are so spectacular and other people don't connect to them at all, in any time or place.

    Scott, we agree! It's interesting now, after you and Martin, that I see a lot of things I DON'T consider when I think about whether or not a book is timeless.

    Christauna, I think that's an interesting point. The elements that maybe don't contribute to the timeless help to work in a historical way, and that can be interesting too.

  10. I worry about my speculative science becoming dated. In The Rolling Stones (1952) by Robert A. Heinlein, he talks about the limited range of radio communications and how the small ship did not have the transmitter power to reach Earth while in transit to Mars. Spacecraft Voyager 1 is about 1.76x10^10 km away from Earth. The probe has a 20-watt radio transmitter, yet we still receive data from it and we still send commands to it. Heinlein got that wrong which is one element that makes the story feel dated. (The condescending way women are portrayed makes it rather dated as well.)

    In my current project, the aliens have tablet computers. While the idea of tablet computers is old and there is not really anything very speculative or spectacular about the devices in my story, with the release of the iPad in the spring of 2010, the technology landscape and public perception changed. I need to ensure what I write will endure without appearing dated on publication day.

    I am also concerned that Earth will make first contact with real alien Dragons and those Dragons will not match my description of them. That will really make my book look dated.

  11. I wonder, even if there are elements of a story that date it, or make it feel 'out of date', does that necessarily change its relevance? I think that if its theme or characters are something/someone a reader can relate to, even decades or centuries later, the dated-ness can be its added charm!

  12. geeze, I wish I had this answer. writing historical fiction, it is something I do think about. It is interesting what you say here about the issue needing to be a human fundamental. In the end, I think we read to connect.

  13. I am writing a Contemporary Historical YA novel and what I've done and am conscious of is leaving the brand names out of the technology I use. I have a tendency to use brand names which if no one in twenty years knows what a Playstation is it really dates my work. I also have symbols and themes and it it really character driven. It is about love and the quest to attain it, whether you get it or not. That is what makes my WIP human and hopefully if it is ever published timeless. I know I'm using such words as "game system" etc but I think it is important to not use brand names when you do that and to add a humanistic element to your work for it to stand the test of time.

  14. You also have to consider that nothing strikes us as "old" so much as something from the generation immediately previous to us. I've also read books from the sixties and seventies and eighties and felt that awkward, "out of date" feeling, like when you see out of fashion clothes.

    But go another generation or two back, and suddenly out of fashion becomes "vintage." Books from the twenties and thirties strike me as "quaint" not "old." Victorian books definitely represent Victorian thought patterns, but this makes them fascinating, not aggravating. In 2060, that 1960s book might not seem dated in the same way it does now.

    Or maybe it will. I'm not sure. It could be that the Victorian penny-novels that would not have dated well after a hundred years simply aren't read anymore, so it's not a fair comparison.

    Tara Maya
    Faerie Tale (The Unfinished Song)


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