Have you noticed the decline in writing quality in some newly-published books? I’m not talking about the self-published and small press novels, but the ones from major publishers. And when you compare today’s writing output not to the writers of a few decades back, but to the great writers of the English language, it’s clear that something is missing. And that something should really be put back.
What did the great writers have going for them? A number of things, in their education and homelife, that don’t really exist today. Let’s look at a few of them.
Foreign language. Education in the English-speaking world was originally centered on learning two foreign languages, Latin and Greek. As late as the time in which writer C. S. Lewis was being educated, Latin and Greek, with an emphasis on the grammar, were still essential parts of education. Today, by contrast, language learning materials have as little grammar content as possible, and most language learning materials instead are filled with sample conversations of generic tourists, business travelers or students. Very few people who have completed the required high school courses in Spanish are able to pick up a Spanish book and read it, or write a 300 word blog post in Spanish.
King James Bible. The young people of the past were absolutely drenched in the beautiful language of the King James Bible. It was the ‘Authorized’ version and as late as the time of my own childhood was THE Bible for Protestants. (The Douay-Rheims Bible was a similar traditional Bible for Catholics.) Young people heard the words of the King James Bible read to them in schools, school chapels, and in Sunday services. In many homes, there were family Bible readings as well. The result is that even people from religiously indifferent parents had the words of the KJV Bible as part of their cultural literacy— their shared cultural experience with other English speakers. Today, in American schools at least, the Bible in any translation is a banned book, though mockery of the Bible by teachers is apparently considered just fine unless the media gets the story. Even many Christians no longer read the KJV, preferring more modern, loose translations like ‘The Message’ that make the worlds of the Bible sound like something written by Dr. Phil. People lack the extra depth of English language knowledge that the former KJV immersion gave young people— something which was of great help in reading Shakespeare.
Shakespeare. Once the works of Shakespeare were the common property of the reading class. Children would get together with brothers and sisters to put on scenes from Shakespeare at home. People could refer to the plots of the best-known Shakespeare plays and expect that any literate person would understand the reference. But now schools have been dumbed-down enough that it’s likely that Shakespeare is reserved for the advanced English students only. Or, if state law requires reading a Shakespeare play before graduation, it is taught superficially by teachers that haven’t studied Shakespeare in any depth, so prefer to spend class time on pointing out Shakespeare’s racism and sexism, or debating whether the Bard was gay.
Letter writing. People used to communicate through writing letters. And there were rules in writing letters. You wrote in the best English you could. You asked after the other person and his family. You answered the questions your correspondent had asked in his letter. Some letters were worthy of being gathered into books and published. Now, people communicate through sharing pictures, memes and links on Facebook, and liking one another’s stuff. They don’t know enough to ask about their FB friends, or reciprocate. Many of them don’t even know it is less than polite to call other people morons over differences in opinion. They also text, which gives them the impression that correct spelling and language usage is a thing of the past. If you point out that when someone said ‘your a morone’ to you that there were some errors made, he calls you a grammar Nazi. Even young authors do this, unaware that what they write on their FB pages is a ‘free sample’ of their writing and should be as correct as they can make it to attract readers.
Boredom. The great writers of the past were blessed by times of boredom. They didn’t have round-the-clock television, the internet, smart phones or texting. So they had to do other things. Socialize with other people. Go to church. Read books— better quality books than what many people read today. Visit the sick and poor— it was the socially expected thing for the class of people most authors belonged to. Today, we don’t experience the blessings of boredom as there is always one new computer game to play, or one more ‘reality’ TV show to mindlessly consume.
Since we don’t naturally have the advantage that the great writers of the past had, it is up to us to make up for it. I think that one way of predicting whether a young person has what it takes to be a good author is to find out what that person has learned and done on his own. If all he knows has been force-fed him by our inferior schools, he has little hope of even knowing that he’s missing out on something.
But if the young person is an independent thinker, has perhaps tried to learn a foreign language on his own, or got on a ‘great books’ reading kick, perhaps he is independent enough to get the knowledge he will need to be a great writer someday.