Tuesday, December 6

Classic Failure

Classic literature: the prerequisite of reading. How many classic novels have you actually read? More than I have, I'm sure.

What is a "classic"?

Something old and well-received. It has been appreciated and loved by many.

When I think "classic novels", titles that come to mind are: 'To Kill a Mocking Bird', 'Nineteen Eighty-Four', 'The Great Gatsby', 'Moby Dick', 'Gone with the Wind' and 'Little Women'.

I have read none of these books. There is the exception that 'To Kill a Mocking Bird' was read to my school class by our teacher when I was eleven. Regardless, I can't remember the plot. Then there are, of course, titles by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Bronte, Bronte and Bronte.

Plenty of classics we know about because of media, whether through television, other literature or wide reference to the characters and plot points. I feel that I will never fully understand these references until I have read the books for myself, nor will I have my own opinions on the character developments and the dramatics of their plots without discovering them for myself.

There is just one small problem I find with classic literature - the writing.

It's terrible, I know. These novels are loved for a reason and to point the finger at the actual writing seems almost blasphemous...but it is true.

Writing styles have changed a lot over the years and what was once commonplace is not as tolerable. Long paragraphs, endless descriptions and information that the reader does not care for and has no real relevance to the plot, are a few things that you can find in classic literature. The story is slow, moments dragging on for what seem like centuries.

These days, writers know that if you can make it short but effective, you are king. With such a vast range of media, readers need to be captivated by the very first sentence of a story and some of those openings of classics are, well, classic...and some of them are dull.

While it is a myth that Dickens was paid by the word, he did release his stories in installments. Short bursts of a great tale are a clever enough thing but faced with the entire volume in these modern times, how easy is it for a reader to be captivated by a Dickensian novel when there are film and television adaptations of his works where they do not have to read the descriptions for themselves?

Of course, I do not mean to pick on the works of Charles Dickens. I picked up one of his novels after hearing from a friend that it was a struggle and found my skepticism was a little too heavy. It was quite a bit more interesting than I had anticipated.

Naturally, it is fascinating to read about a time period that we cannot experience firsthand. This holds plenty of the appeal of the novels, along with those classic characters. After all, the characters in these novels have helped shape literature as we know it. I feel ignorant not knowing the roots of literature by being unfamiliar with the true nature of these characters. Second, third and twenty-seventh retellings of other people's impressions doesn't do any justice to the original writing of the author. The portrayal of a character in the novel they were written for is who they are. There is no duplicating that.

I have so many classic novels that I aim - or feel obligated - to read. I have a list of them written down and plenty of those books are just siting on my shelf, neglected or available to read for free as eBooks.

Are you a fan of the classics? What are some of your favourites?

Perhaps you are like me and have not read as many as might be expected.

Do you think that classic novels are worth reading or are they overrated?


Determinist said...

I have and do read classics on a semi-regular basis. The thing about classics is that there were LOTS of stuff written at the time, but these are some of the very few that have survived. We are looking at only the very best from the time, that have something to offer.

I do find that what you find is a lot of filler and they could really have used an editor, but the gems that are there are infinitely quotable.

My favourites are:
To Kill a Mockingbird
Catcher in the Rye
Catch 22
Moby Dick (about 10% of it is AMAZING, the rest is filler)
Lots of Jules Verne (20,000 leagues under the sea, The Mysterious Island, Journey to the Centre of the Earth)

Myah said...

I love some of the classics. Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, To Kill a Mockingbird- I'll even pick up my copy of Macbeth or The Taming of the Shrew when I'm in the mood for it.

One thing I always remember my English teacher telling us- when some complained about those self-same lengthy descriptions and the like- is that writing back in those days served very different purpose than today. Yes, both were to entertain, but life in the times of the classics was much slower paced; much more relaxed.People- especially the upper classes- had more time on their hands to spend on leisure reading. But as time passed and leisure time became more and more scarce, novelists found that they had to be more and more direct to hold their readers.

I always find it kind of sad that we don't have the time for flowery prose anymore.

~Ang said...

I do enjoy some classics but as you said some of the writing is just dull. I have attempted Jane Austen multiple times and just can't seem to get through one of her books.

But there are several classics that I absolutely gobble up, maybe its because I read most of them for class so we could break up the reading with discussions and explanations of parts that were difficult to understand.

My Favorites include
Beowulf, The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, Of Mice & Men, Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Frankenstein, I guess I could really just go on and on but those top my list.

Debbie said...

I've read some. I think you do have to be in the right frame of mind to read them. I have started reading Rebecca umpteen times, but never finished it because of this. I love Jane Eyre (read it a few times) and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Michael said...

I have to disagree. You're entitled to your opinion, of course; but you can't say "...that the reader does not care for" as though all readers were alike. When I pick up a book, I want to be absorbed by it. There's a great quote by Erica Jong: "I want a book to kidnap me into its world. ... When I close the book, I should feel bereft." For me, evocative descriptions that help me to picture a scene and make it vivid and extraordinary, something powerful and poetic beyond my everyday experience, are a vital part of that -- as well as, of course, other aspects such as an engaging storyline and characters. I can read and enjoy a well-written novel that doesn't spend much time on descriptions, but I'm not likely to fall in love with it.

I understand what you're saying from the writer's point of view -- when readers have so many novels they could choose from, it becomes important to hook them fast. But from my point of view as a reader, if a book comes recommended or I've enjoyed other works by the author, then I'm happy to take the story slowly, let it wash over me and draw me in gradually. And, as Determinist pointed out, the "classics" are books that come recommended automatically, simply because they're survived.

So, let's see... some of my favourite classics... Moby-Dick is wonderful. Yes, almost half of it is non-fiction (though not entirely factual either) but it's still fascinating to read, and the story is very gripping. The Odyssey. Don Quixote. The Three Musketeers. The Moonstone. The Barchester Chronicles. Adam Bede.

Incidentally, since you mentioned Dickens, I must point out that he wrote, in Great Expectations, one of the classic instant-hook openings. Sure, the first sentence -- "My father's family name being Pirrip" etc. -- is nothing very special. But the hook, the moment when you are grabbed and can't turn away, comes when the stranger appears from the marshland -- at the top of Page 2 in my copy. You can't say that's dull or slow.

Sam said...

I agree with Michael.