Tokein. Jane Austen. Steinbeck. The greats of the past. I often come across people on this site and elsewhere who use the works of these great authors and others as examples and reservoirs of advice. These are the classics. These are novels that worked beyond a shadow of a doubt. Clearly, they did it right, and therefore are examples to be studied and copied. Right?

The key phrase is "the greats of the past." Not the present. The past. I don't doubt for a second that they are great authors, well worth studying and learning from. However, I believe that times change. As times change, readers will change also. This is just how the world works. If this is the case, we must ask ourselves: have the best writing practices changed with them?

What worked fifty years ago might not work today. Certainly a lot of it does, but some parts might have changed. For me, this is specifically the attention span of readers (I'm sure there are more areas).

Fifty years ago, novels were a major form of entertainment. When someone sat down to read, they read. Period. Today novels have been overshadowed by TV and videogames. When someone sits down to read now, they are easily distracted (aka, by their cell phone for example). Those that grew up with videogames might find it hard to sit still for long periods of time and simply read (disclaimer: my opinion).

My point is that fifty years ago, authors could afford to take their time. They could let the story develop at its own pace. They didn't have to introduce main characters right away. They could afford to explain the setting in detail. You can't do that today, unless you're really good at creating tension in everything. Today you need to get the reader involved from page one. Grab the reader in one hand, a bottle of glue in the other, and make sure he doesn't leave his seat until the novel is finished. A chapter dedicated to describing a house is a deadly invitation for the reader to fall asleep, or put the book down altogether. Below I have some further examples.

So, here's my question to you: Will what worked 'back then' necessarily work today? By that I mean, "do we blindly follow the classics step for step, assuming that everything they did was right and always will be; or do we assume that times and readers will change, and with them, the best way to write a novel?"

I realize this is primarily opinion based, so if possible, include research referencing the opinions of respected individuals in the fields of writing.

Note: This question is speaking of literature and full-scale novels intended to be bestsellers. It is not about "pulp" or low-quality quick reads.


Tolkein. Tolkein is famous for writing the Lord of the Rings. It is considered the definitive base for nearly every traditional fantasy out there. Let's take a look at how it starts, though.

The prologue opens with Concerning Hobbits, and continues for 12 pages, finishing with Concerning Pipeweed and The Ordering of the Shire. This is nearly all backstory and setting, with a few mentions of Bilbo. Things then start to sound like a story (though still backstory) with The Finding of the Ring, which continues for six pages.

If an author on this site were to suggest starting a book with 12 pages of setting description, and another six of backstory, I believe most people would tell him not to do so (I could be wrong, but that has been my experience). They would almost certainly tell him to have a side character relate the backstory, and let the characters explore the setting. (I have seen this happen before, which is what I am basing this statement off of. There are other examples.)

I'd like to look at one other example:

Jane Austen. I consider Jane Austen one of the best authors to live, and certainly one of the most witty. I will admit I have only read Pride and Prejudice, and cannot speak for her other works.

In Pride and Prejudice, the protagonist (Elizabeth) is not introduced until chapter two. Even then, she only says a few lines and we have nothing to base her character on, until the middle of chapter three. Even then, it is difficult for a new reader to tell who the protagonist is. In fact, for one unfamiliar with the book, Mr. Bennet himself seems like the most likely candidate in chapter one. It takes a while for us to get a good sense of what kind of person Elizabeth is. This clearly worked for Jane Austen in 1813. I don't believe it would work quite so well two hundred years later.

Nowadays, it is common practice to introduce your protagonist swiftly. Get the reader on his side, and he becomes invested in the novel. Without that investment, without that engaging character, the reader has very little incentive to keep reading (unless you are a master of suspenseful plots).

The examples above are my own opinion, and might not be the opinion of others. They serve only to illustrate what I am talking about.

  • 5
    I'm confident that Moby Dick would never get published today.
    – Mr.Mindor
    Oct 10, 2016 at 22:11
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    This question seems overly broad in addition to being opinion-based. Do you want a best-seller? Do you want a small but loyal audience? Are you writing for the aesthetic value? There's also a false dichotomy in your question; why can we not take the preferences of modern audiences into account while still using techniques from the classics? Why must it be one or the other? In fact, I believe at least part of your premise is flawed: the concept of narrative hooks and engaging your audience is not something new. Engagement can occur in a multitude of ways. (Of course, I'm only an amateur, so.)
    – JAB
    Oct 10, 2016 at 23:06
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    @JAB I think you might have misunderstood some parts of my question. The question is about assuming that everything that worked back then will work today, because it did at one point. It has nothing to do with audience. We can, in fact, take the preferences of modern audiences and use techniques from the classics - that's what I think we should do (some seem to disagree, which is why I created this question). It doesn't have to be one or the other. I believe it should be the complete opposite: using what we know is different to determine what will work now. Oct 10, 2016 at 23:13
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    Someone voted to close this as too broad. I voted against closing, in part because I think many of the answers given on this site are too narrow. Often people assert that things cannot be done despite a long tradition of those very things being done by great authors (both past and contemporary). So this is a very legitimate question. Is what worked in the past fundamentally different, or are many answers on this site taking too narrow a view?
    – user16226
    Oct 10, 2016 at 23:31
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    @ThomasMyron If you mean Tolkien, it would be helpful if you spelled him that way, and not Tokein/Tolkein.
    – user5645
    Oct 11, 2016 at 6:42

4 Answers 4


The vast majority of the fiction produced in any age is of the type that would generally be called pulp or potboiler. It is simple non-challenging stuff meant to occupy a vacant hour for an reader who is a mood for something light and frothy.

Generally pulp does not have much of a shelf life, though there are occasionally works that were written as pulp which survive.

And then there is literature. It is more challenging. It demands more of the reader and provides far greater rewards. It is much harder to write. You can do things in literature that you would not attempt in pulp, because they tax the attention of an inattentive reader. Some literature is much more accessible than other, even after the passage of time. A great writer can make lucid and engaging the kinds of passages that would be utterly tedious in the hands of any lesser author.

So, different things work in pulp than work in literature. Publishing houses and agents looking for pulp want different things than those looking for literature. But if a question on this site does not specify whether the writer is setting out to write pulp or literature, then we should not cite the rule of either pulp or literature as if they were universal.

Also, we should notice that there are pulp authors of extraordinary gifts who are capable of transcending the usual confines of pulp style, even if they never ascend to the heights of literature. J. K. Rowling is a great example of this. The Harry Potter series is not literature by any stretch of the imagination, but it is pulp of extraordinary skill and accomplishment, and it does things that the usual rules of pulp say you should not be done, like starting with a several page descriptions of the place the hero comes from. Not only is there no action in the description of Privet Lane, very little of the story takes place there.

So, to answer the question, no, I don't believe things have changed all that much. The reason they seem to have changed is that all that remains current from the past is its literature. Its pulp has long since faded away. But most of contemporary publishing, like most publishing in the past, is pulp. Comparing the pulp of today with the literature of yesterday is comparing apples and oranges.

But if writers.stackexchange is about writing and not just about pulp, then answers should talk as much about literature as about pulp, unless the questioner specifies pulp or literature in the question.

(Dividing all of writing into pulp and literature is, of course, a gross oversimplification. But writing is a broad subject and we should not mistake the rules and characteristics of one of its many branches for the whole.)

  • 2
    An interesting take on things. I've always assumed Writers.SE is about, you know, writing. Any kind of writing. Pulp and literature. And technical. And legal. It's been my experience that you can usually infer what type of writing the OP is talking about. For example, I am talking about literature. I don't think the works of Tolkein, Austen, and Steinbeck are considered pulp, and I wouldn't use their works as examples if I was talking about pulp. However, you raise a valid point and I will edit to clarify that I am talking about literature. Oct 11, 2016 at 1:18
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    @mbakeranalecta I think you should write a meta post and give your definitions of "literature" and "pulp". To me, Harry Potter is not "pulp". It is literary writing for children.
    – user5645
    Oct 11, 2016 at 7:03
  • @ThomasMyron Not sure I would count Tolkien as literature. Perhaps high pulp with a vein of literature running through it. I love Tolkien, mind you. But pulp vs literature is about kind, not quality and there is a bit too much of the high norse heroics about LOTR, too much of the inculcation of warrior values, to regard it as morally serious. Except for Sam. Sam is the literary vein in the pulp of Aragorn and Gandalf.
    – user16226
    Oct 11, 2016 at 14:29
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    I think it's a fair distinction. As the poster admits, there isn't a sharp line between "pulp" and "literature", it's more of a continuum. I'd add that there is certianly great pulp and bad literature. Like Sherlock Holmes is pulp, but it's very good pulp. And I recall books I was assigned to read in school that clearly aspired to being great literature but that I found boring and trite. (I once came across the comment: "All the English teachers and literature professors are always saying how great Shakespeare was. But if you actually read his stuff, it really is good.")
    – Jay
    Oct 11, 2016 at 18:54
  • Good observation, Mark. I didn't want to mention that myself. Also, let's not forget that until perhaps the late Nineteenth Century, even in industrialized nations, general reading was not all that common. Finally, among the "classics," there seems to be a strong tendency for them to be nominated by educators and other civil servants, who perhaps do not select according to whether the books are well-written or interesting.
    – user23046
    Apr 24, 2017 at 22:30

With all due respect I cannot resist to point out that this discussion is swiftly drifting away from the question which originated it, and yet I am very glad that the question is not put on hold, for it is a good one.

The question, however, is not about "real literature" vs. "commercial pulp" or under one of those two categories our beloved Harry Potter falls. The question is:

Will what worked 'back then' work today?

...and (to me, at least) it is about writing techniques and methods of delivering your story to the reader is a way which would keep the said reader invested in your narrative and keep him engaged in a little game of deciphering those little clusters of characters which make up words, stringing those words into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages and so on.

And my honest opinion is that not all of the writing styles/models/techniques which were used 200 years ago would be equally efficient today.

The time itself is changing; the very speed of life is different drastically from what it used to be years ago, and it is only going to go faster and faster. The lightsaber fight scenes in the original Star Wars movies (blasphemy alert) look excruciatingly slow today—and it was only decades, not centuries—a significant portion of your audience (a few generations, in fact) grew up watching TV and reading only comic books (which means that their attention span is now pre-conditioned to cut off automatically if the sentence barely fits into a speech bubble)—and it is just impossible to ignore.

Whether you are laboring to produce a rival to "One Hundred Years of Solitude" or just another installation of pseudo-historic Brown pulp, the way you present your story to your audience has to reflect the specifics and tempo of modern life.

The way you do it, however is entirely up to you.

There are many recipes for writing a "successful" book. If you follow all of them, you will end up with a book, which had been written already, and not once—rules are meant to be broken, if you want originality, but they are meant to be broken responsibly, and that includes taking into account your prospected audience—not only who your readers are but also when.

P.S. If this site supported signature quotes, mine would be the right question contains half of the answer within...

  • Please note that it was you who appended "real" to "literature" and "commercial" to "pulp", suggesting that they were used in a value-laden rather than descriptive sense. That is an unfair representation of how they have been used in this thread so far.
    – user16226
    Oct 11, 2016 at 14:45
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    The point of distinguishing between pulp and literature for purposes of this discussion is simply to avoid comparing apples to oranges. Compare the pulp of the past to the pulp of the present and the literature of the past to the literature of the present. This is particularly important because many people have read literature of the past (often in school) but only the pulp of the present.
    – user16226
    Oct 11, 2016 at 14:50
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    @mbakeranalecta I'll take it back with apologies if it is important. My point was that the question was not about classifying literature, but about writing technique. Distinguishing between pulp and literature for me does not seem relevant to the question.
    – Lew
    Oct 11, 2016 at 14:51
  • Agreed about the nature of the question, but in order to talk about writing technique you often have to classify literature. It is hard to have a discussion about whether techniques that worked yesterday still work today unless you clearly specify what kind of product you are talking about. Cormac McCarthy, for instance, uses techniques that Steinbeck uses but which would not work for Dan Brown. It is important not to confuse a difference in kind with a difference in time.
    – user16226
    Oct 11, 2016 at 14:57
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    @mbakeranalecta Frankly, I would never recommend anyone to emulate anyone else, no matter the reason, unless it is a mandatory writing class assignment. If anything I vote for breaking the rules, not following them blindly. And the science fiction by itself has many sub-genres, just as any other genre, and going deeper into the classification would only steer us farther and farther away from the originating question...
    – Lew
    Oct 11, 2016 at 15:20

I think the main difference between yesteryear classics and today's "literature," as you define it distinct from "pulp," is the attention span of the reader.

There are exponentially more inputs clamoring for our attention and less leisure time to spend it on. The instant-gratification nature of broadcast (radio, TV, Internet) has shortened our collective patience. We want satisfaction and we want it now. So writers must work harder and deliver a lot of little payoffs to keep an impatient reader entranced and holding on for the final blow at the end.

That's not to say that big overstuffed novels which meander to the end can't sell or aren't enjoyable today, but that these are rarer because the audience for that kind of narrative style is smaller.

Since you're differentiating between "literature" and "pulp," I might point out that the audience for "literature" is probably the very audience which has more patience, and preference, for the slow buildup and meandering plot. "Pulp" stories skip the beginning fluff and start in medias res because it's more interesting to cut to the good stuff.

On a separate note: I think the distinction introduced by @mbakeranalecta of "literature" and "pulp" is a false one. There are good books and crappy books. A good popcorn book is still a good book. A good beach read, airport distraction, or cheerfully trashy romance is still a good book. A crappy book is a book you don't want to finish or don't want to read again, period. Style, intended audience, length, content, even quality are irrelevant. For me, Dan Brown books are tripe, and I won't even pick up the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo etc. series, but for many people, they're great books and re-read and loved. And many of those readers would loathe the SFF I cherish. So how can you call one "literature" (good, enduring) and one "pulp" (bad, cheap, throwaway) when they don't have the same effect on everyone?

  • The distinction between literature and pulp is certainly oversimplified -- and sometimes we need to oversimplify to get to a broader point. But the distinction is not between good and bad. The difference between lit and pulp is one of intent, not quality. Lit attempts to be morally serious -- to deal with the human spirit as it really is. Pulp does not. It presents a fantasy of the human spirit -- as we would like it to be, not as it is. Pulp is entertaining. There is good pulp and bad, just as there is good lit and bad. Those who enjoy good lit also enjoy good pulp.
    – user16226
    Oct 11, 2016 at 12:40
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    @mbakeranalecta Can you provide some examples of what you consider to be "literature," since you've already labeled Potter as "pulp"? I still disagree with your distinction, but I am curious to learn what you've elevated to the level of "literature." Regardless of the fantasy setting, there is quite a bit in Potter which deals in "the human spirit as it really is," so I don't understand your labeling choices. Oct 11, 2016 at 12:47
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    In a real school, Draco Malfoy would be expelled and all the kids would hate HP as a swot and a teacher's pet. HP feeds the basic childhood fantasy of being "special". In HP all the goodies love HP because he is special. The rules don't apply to him because he is special. In the real world he would be an object of fierce resentment from the whole school. That "special" status speaks to a desire in all of us, but it is not morally serious. For contrast, consider Huckleberry Finn. It is an absurd comedy in many ways, but fiercely true to human experience.
    – user16226
    Oct 11, 2016 at 13:03
  • @mbakeranalecta I think you're selling HP short in some of its characterizations and giving too much credit to some of Twain's clichés. We're just going to have to agree to disagree on the labels. :) Oct 11, 2016 at 16:01
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    indeed, it is much easier to agree on categories than to agree on what belong in them. :-) I guess we will see in 100 years whether HP will be remembered as well as HF.
    – user16226
    Oct 11, 2016 at 16:18

I do not see much difference in style between Goethe, Proust, or Hawthorne on the one hand, and whichever book I pick up in the bookstore today. They refer to a different world and use some different words, but if you replace horses with cars and fireplaces with central heating, and disregard the different orthography, the sentences and paragraphs that they use to tell their stories are structured the same.

There has been some influx of film and tv on how stories are told, there has been some experimentation with reflecting thought processes (such as stream of consciousness or Palahniuk's novels), but the majority of narrative writing, both fiction and non-fiction, and both popular and literary writing, could have been written by Melville.

Most readers prefer stories to be told to them in a coherent way and with the same language they would use to write a letter to their grandmother. Language changes with time, so of course there is some difference in vocabulary, orthography, and grammar, but if you subtract this, writing from the eighteenth century onwards has stylistically remained fundamentally the same. All the "avant-garde" experimentation, such as expressionistic writing, has fallen to disuse. Most people today do not read non-mainstream writing from the past. But they do read Moby Dick – because it is just as accessible today as Harry Potter.

As for the discussion going on here:

You are confusing technique with content.

Of course presend day readers are interested in different stuff as back then. The world is different today! What still works, though, is the same narrative style of (prose) writing.

  • 1
    I have to disagree with you on the literal point of "Moby Dick is as accessible as Harry Potter" because Moby Dick is stultifyingly boring and Harry Potter is eminently re-readable, but your overall point stands and is excellent. :) I particularly +1 "with the language they'd use to write a letter to their grandmother." When reading for pleasure, people want to be able to read, not fight with the text for comprehension. Oct 11, 2016 at 10:29
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    I struggled with Moby Dick the first time I tried to read it. The second time, I found it one of the most wonderful and moving books I had ever read. Harry Potter, on the other hand, grew tedious after the first couple of books. I suspect that as we go through our literary lives our tastes change, just as our tastes for food change. Our enjoyment of some things grows while we tire of other things. MD and HP are both equally accessible to me today, but not 20 years ago. But I prefer MD today. Reading HP for me, today, is like eating too much chocolate.
    – user16226
    Oct 11, 2016 at 12:51
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    I didn't mean you, @Lew, but I disagree with your answer. Books aren't movies, and language processing didn't speed up. If anything, it has dumbed down.
    – user5645
    Oct 11, 2016 at 20:32
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    @what language processing might have not sped up, but the attention span surely changed. What I am saying (along with the author of the question) is that targeting modern TL;DR audience has its challenges.
    – Lew
    Oct 11, 2016 at 20:44
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    @what I, personally, can use a reader with a longer attention span ;-)
    – Lew
    Oct 11, 2016 at 21:05

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