Mad Monday: Classics Are The Ultimate Bestsellers

I had a classical education, raised on organic veggies and E.B. White. I recently came across a list of 100 classic book you should before you die–I had read 66 of them before I was 17. Because we didn’t have a TV when I was young, classics were my Muppets, Saturday Morning Cartoons, and Saved by the Bell. They have a special place in my heart. Which is why this line (heard quite often around the lit blogosphere) grinds my gills:

“You can’t write books like they did back then, no one would publish it.”

To which I reply:

WHY THE HECK NOT?

I mean, are the classics only good because they are old? Is it true that publishers these days wouldn’t take a second glance at A Little Princess, Little House on the Prairie, Little Women [okay, why do they all have little in them?], White Fang, Ivanhoe, The Black Arrow, A Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, The Time Machine, etc.?

To which I respectfully and humbly say: THAT IS MORONIC.

A Little Princess isn’t a classic because it’s old. It’s a classic because it has characters and themes that people relate to today just as much as they did when it was first published. It’s still ingested and digested and given to nieces for their 9th birthdays.

One of my good friends, fresh off drugs and now addicted to reading–is getting a buzz from all the classic horror novels–Dracula, Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Hound of the Baskervilles–and you can’t say the vocabulary is too lofty for modern day readers because she only has a 9th grade education. Why does she buy them? Why does she like them? Because they’re darn fine stories!

I just talked to an 8th grader who loves to read, and guess what she’d recently picked up and couldn’t put down? Wuthering Heights. It seems Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff acting like selfish asses is just as fun to read today as it was a hundred years ago. And (more importantly), readers will still buy it even with all of the competition it has on the library shelves.

Classics have plenty of things that you could criticize. Dumas was paid for the word and he . . . wanted to make a lot of money when he wrote a book. Les Miserables has so many characters it’s hard to get through. Upton Sinclair can get preachy and Jane Austen can be shallow. Jack London can get lost in the woods, and Mark Twain can get too goofy. But good heavens, their characters! Just saying their names illicits some kind of connection or emotion:

Aslan!

Anne Shirley!

Tom Sawyer!

Holden Caulfield!

Jay Gatsby!

Javert!

Darth Vader! (wait, how’d he get in here?)

Mr. Darcy!

Don Quixote!

Simon Legree!

Anna Karenina!

Oliver Twist!

Athos! Porthos! Aramis!

Meg! Jo! Beth! Amy!

Dorian Gray!

Atticus Finch!

Fiver!

I could go on and on and on . . .

Those characters give modern day writers a challenge–it’s hard to top them. In fact, it might be just compensation syndrome when writers start bashing the classics.

Perhaps the next writer I hear say that the classics couldn’t be published in today’s market, I’ll ask which classic they are specifically talking about …

is it Moby Dick … who has such lines as:

truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself. If you flatter yourself that you are all over comfortable, and have been so a long time, then you cannot be said to be comfortable any more.

Or perhaps no publisher would take Charles Dickens anymore, with such words as:

“In came Mrs. Fezziwig, one vast substantial smile.”

“Any man may be in good spirits and good temper when he’s well dressed. There ain’t much credit in that.”

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”

No, it is Oscar Wilde who cannot make it in this modern publishing arena, with such quotes as:

Only dull people are brilliant at breakfast.

To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.

Or the father of fantasy, who is oft charged for adding too many mundane storyworld facts, perhaps he wouldn’t be accepted with such lines as:

All that is gold does not glitter,

Not all those who wander are lost;

The old that is strong does not wither,

Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

“Whatev, fools . . . I’m a literary ROCKSTAR. Sold more books than anyone else in the world.”

What I’m NOT saying is “gone are the good ole’ days,” and “they don’t’ write ‘em like they used to,” because I’ve read just as many nowadays amazing books as I have old time classics.

But no more classic bashing. At least not on my lawn!

What do you think of the classics? 

What can be said against them? Which are your favorites?

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21 Comments

  1. I love this!

    I myself am very partial to C.S. Lewis, Mr. Tolkien, and….okay, I did really enjoy Jane Eyre, as much as I hate to admit it.

    Reply
  2. How do you manage to wrangle the nonstandard linguistic tropes present in a book like Wuthering Heights? And I’m mentioning Wuthering Heights in particular because I tried to read it recently and the sentences just seemed…off somehow. The more recent stuff you’ve mentioned I can get my head into, and I even dig me some H. G. Wells, but it seems like the further back I go, the harder it is to make the prose really gel in my mind.
    In general I agree with your points about the importance of plot and character, but I’m not sure all of these SPECIFIC books would get published today.

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  January 16, 2012

      I guess everyone doesn’t have trouble with the nonstandard linguistic tropes present in Wuthering Heights, but just like present day novels…some writers’ voice you can’t connect to so you put it down. The sentences that seem off to you may shine to others. And heck yes, I believe a publisher would publish it these days … after all, readers are still buying it … which is the first indication that publishers would want it, right?

      Reply
      • I would argue that readers are still buying some of these books simply because they’ve been TOLD they were classics. IMHO these aren’t the only good books from these times, they’re just the ones everyone knows about. I happen to have enjoyed several of I. A. R. Wylie’s books, but try going to your bookstore and finding them on the shelves today. Heck, trying finding someone who has HEARD of I. A. R. Wylie.
        Classics get BOUGHT, yes, but many people, even avid bibliophiles, never actually get around to reading them. (Incidentally, this is a problem for some modern books as well. Citation here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bestseller#Unread_bestsellers)

        Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  January 16, 2012

      Sure, some people might buy classics because they’re pretty. Gotta be honest, I’ll probably never read Kafka’s Parables and Paradox’s sitting on my shelf.
      But the past few interactions I’ve had with readers and classics (the examples I gave in the post) were of people reading and enjoying them.
      And you’re right–I’m sure some amazing works of literature have been lost.

      Reply
  3. I adore this blog!!! Like you, I have read much of the canon and the characters from so many of the Great Books are like dear old friends to me. I walk around with sentences and phrases from books like The Great Gatsby and The Sound and the Fury replaying in my head. Daisy and Quentin talk to me. Holden Caufield is an old friend of mine, and when I miss him, I open my battered copy of The Catcher in the Rye and peruse a few pages.

    As a writer, I try to write not like them or like anyone else. But I do try to write literature. Would the great ones be published in today’s landscape? I don’t know. I hope so. Will you or I be published? Yes. I think so.

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  January 16, 2012

      I’m definitely influenced by my love of the classics! But they were good because they wrote great characters and stories–that’s what I want to copy. I hope you’re published, I hope I’m published. =)

      Reply
      • I agree completely re love of the classics. The great writers of the past and present do at least one thing well: create great characters, who seem alive as they drive the story.

        Reply
  4. You know I have to love this post because I’m a bibliophile and librarian…you’d be amazed how many people love the classics once they give them a try. Well-done! Some of my favorites:
    anything by Shakespeare
    Black Beauty
    anything by Dickens
    anything by Jules Verne
    Benjamin Franklin’s works

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  January 16, 2012

      Benjamin Franklin is so witty, his autobiography was funny! There were lines on almost every page that made me smirk…or even laugh. Or, perhaps I am easily entertained? ;)

      Reply
  5. Little House on the Prairie series
    The Chronicles of Narnia
    Charlotte’s Web
    Romeo & Juliet and A Midsummer’s Night Dream
    Catcher in the Rye
    To Kill a Mockingbird
    Pride and Prejudice

    Great post! I must find that list of 100 classics to read. Add some of them to my ever growing list of books to read before I die — at this rate, I cannot die until I am 347 years old!

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  January 16, 2012

      I feel that growing list of TBR books! Oh my word, so many good ones. I’ve sworn to myself I wouldn’t buy any more books until I’ve read the ones I have…we’ll see how I do!

      Reply
  6. Classics are all kinds of wonderful. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only come to some of the great ones in the last few years, like Jane Eyre, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Moby Dick. And there are so many more that I have not read, yet I recognize the names of the characters and want to know why that their names should be remembered.

    Reply
    • EllieAnn

       /  January 16, 2012

      And I’m sure everyone remembers these characters for different reasons, which is the mark of deep characters. thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  7. I love classics of English and American literature, but that’s what I got my degree in, so it’s nice to find others who love them, too! Even though I love them, I’m not sure I agree that ALL of the classics would be reproducible in today’s market. Readers are less patient these days, perhaps because everything else in our world is so instantaneous. The story of Frankenstein, for example, doesn’t even get to the chapter of the monster’s awakening until we go through layers and layers of narrative: first the story of a sea captain trying to navigate through the Arctic Circle, who finds the near-death Dr. Frankenstein stranded on an ice floe, then the story of Dr. Frankenstein’s childhood, young adulthood, and college studies where he builds the monster in secret. Then around p. 60, the monster awakens.

    It’s one of my favorite novels, but again, I’m a 19th century fiction groupie; I’m not sure it would work with a broader demographic.

    A very thought-provoking post, Ellie – thanks!

    Reply
  8. It makes me sad that fewer “modern” writers even TRY to write classics. I think too many authors have the perspective that there is no out-do-ing to be done, so they settle for something quick, easy, and marketable.

    Reply
  9. I was somewhat the opposite in school. I hid mysteries inside my classics. ;) I did fall in love with To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women and Shakespeare on my own, however, in part because I adored the films.

    It seems to me that though the voice and style is different, the themes and conflicts haven’t changed all that much. How many times different forms has the Romeo & Juliet storyline taken? (Couldn’t tell ya, but I suspect, LOTS.) Language and stories should evolve, IMHO… But I do believe there’s a place and audience for every style. You and your readers are prime evidence of that.

    Reply
  10. I love the classics. Ive been reading them since I was a child.

    I have bumper stickers on my car with quotes from two of my favorite classics. One from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that says “We’re all mad here” and one from Lord of the Rings, which you quote above, “Not all those who wonder are lost” which is one of my favorite lines from any book.

    Reply
  11. I’m loving the classics with you. IN fact, I’ve been on a Mark Twain binge for the last year.

    Reply
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