Are we dumbing down our writing?

From Rick:

Have modern authors dumbed down their writing? From time to time, I hear the comment that today’s writers and writing have gotten away from the gorgeous prose of decades–and centuries–past.

My wife recently read a set of novels by Howard Fast from the 1980s, and she’d ask me what certain words meant far more often than usual. She also just finished an Agatha Christie novel, never having read any of Ms. Christie’s work before, and found the same thing. Now that we both have Kindles, she can look up the word instead of having to ask me. But she still asks me sometimes. She enjoyed all of these novels very much and expressed the opinion that she sees how today’s writing has become less complex than writing used to be.

Have today’s authors dumbed down their writing to make it more comprehensible, hence more salable? Or are today’s authors simply less competent in their vocabulary than their predecessors were?

Writing styles change over the years. Contemporary writing tends to reflect the contemporary society, regardless of the period the writing depicts. If Charles Dickens or Mark Twain were writing today, would they be writing in the same style as they did in their times?

Likewise, our vocabulary has shifted. Words common in past decades are less used today. Does this mean readers are less literate? In our current society, new words arise daily and supplant older ones. In addition, our vocabulary has undergone some drastic shifts as new technical terms arise.

Should we lament once-common words falling out of use or being replaced? When someone is amazed by something, we’ll might also say he was astounded or dumbfounded. But when was the last time you heard the word “flummoxed” used? Most of us would not say that “Most children read an expurgated or bowdlerized version of Grimm’s’ Fairy Tales.” We’re more likely to say that they read a censored, sanitized, politically correct version.

I love seeing big, twenty-five cent words sprinkled into prose. Even as an adult, that’s how I continue to learn. The problem is that doing so in a contemporary novel with contemporary characters will make it sound out of place. We might love Shakespeare’s colorful vocabulary, but forcing modern characters to use such vocabulary is a questionable tactic unless the story requires it.

English is a growing–not a shrinking–language. Vocabulary is shifting, not always being lost. Slang is on the rise. Old words are being given new meanings. I love “ghetto” as an adjective. “It’s ghetto” means something is run-down, broken-down, beat-up, decrepit, derelict. Would a teen today use any of these words? Well, it would depend on his or her background. As a writer, I have to consider how my CHARACTERS would say it, not how I might want to say it.

I don’t think we’ve dumbed down our writing, nor do I believe that modern authors are necessarily less competent in their vocabulary than their predecessors were. Have I read authors whom I considered less competent in their vocabulary skills? Have I read some authors who seem to have simplified their vocabulary on purpose or perhaps felt they had to explain any big words they used to their readers? Yes, to both. Do I think it’s a pervasive problem in modern writing? Not really.

We also must consider that many ereaders have built-in dictionaries, and that people reading on tablets have access to dictionary apps and will scarcely miss a beat when looking up something. Therefore, authors should not worry about getting too highbrow for their audiences–especially their younger audiences–as long as vocabulary is character-appropriate.

Authors should take advantage of the new technology to push the envelope on their writing by creating characters whose dialog might encompass a broader range of vocabulary and introduce their readers to tidbits of knowledge. While I never got into Tom Clancy’s long novels, many of his readers appreciated the detail he provided, which both entertained and educated. Many of the novels I’ve particularly enjoyed over the years did more than just tell me a story. They taught me things. I can’t imagine a more satisfying review for an author than one that says the reader not only enjoyed the story but also learned from it.

For a great example of this type of writing, check out The Choir Boats by Daniel Rabuzzi. It’s the first of a series, and the second novel is due out around August of this year. If you appreciate a well-wrought story with a Jules Verne flavor and one that doesn’t pull any punches on vocabulary (plus some creative words the author has made up), you’ll like this one. Rabuzzi aptly demonstrates how a modern writer can work such words into a novel and have it satisfying. We also plan to have an interview here with him around that time.


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