A few years ago, our editor — a young whippersnapper — politely, but firmly, informed us that our writing “revealed” our age. We were, she reminded us, writing novels for readers in their twenties, thirties, and forties. “Don’t use figures of speech and allusions that only our readers’ parents will understand.”
She pointed out an example in a proposal that she’d just rejected. One of our key characters was a young woman who habitually spoke in clichés. We’d put the following words in her mouth: “The truth is, I’m a carbon copy of my mother.”
The editor insisted that no one under fifty would use “carbon copy” as an analogy — and that most twenty- and thirty-something readers would have no idea what it meant. She went on, “I want to see dialog full of contemporary idioms and figures of speech.”
We grit our teeth and obediently expunged all antique phrases from our follow-up proposal, but the exercise struck us as absurd. Novels have a long shelf life. Few readers mind that Sherlock Holmes speaks the occasional Victorian metaphor… lovers of Jane Austin’s novels actually relish “decoding” her Regency language… and Janet and I enjoy rereading dozens of mystery novels written sixty and seventy years ago without much bewilderment at vintage terms such as “roscoe.”
We also pointed out to each other that it’s impossible to stay absolutely current because readers keep aging. (A 2011 case in point: Those “young” Generation-X folks are now 35-45 years old. You could look it up!)
I recalled the great carbon copy brouhaha when I read one of the comments added to our last post. Mary Fagan agreed with the notion that late-blooming writers have a better grasp on grammar. She wrote, “We older types, who were relentlessly drilled in language mechanics, may well be the last line of defense [for correct English].
At first, I agreed with all of Mary’s comment — but then our former editor’s rebuke hove into view. All at once, I began to question the value of “correct English” when we sit down to write a contemporary novel.
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if our late-bloomerly concerns for proper construction, appropriate punctuation, and “classic” literary allusions and metaphors might be negatives rather than positives. Are our “correct English” skills driving us to write novels that younger readers — those tuned to MTV, addicted to texting, and indifferent to good writing — simply can’t understand?
Well … I took a deep breath and decided that my imagination had run riot. Happily, things aren’t that grim.
But I kept thinking about my question. We had written “carbon copy” in our novel chiefly because it seemed (to us) a nifty way of expressing the concept of unusual generational sameness. Is there a newer way of conveying the same idea? If there is, it didn’t spring to mind back then — and it still doesn’t today. (“Clone” is a possibility, but it seems to imply too much sameness. Carbon copies are identical in some aspects, yet different in others.)
An obsolete analogy still seems right to us.
And then, last week, I ran smack into another antique phrase. A novelist we know used the term “country bumpkin” in a blurb she’d written to promote her new book. Because “carbon copy” had sensitized me, I couldn’t help musing about the meaning a typical younger reader of contemporary women’s fiction (my friend’s genre) might assign to “country bumpkin.”
Probably not what the writer intended.
I presume that my friend had written “country bumpkin” because she couldn’t think of a “more hip” equivalent — although “more hip” is probably an aging adjectival phrase.
The pair of examples worked together to illuminate the broader implications of what our editor had been trying to tell us. She guessed that Janet and I had written “carbon copy” because we didn’t have the makings of a more up-to-date analogy in our minds. She worried that our “writing worldview” to coin a phrase didn’t match the “reading worldview” of our younger readers.
We’d never before given a name to a clear-cut late-bloomer liability — writer/reader worldview mismatch — a problem we were vaguely aware of, but managed to avoid thinking about.
Novels typically have a long shelf life after they appeal to the readers of their day. Most of the “classics” that people enjoy reading today were popular successes when first published.
Our editor didn’t point this out that specifically — but she clearly meant: “We need to sell your books today. You won’t start a reader buzz if readers perceive your language is obsolete.”
What’s the solution?
One fix is to lock yourself in a bygone era and write historical fiction — if this will accommodate the stories you want to tell.
The solution we settled on has two parts:
- We’re working to assiduously keep up to date with what my elementary school teachers called “current events.” We’re finding that the Internet is chock full of useful resources.
- We’ve expanded our research efforts to include many more things that impact the lives of our characters, from contemporary clichés… to the latest technology toys… to major societal trends.
I know! These seem almost impossible tasks. They’re proving both tedious and time-consuming. Please… add a comment if you can suggest a better way to skin this cat.