Why Classics Matter

It’s never a good idea to base too much of your opinion off what you see online.  Case in point: I have seen an increasing amount of disdain from writers and readers regarding classics.  (The folks over at Suvudu got bashed for including a lot of classic characters in their most recent cage match.)  While it’s easy to consider this part of the anti-intellectualism that seems to be taking over civilization, these despisers do have a point.

For one, no one is going to love every book in any genre.  But just because you can’t stand Jane Eyre doesn’t mean that War and Peace, The Idiot, or Three Musketeers won’t knock your socks off.  Or read Kidnapped, which is as readable as most of the YA of today.

For another, our expectations of how a book should be written have changed.  Even Tolkien’s lucid prose is considered hard-to-read by many (fools, but still).  Imagine how much more formal Dickens, Hugo, or even Kipling can sound.  Personally, I don’t find it much effort to sink into novels of this tone, but for some any effort seems to be too much.

Also many “classics” are written by authors for whom English is not a first language.  This means that what we, as English speakers, reads is largely dependent on the quality of the translator.  I have noticed some editions, especially those in public domain, that are a bit ponderous.

But all that is unimportant.  Reading classics will help your writing for many reasons.

Firstly:  Even if you live in London and read Dickens, or an American reading Cooper, or a Spaniard with Don Quixote, you’ve got a window on a much different culture.  Nothing drives how much things have changed than reading about the day to day activities of characters in, say, a Flaubert novel.  To say nothing of adding changes in space to your changes in time.  I suppose this mostly helps spec-fic writers–world builders–but this mind-enhancing look at past cultures will aid everyone trying for realism.

Secondly: The writing itself.  So many of today’s best-sellers won’t even be remembered in ten years (see Fantasy, Urban ALL).  In many cases, it seems more important to have a lot of twitter followers or a great cover than well-crafted prose.  But I reckon you can learn more from a careful reading of Green, Bulgakov, or Hamsun than from any how-to write book on the market.

Consider this quote from Tolstoy’s novella “The Cossacks.”

Olenin made out something grey and white and fleecy, but try as he would he could find nothing beautiful in the mountains of which he had so often read and heard.  The mountains and clouds appeared to him quite alike, and he thought the special beauty of the snow peaks, of which he had so often been told, was as much an invention as Bach’s music and the love of women, in which he did not believe.  So he gave up looking forward to seeing the mountains.  But early next morning, being awakened in his cart by the freshness of the air, he glanced carelessly to the right.  The morning was perfectly clear.  Suddenly he saw, about twenty paces away as it seemed to him at first glance, pure white gigantic masses with delicate contours, the distinct fantastic outlines of their summits showing sharply against the far-off sky.  When he had realized the distance between himself and them and the sky and the whole immensity of the mountains, and felt the infinitude of all that beauty, he became afraid that it was but a phantasm or a dream.  He gave himself a shake to rouse himself, but the mountains were still the same.

There’s a lot going on there, not the least some serious foreshadowing (By the end, the narrative has become no more than a phantasm or dream to Olenin), contrast (the unchanging mountains), and irony (Olenin quickly comes to believe in love).  But the main thing is that, but grounding the description in Olenin’s viewpoint (not a given, at the time) Tolstoy has helped us in essence become Olenin, to share his wildly divergent emotions.  I find it to be quite powerful, and the story as a whole is as good as anything I’ve read.

Lastly, there’s the difference of style.  Tolstoy was not alone in his predilection for long paragraphs, though he was preeminent. Many pre-modern authors used the narrator to greater effect than is currently in vogue.  Joyce famously pioneered stream-of-consciousness.  These stylistic choices, and many others, add many more colors to your word-palette, and can allow you to grow into a writer with a powerful, distinctive voice.

I’ve referenced some of my favorite classics here. I’d love to hear some more recommendations though.  Please let me know what you think and or books to read.


5 thoughts on “Why Classics Matter

  1. Dangerous Liaisons by Laclos is still one of my favorites. I also love Hawthorne (his short fiction more so than his novels) and Oscar Wilde. I’m sure there’s more, but that’s what comes to mind.

    And by the way, have you ever heard of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirlees? It was recommended to me by two different spec-fic authors as being the best fantasy novel they’d ever read. I scrounged up a copy today and read the first chapter. Definitely has that different sort of world view and prose style you’re talking about. Definitely gonna finish reading the rest of it as soon as I have some time… You should check it out.

  2. I’ve never even heard of it! Sweet–I’ll add it to my to read list right away.

    I need to read more Hawthorne and Wilde. Do you recommend collected short stories, or longer works?

  3. My experience at goodreads has led me to believe that it could be the case that there are no classics. Instead, I have come to believe in a theory of book criticism that amounts to, “I like what you are selling.” Books bring a viewpoint, and there acceptance as being a work of quality seems to largely depend on whether you can buy into that viewpoint (or be persuaded to it). What you describe as ‘anti-intellectualism’, I think perhaps can be better explained as no longer buying into traditional academic viewpoints. What you describe as classics, I think can be better explained as books which a particular slice of academics in ivory towers liked or could be sold on and there after promoted as best. Sometimes I agree with these recommendations, but all too often I don’t see these recommendations being based on quality of the writing, craftsmanship, or quality of story telling but simply a particular political view. The sneering version of this theory is that no art arises above the level of Rush Limbaugh. People grab on to their preferences for things that a self-validating, and justify that preference for self-validating things by saying that those things that validate their dispositions and biases are true, intelligent, and morally correct. So, my love of Hugo, Kipling, Augustine, Erasmus, Steinbeck, Tolstoy and so forth can’t be viewed as ‘a love of classics’, but merely an extension of my love of self-validating things – Tolkien, Wolfe, Rawlings, etc. It’s not at all clear to me that everything remembered is deserving or everything forgotten is undeserving, or that we ought to say that our taste is better than the public’s taste. I don’t read urbane fiction or paranormal romance, but it isn’t at all clear to me that they aren’t ‘classics’ in any sense that Joyce or Fitzgerald is a classic. I’m not at all clear that despite the best efforts to make them endure, that ‘classics’ will endure or that any book which you have to promote its endurance should have ever been considered ‘classic’ in the first place.

    • I would agree that there are no capital-C classics, but of course it’s a term that’s useful in talking about books that have little in common other than longevity. 1984 is a different book from The Stranger, but both are considered “classics” and I think most people understand what it means.

      More importantly, I am a bit surprised to see a correlation between political views and classics. You’re right that the term is not perfect, and I’d also agree there are plenty of books in the literary canon that probably aren’t deserving, craftsmanship-wise, but are there because of their impact or novelty at the time. What do politics have to do with any of that?

      There are of course not really any ivory towers, and even metaphorical ones aren’t exactly in the conspiracy business. I don’t see a cabal of professors working to make Flaubert more popular than he would otherwise be. What would the point be? Please tell me if I’m misinterpreting your words.

      I really don’t see the connection between Hugo, Kipling, et al and a “love of self-validating things.” If you mean that people read classics to seem “better” that is quite demonstrably not true. Now as a genre fan, I bristle against those who say that any genre is inherently worse than another. But there are some genres (as you pointed out, like urban fantasy and paranormal romance) whose entire raison d’etre is being mindless entertainment. As such, things like “craftsmanship” (whatever that means to you) are less applicable. They’re not inherently worse, but from the perspective of a would-be writer they’re far less useful. They’re candy.

      Again, not sure what you mean by “promoting.” Teaching in schools? Recommending in libraries? Blogging about them? We’d probably agree that one of the joys of reading is making recommendations to friends. Sharing a book, gaining a mutual world. They’re not promoted in any other sense, at least not that I know.

      Thanks for the interesting take. Apologies if I mis-interpreted you, and happy to hear more of your thoughts.

  4. Pingback: Lazy Writing VS Lazy Reading | Kit Hambleton

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