Spiral of Change

Having finished a book in late July, I had a little more time to read than usual, and as usual my reading was a mixture of old favorites and terrific new books. Among other things I read, in quick succession, a book of excerpts from an English vicar’s parish newsletters for the period 1968-82, and a new mystery by one of my favorite cozy authors.

As I read I was struck by how much the world. both real and fictional, has changed in my lifetime. The vanished world of the English parish was not without its problems. Politics, both secular and ecclesiastical, reared its head frequently. The small quarrels between parishioners caused real consternation. But a certain level of good manners, a certain degree of neighborly concern and community involvement was simply taken for granted. Perhaps most noticeable was the leisurely pace of life thirty and forty years ago. People seemed to have time for the little civilities, time to relax, time to breathe.

Now granted, the vicar’s book was set in an English village, where even today life is a bit more laid back than in an American city. And Julie Hyzy’s Affairs of Steak is set in Washington, D.C., a city not noted for its good manners or its moderation in anything at all. But one of the interesting things is that the pace of that book didn’t strike me as frenetic until I compared it consciously with the vicar’s book.

1982 to 2012. Thirty years. Not all that long to me, as I approach my seventy-first birthday. But what vast changes. To take one of the most obvious, language that would have been unprintable thirty years ago, and was in fact not used a great deal in ordinary conversation, now goes almost unnoticed. Not necessarily in Julie’s book; like me, she’s pretty moderate in her language. But even I, when I want to characterize a real sleaze, will have him use the F-bomb occasionally. I wouldn’t have dreamed of it when I first began writing, and that’s not even twenty years ago.

Now I’ve begun to re-read my old favorites—Sayers, Christie, Marsh—with a conscious awareness of what might be termed the atmosphere of the book. And my word, what a different world we live in! And what different fiction we write, and read, today! A recent selection for one of my book clubs was The Woman in White, written in 1859 by Wilkie Collins and claimed by some as the first mystery novel. It happened that I had never read it before, though I had read The Moonstone a few times. I was looking forward to reading the seminal work.

Heavens, it was slow! Well written, each sentence beautifully crafted, but the thing was interminable. I was nearly three-quarters of the way through the book before I got really wrapped up in the plot, and certainly I would never have persevered if it had not been for a book club. Today the book would almost certainly never find a publisher. And yet, within its own set of rules, it’s an excellent book.

So I got to wondering. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? We as writers believe that our books matter, that they have an influence on our readers. We also, at least most of us, want to write as realistically as possible, to reflect the world we live in. So have the gradual increases in pace, the gradual vulgarization of language, the gradual degradations of interactions between the fictional characters been simply reflections of those changes in our society? Or have the books themselves speeded those changes? And if the answer is (as is probable) that the thing is a spiral, fiction feeding reality which then feeds fiction which then…, is this a good or a bad thing? And is there anything we writers could do about it if we wanted to?

I don’t have any answers to those questions, but I think it’s a good thing sometimes to consider what we do to our world by the books we write.

Incidentally, I’m a couple of days late with this blog because my own life has turned, since the opening sentences written a month or so ago, into a maelstrom of activity. I can’t escape the spiral, either. Wish I could.


4 Responses

  1. I agree, Nancy — and it’s definitely worth thinking about what we do by not writing that book.

  2. There’s also the problem of writing the wrong name! Sorry! Time to turn in.

  3. Jeanne, I’m a fan from long ago–Loved your Iona book. If you like essays by English country vicars have you discovered Ronald Blythe? he writes regularly in the Church Times and has cooks of collections–The Word from Wormingford.

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