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:
Darth Vader! (wait, how’d he get in here?)
Athos! Porthos! Aramis!
Meg! Jo! Beth! Amy!
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.
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?