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.