What the great writers had that we don’t.

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.


15 thoughts on “What the great writers had that we don’t.

  1. Sadly, you are right. Many writers today seem graduates of FOR DUMMIES texts. I love to read collections of the letters of famous authors: Raymond Chandler, C S Lewis, William Faulkner, James Thurber, Eudora Welty, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck. Yet if you mention those names to many young readers or young writers, they would only recognize C S Lewis… and that for his Narnia movies not for his essays or his novels. And of course, they would recognize Hemingway from the fame of his life, but they would not have read any of his novels.

    I am of the old school and quote the classic Greek, Latin philosophers, and Shakespeare. I think I can get away with it, for I write historical fantasies where, as you say, a classical awareness was in the mind-set of even the man on the street.

    What a fascinating post you have written. I will link to it in my latest fluff post (fluff since I worked 24 of the past 48 hours as a rare blood courier — fluff was all I had in me!)

  2. Sent here via Roland’s blog, and I agree with much of what you say. I was upset when they quit teaching Latin in our school just before I reached that grade level. I did take French, but have learned more about French by living in Canada and visiting Paris, than from what was taught in school (in the US). I’ve discussed reading with a couple of 22 yr olds recently and find them sadly lacking in reading at all, and especially anything of ‘substance’.

  3. Hi! You’re so right! So much is disappearing. Who is going to make a collation of a dead person’s emails? Hmm? And as an English teacher I’ll tell you that schools that study Shakespeare now do so in the modern language versions!! Ugh!! And were those guys in The Merchant of Venice gay?? Go on!!

  4. Interesting and insightful post. It’s a bit sad that I’m repeating what my parents often said – “In the good old days …” Sadly we never seriously try to recapture what was so special in the ‘good old days.’ We’re a grasping lot, looking for the quick fix and easy rush. While reading today’s novels, I wonder how much time the author devoted to going deep into the craft of writing. Was the goal to simply finish and get their creation out there? I’m hopeful, though, that there are still authors who view their writing as a reflection of something deep within their soul and set the intention to create something incredibly beautiful and enduring through the ages.

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  7. A very interesting post, though I was surprised to read that the Bible might be considered a ‘banned book’ in US schools. I studied French at school (in the UK) but didn’t do hugely well, improved a lot on visits to the country, did a brief spell of German and an equally brief spell of Latin, though I know I learned things in Latin which helped me very much to understand etymology. I’ve taught myself a little Italian, too. Possibly the most beautiful language phonetically. And I do suspect they have helped in terms of my writing, but then again they’re not helping very much in terms of sales. Readers don’t seem to want to read well-written work, and I remember reading a warning by an editor that US readers, in particular, ‘should not be faced with more than one comma in a sentence’.

    Our UK secondary schools do still teach Shakespeare, but it tends to be a particular part of any given play rather than the whole, and that’s a shame – though I think Shakespeare is probably better taught to students 16+. There is a case which I plan to argue elsewhere for our skills being damaged by what I call a ‘lack of incidental learning’. There was a time when the limited number of TV channels and radio stations (in the UK anyway) meant that as a young person one often saw or overheard things which one would not have particularly chosen. When my mother watched soaps, for example, or news broadcasts, I had either to accept hearing or seeing their content or adjourn to my own small room. I didn’t have the choice of a TV set of my own, a games console or a computer.

    The modern child has essentially an endless choice which enables them to focus closely only on what they want to focus on, meaning they do not absorb the material that was incidental to my own childhood. And having such choice it is rather like putting a bunch of kids into a supermarket and telling them to feed themselves at will, for one knows that most of them would never make it past the snacks and candy section.

    It is all very sad. Good books, well-written books, books that are not written by some 15 minutes of Fame Celebrity, are going to become fewer and further between. We can only try our best to keep up the fight.

  8. I really wish they still taught a lot of this in school still (bible heavily excluded). I even missed a few of these things growing up, but I think I grasped everything well enough with my own independent studies. I’m hoping I can get some Latin/Greek in at home with the kid, it’s a sort of hobby of mine though not nearly fluent or anything, because goodness knows they’re not going to touch it at school. Probably read some Shakespeare with her when she’s a little older.
    I miss handwritten letters. The last time I sent one out (years ago) I never got a reply so I figured… I guess people just don’t do that anymore. It’s sad. I used to love sending a receiving letters when I was younger.

  9. Hi,
    I so agree with you. As a kid, I too read the official KJV of The Bible and memorized chapters from it. Books such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations were evening reading because we couldn’t afford a television. I used to think that was horrible, but now I see it as the best thing that could have happened to me. At school, our English teacher really taught Shakespeare. Oh how I suffered with the daughters of King Lear, laughed during The Taming of the Shrew (and thought the play was much better than the film version with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, although the filming wasn’t bad) and lost my heart in Othello.
    These interests gave me the needed motivation to inquire about Greek and Latin. I took a Greek 101 course at the university and I learned French. However, it was as I moved to Europe that I began to see the significance of having a second and third language and I took on the responsibility of learning as many languages as possible.
    As far letter writing, I’ve always been a fan of long letters.

    Today, when I look at my nieces and nephews writing in what they call English, I shake my head and in the business world, it is even worse. People do not know how to write. But how can they, when they don’t know how to read a good book.

    Thank you for a great post I enjoyed reading it.

    Take care.

  10. They generally had better grammar! I am so sick to death of lousy grammar especially beginning sentences with a conjunction, the misuse of neither/nor and one of my all time favourites….lay instead of lie……….People for heaven sake learn basic English!

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