Day 49-- classics for a reason

I often question the crop of canonized literature that makes the rounds in most bookstores and high school English classes. If I had my druthers, I'd ignite every copy of Chopin's "the Awakening" and Cooper's "Last of the Mohicans" that fluttered into my path. I'd also make every college student spend an entire semester reading "Moby-Dick" or "the Dubliners," but that's a different story.

But I came across this quote today:

"Not all great writers may seem great to us, regardless of how often and how hard we try to see their virtues. I know, for example, that Trollope is considered to have been a brilliant novelist, but I've never quite understood what makes his fans so fervent. Still, our tastes change as we ourselves change and grow older, and perhaps in a few months or so Trollope will have become my new favorite writer." ( Francine Prose "Reading Like a Writer," pg. 15)

She's right. I think ten years ago, when I was neck-deep in Shadowrun and BattleTech novels, I never would've dreamed that I'd enjoy stuff like Toni Morrison or James Joyce. (And, for the record, I still dig Shadowrun and BattleTech.)

Prose comments on this further: "Part of a reader's job is to find out why certain writers endure. This may require some rewiring, unhooking the connection that makes you think you have to have an opinion about the book and reconnecting that wire to whatever terminal lets you see reading as something that might move or delight you. You will do yourself a disservice if you confine your reading to the rising star whose six-figure, two-book contract might seem to indicate where your own work should be heading. I'm not saying you shouldn't read such writers, some of whom are excellent and deserving of celebrity. I'm only pointing out that they represent the dot at the end of the long, glorious, complex sentence in which literature has been written." (pg. 15)

That woke me up. Taste is taste, but maybe--just maybe--some of the "classic writers" I distrust aren't all bad. Well, Chopin is, but you know what I mean. Maybe, as they say, it's just me.

posted, with grace and poise, by Jason @ 10/24/2006 11:16:00 PM,


At 12:17 AM, Blogger Qere Ketiv said...

Burn the Dickens!

What exactly, though, defines a classic? Enduring popularity? The continued allusions, echoes, and references in later--much later--literature? Fabio on the cover? Is it, as Prose (great name for a writer) seems to suggest, based on our tastes as we get older (and ostensibly wiser)?

I guess I'm asking, what makes a book "good"? We could, I suppose, ask that about any form of art (or, for that matter, the sciences). I think I lean towards trying to see how the book helps its audience live the Greatest Command, but that seems a bit too individualistic (what does the book do for me?). What do you think?

At 12:43 AM, Blogger Jason said...

Dickens was paid by the word, mind you.

A classic in modern lit., if you think about it, is something that has survived decades/centuries and still not been weeded out by those wielding literary power at the time. I mean, tons of books were written in the mid-1800s-- you just only hear about the ones that weren't cast aside over the years. I think most of the stuff that's survived is good.

And my definition of "good" does mirror yours, though I'm a bit more forgiving--I have a tendency to find good aspects about some of the smallest nuances, and even if a work of fiction doesn't exactly point to the eternal in every way, there can be redeeming qualities.

And "the Awakening" still sucks.

At 8:54 AM, Blogger Qere Ketiv said...

I agree about the nuance. Also I agree about something not always pointing towards "the eternal". I don't think all (or even most) good literature should have you thinking by the end: "Gee, I love Jesus more now than ever." The nuance was why I loved Austen's Pride and Prejudice so much.

But just because something passes the test of time through the literatati (I wanted to use that word), does that mean that it truly is a classic? I feel a bit tentative about it.

Dickens should have been paid to not write.

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Keith Martel said...

Funny, did you know we read the Awakening in 303? Are you just trying to bait me here?

At 11:05 AM, Blogger Jason said...

I don't think everything that has been deemed worthy by the literati (I almost typed illuminati) is really classic; I was hoping my gist with the post, though, was that many of the classics are better than I give them credit for.

But you do have a point, one that I definitely agree on: not all classics--despite my defense of the term--are really good. I wonder if it boils down to the subjective, since you don't like Dickins and I don't like Chopin. I'm still not sure.

And as much as I'm trying to get a first grasp as to what good really is, I'm still faltering. Good ol' Cal S. is helping, but I'm still slogging through his use of neverending multisyllabic tech terms. Yow. It took me three hours to read 10 pages.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger Donavon said...

Anyone writing novels while entertaining guests in their drawing room deserves to have their books restricted to such places. I'll never understand why Dostoevsky liked Dickens. So is that my lack of understanding or his? I love Dostoevsky; I hate Dickens. Just a thought. By the way, glad I found this blog!!!


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