Blog 39: The Evolution of Fiction Writing

March 21, 2017

‘Once Upon A Time’ to ‘Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive’. How and why did story writing change so much? And what can we learn from it?

Traditionally, word of mouth was the only way to communicate and share stories, but with the advent of writing implements and machines, stories were recorded and eventually, mass produced. Paperbacks and hardbacks adorn our bookshelves today and it is as simple and easy as going to the supermarket to pick up your next novel. We don’t even have to leave the house anymore; the rise of electronic books and portable tablets has given the modern world instant access to billions of stories with just a single touch, and I’m sure stories and technology will continue to evolve in ways we can barely imagine today.

It is argued that the earliest forms of storytelling can be contributed to the rock paintings from our prehistoric ancestors. Although these early rock paintings appear to be just pictures, they still hold meaning and describe scenes that we can attempt to interpret today. It can also be argued that painting and writing are synonymous in their goals. The Italian polymath Leonardo Da Vinci famously said “Painting is poetry that is seen rather than felt, and poetry is painting that is felt rather than seen.” Voltaire the French Enlightenment writer, historian and philosopher said “Writing is the painting of the voice.”  And the English painter, Joshua Reynolds said “Style in painting is the same as in writing; a power over materials, whether words or colors, by which conceptions or sentiments are conveyed.”

So where did ‘Once Upon A Time’ come from? Perhaps today you will recognise this iconic opening line because of the Disney franchise, but as many know, Walt Disney’s fantastical stories and lovable characters actually have darker beginnings and are adaptations of stories popularised by the Grimm Brothers. The phrase ‘Once Upon A Time’ supposedly dates back in one form or another to the 1380’s, but the actual phrase became popular in English literature in the 1600’s. Related openings from around the world include ‘Once there was…’ and ‘A Long time ago…’ and many others.

English Literature really starts with the Anglo-Saxon’s, where the written literature was meant to be performed and epic poems like Beowulf were popular. Throughout the centuries; politics, class, religion, and cultural and artistic movements, all shaped and guided the formation of English literature. Written literature became fine-tuned and narrowed down from many dialects, including Latin, French and Middle English, to just a few, and then eventually the modern English language we all speak and write today. Translations of the Bible spearheaded the widespread use of books and reading, but books were expensive and a family were considered wealthy indeed if they could afford a family copy of the Bible.

It wasn’t until after 1476 when William Cox introduced the printing press in England when ‘vernacular literature’, which is the speech of the common people, really took off with the Book of Common Prayer being produced as a result in 1549. Before the invention of the printing press in the 1440’s, books were painstakingly written by hand or printed by hand using woodblock or copper plate carvings. In fact, many pictures in early books were made using woodblock or copper plate carvings.

Poetry and plays were by far the most popular forms of conveying stories, particularly to the common people during the 15th, 16th and 17th Centuries. Books were still far too expensive and education was poor, but political motives often influenced what was recorded and performed. In the 18th Century the English novel truly began to emerge led by scientific and rational approaches to debates in the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ with authors like Samuel Johnson and Johnathon Smith. Romanticism flowed in from Europe at the end of the 18th Century with the arrival of Sir Walter Scott and Jane Austen. In the Victorian Era (19th Century), increased literacy, technological advancements, monthly serialising of fiction and circulating libraries all aided the novel’s growing popularity. Charles Dicken’s, The Bronte Sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Meredith, Robert Louis Stevenson and others made their names during this Era.

Modernism in the 20th Century bought an end to Victorian style literature, and ideas from the Victorian Era, political decisions and motives were readily challenged in English literary Modernism. Charles Darwin, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Yeats and Eliot were amongst important scientists, writers and poets of the time. Modernism continued into the 1920’s and 1930’s with between wars’ writer Virginia Woolf, and novels from writers who actually came from working class backgrounds also began to emerge. Modernism didn’t really have an end but rather tapered out and evolved into Postmodernism, a difficult and heavily debated topic to define, as no one seems to really know what Postmodernism is exactly. Although it can be said that Postmodernism was very much a reaction against Enlightenment ideas found in Modernist literature.

By the end of the 20th Century, genre fiction fully emerged and writers could designate their works to specific genres; crime novels, fantasy, romance, historical, science fiction, etc. etc. Nowadays stories are still influenced by politics, technology, religion and culture, but are very much guided by public popularity and opinion. If a vampire story happens to become popular then you can bet a hundred more vampire stories will follow. However, it is impossible to say with 100% certainty what will become a bestseller and what will not, this is the reason that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter was rejected so many times before finally being accepted for publication, even though ‘stories about wizards’ were not essentially popular at the time. Just in the last year alone George Orwell’s 1984 novel received a new surge in sales due to social media and political opinions, leaving a lot of people wondering whether we should all be trying to escape Earth and colonise the Moon or Mars instead.

‘Once Upon A Time’ carries with it a nostalgic air and sets up the mood for a fairy tale written in the past tense which many children and adults still enjoy today. However, 21st Century literature is more likely to open with the very heart of the opening scene and be written in the present tense in the first, second or third person. There are no or very little sentences featuring ‘were’ and ‘was’, and descriptions are often fed in with the rest of the writing, not separated into flowery chunks as you are often told to do when learning descriptive writing in school. The scene is not set up for you like it is with ‘Once Upon A Time’, rather the reader learns about the scene gradually from reading and discerning clues from the story, a literary evolution that could be attributed to education and the increase in human intelligence.

Stories today are so varied but are often an escape from reality for most readers, and even if you’re not a reader, novels continue to influence and are adapted into popular feature films. No matter how much literature changes, there is no way that old stories and fairy tales will disappear from our literature. Humans just love to reimagine and reinvent stories from the past, the recent Beauty and The Beast film adaptation is evidence of that, and even Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet can be found within modern stories today like ‘Warm Bodies’ by Isaac Marion.

I could write all day about literature, and I know that there are many authors who have influenced English literature who I haven’t mentioned throughout this blog. I strongly recommend that you do further research if you are interested in this topic. Literature continues to evolve and challenges the way we think and the ideas we believe in. Literature is often a secret bridge between divides that exist whether it is due to wealth, political, cultural or religious beliefs, education and opinions. Novels don’t even ascribe to one genre today, they are often multi-genre bending, and we have possibly entered a new age of literature already without realising it. One thing is for certain though, where there are humans armed with pens, pencils or paint brushes, literature will never cease to exist and will continue to evolve alongside the world until our eventual extinction, if that ever happens.


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