Authorial Intrusion: He Admonished Gravely

How do you choose your next book to read? It’s a difficult question to answer, right? Some mysterious mixture of serendipity, subconscious awareness, and mood comes together to make me pull a specific book off the shelf and say, “Yes, this one.”

A few weeks ago, I knew I’d be entering a busy period between work and teaching, and I wanted to read something that wasn’t too demanding. Something that would envelope me like a hot cup of tea or make me smile like an old episode of Happy Days.

My eye landed on Anne of Green Gables.  The perfect choice! I hadn’t read it since I was a girl. Now I’ve been whisked away to Prince Edward Island and the Lake of Shining Waters with chatty, imaginative Anne. (That’s Anne with an “e” thank you very much.) It’s every bit as charming as I remembered.

You may be familiar with the story: the Cuthberts have decided to adopt a boy from the local orphanage to help out around their farm. When the orphanage sends Anne instead, the Cuthberts nearly return her. She’s not at all what they were looking for. Anne grows on them, staying true to herself, despite many innocent mix-ups.

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Boy, how times have changed, and I don’t only mean in terms of social norms. The craft of fiction (and nonfiction for that matter) isn’t static. It’s a living, breathing art that’s evolving. Just as the Renaissance gave way to Baroque and Celine Dion led to Idina Menzel, so too do styles in literature. We read with a 21st century mindset. I can appreciate Dickens, but my modern sensibilities balk at pages (literally) of description of fog. (Note: if you find fog intriguing, Dickens is your guy.)

I noticed this as I was reading Anne of Green Gables. The way Montgomery told the story of a young orphan girl is different from the way John Green or Rainbow Rowell would tell the same story today. Some are subtle and some are glaring. One that stood out immediately was dialogue. While these dialogue tags were commonplace in early modern stories, they are discouraged now, and for good reason.

  • “It’s so nice to be appreciated,” sighed Anne rapturously.
  • “I’ll try to be a model pupil,” agreed Anne dolefully.
  • “I don’t think there’s much chance of you dying of grief as long as you can talk, Anne,” said Marilla unsympathetically.
  • “I must go home,” repeated Diana, stupidly but determinedly.
  • “Now please help yourself, Diana,” she said politely.
  • “It was dreadful of me to forget,” said Anne apologetically.

I could go on. About half of the dialogue used tags other than “said” or added an adverb to describe how the dialogue was spoken. It was all I could do not to get a red pen and mark up the book.

As author Elmore Leonard said (only partially tongue in cheek), “Never use an adverb to modify the verb said… he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange.”

So why bother reading classics? We may not want to emulate the omniscient POV or the abundance of adverbs, but classics are classics for a reason. They provide a snapshot of a time and place and writing style.We learn what was important to people in the Jazz Age or what life was like in mid-19th century Russia because someone put ink to paper. They are a conversation between author and reader, who may have lived thousands of miles and hundreds of years apart. We can still find value in the conversation.

And styles have a habit of coming back around. That’s why I’m still holding onto my circa-1983 Madonna lace gloves. You never know.

What was the last classic novel or essay you read?

Have a great weekend, everyone!

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29 comments

  1. Anne of Green Gables is one of my favorites, I said enthusiastically. I haven’t read a classic in while, I said thoughtfully and sadly. But my daughter and I will be digging out my old Laura Ingalls Wilder books this summer and I can’t wait, I said excitedly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. My daughter is reading Little House now and it thrills me that she loves it 🙂 Has your daughter read the Ramona books? We read the entire series last year and we all loved them – they really hold up over time, so I amend my comment below, I have read old favorites recently and was pleasantly surprised.

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  2. Fascinating Jackie! It makes sense that the book would sound different, and perhaps old-fashioned, but who knew there would be an adverb explosion?! I haven’t read an old favorite like that in a while, but maybe I will. I love hearing how you pick your books. I find it similar, there’s an intuitive sense of what I need at a given time, and nothing else will do. Right now, strangely (for me!) I’m pretty much only reading nonfiction. I keep choosing memoir and craft books over my old standby, novels and short stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I go through phases too — I’ll read nonfiction for a while, then switch back to fiction. If I pick up a book at the “wrong” time, I often don’t find it to be a good read. I try to go back to it at a later date to see if I have a better reaction. Do you do that also?

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  3. Hi Jackie. I agree that the classics are a snapshot of a time and place. Their message is universal and stands the test of time. The last classic I’ve read is Christ In Concrete by Pietro di Donato–a snapshot of immigrant Italians in NYC in the early part of the 20th century. I know the book provides a great glimpse of the hardships and prejudice against the Italian immigrants, but it is hard to read–to be honest. The author piles on adjectives and descriptions in a stream of consciousness whereas the modern writer often prefers “leaner,” shorter sentences. Here’s an example: “Dogging thin feet along the pavements and big strong people coming out of food shops with great bundles and laughing with lit eyes and store after store choked and flowing with bread and steak and fruit and shoes and cake and clothes and toys and darkness pushing day over tenement tops and Paul’s thin wrists getting thinner and thinner.” It’s a powerful description, but it takes patience to read!

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    1. Whew! That’s some dense text there, Patti! Lovely though. I’d have to read that book at a snail’s pace in order to fully appreciate it.

      I know you’ll finish this one… Didn’t you read Dante in the original Italian? *gives standing ovation*

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  4. I love re-reading the classics, especially children’s books. It just seemed like a gentler, easier time! I know dialogue tags are the big no-no now, but I don’t mind the odd ‘whispered’ or ‘shouted’ dotted through a book. ‘Said’s can get a bit dull (yes, I know they’re supposed to be invisible but still…) 🙂

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  5. How interesting that adverbs have fallen out of favor. I guess I hadn’t noticed because I’ve been reading mostly cookbooks lately. The last classic I picked out was The Secret Garden. I bought it at an airport bookstore to read on a flight. I had not read it as a child, nor been read to from it and I LOVED it! I selected it because on a previous flight I tried reading The Lovely Bones and started to sniffle…a lot. I had nothing but a tiny airplane cocktail napkin to stem the flow. Gross. The passenger next to me was probably terrified that I was ill and contagious. It was sort of mortifying, so I chose lighter material thereafter.

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    1. Oh, dear. I think I needed an entire box of tissues to get me through The Lovely Bones. A teeny cocktail napkin would be worthless in that situation!

      The Secret Garden is much better airplane material. That’s a story worth re-reading. I’m so glad you mentioned it.

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  6. I loved AOGG when I was a kid 🙂 Not sure I could re-read it now though! I finished All the Light we Cannot See – enjoyed it very much though was a bit disappointed with the way (spoiler) Werner came to an end. Also just read The People in the Photo – really liked that too though her wishy-washiness irked me at times. I’m looking for my next book now… Any recommendations?!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad you enjoyed All the Light We Cannot See. I was very sad about Marie-Laure’s father. Was hoping for a miracle there.

      Have you read “Brooklyn” by Colm Toibin? So, so marvelous. If that’s a bit too close to home for you (Enniscorthy, County Wexford)…

      How about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel? You’ll never look at the flu the same way. I was afraid to take the subway for a week, but the book was terrific. Really good.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’ve read a LOT of the classics, so don’t pull them out often, but I did read Anna Karenina last year and loved it. Never read the Anne of Green Gables books, but the series on TV was fantastic. Have you watched it?

    I tend to go from serious to not-so-serious books to keep things from getting too repetitive. I tend to change locales too. If the last one was set in India, I’ll go to France, etc. My best friend does this too. 🙂

    P.S. I never re-read books, but I made an exception for The Secret Garden, my favorite childhood read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I didn’t know about the Anne of Green Gables television show. Where have I been? I see that it was a mini-series in 1985. Maybe I can find it at the library.

      I used to have a strict no-re-read policy. Too many books, too little time! But lately I’ve enjoyed re-reading some novels. I have a different take on them now versus when I was in high school or college.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Jackie,

    Glad you’re reading THE TRUTH ACCORDING TO US, as it has that same want-to-be-charmed, cozy mood it sounds like you’re in with ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. Have you ever been to Prince Edward Island? The book always inspired me to visit there, which is when I intended to read. Not sure I ever have! but again you encourage me to do so. As for the last classic, recently read TENDER IS THE NIGHT. Thought the prose was gorgeous but found some parts rather boring. Shame on me, it’s F. Scott! Lorraine

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As I was reading Anne of Green Gables, I kept thinking how lovely it would be to visit Prince Edward Island. The author goes into great detail describing all the trees and flowers. It must be gorgeous this time of year.

      I had a similar reaction to SOLDIER’S PAY. I’d picked up a copy when I was in New Orleans at Faulkner’s house-turned-bookstore. He’d written most of the manuscript there. I got distracted and didn’t finish it, but I’ve promised myself I’ll get back to it soon. I want to like it because it’s Faulkner, but it was slow going!

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  9. I haven’t read a classic in a long while, though I have a few lurking on my shelf. generally I coose a more vapid read…though right now I am working my way through _Stress in Dogs_, both to brush up o my skills for Marshal and to put me to sleep as it is so soothingly dull 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, that one takes a while to pick through. Have you read Patricia McConnell’s booklet The Cautious Canine? She published it about 10 years ago, but still some great info on counter conditioning in a *brief* format. 😉

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  10. Confession – I haven’t read Anne of Green Gables.

    I do reread classics. My favorites are Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury. I learn something new with each reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That Flannery O’Connor story is just terrific. I used to assign it when I was teaching literature so I had the opportunity to re-read it every semester. I haven’t picked it up in a few years, so I think it’s time. Thanks for the reminder. 😉

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  11. I haven’t read Anne of Green Gables but i wouldn’t mind.
    I’ve noticed that even contemporary children’s book authors use these types of tags. Not the YA authors but the MG auathors. Even J . K. Rowling does and, it seems, part of the appeal. They are somewhat more subtle though.
    I’ve been sent a book by an independent publisher who publishes novesl of forgotten authors. The book has been published in 1934 (Ursula Bloom’s Wonder Cruise). The whole time I’m reading this I keep on thinking stuff like “oh – I would cut this. That could be streamlined. That’s an odd POV switch.” I noticed the same when reading an early Nobel Prize winner. Possibly, they didn’t revise as much as we do know – they had no computers, of course, and not even type writers. Don’t you think that the use of computers has something to do with more extensive revision? That and the fact that we want stories to move more quickly.

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  12. I proudly write my fiction with omniscient POV and lots of adverbs, and will not be deterred from doing so by any of your propaganda.

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