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.