“It’s like looking for a diamond after giving the dog a laxative”

On classic fiction worth reading, and what to do next

The title of this blog post is how I felt 200 pages into “Atlas Shrugged.” There are some nice bits, but there’s also lots of mediocre bits. And there was another 900 pages to go. Now, with only 400 pages to go, I think it’s a good story and I also stand by my initial impression.

What I’ve found — and continue to find — with classics. Is there seems to no rhyme or reason, as to what makes a novel “classic”.

As much a fan of Jack Kerouac as I am, I can’t help feel most of his books weren’t published until after his death because: “On the Road” and his death created a market for them.

Prior to his death he was haphazardly published and then as the decades rolled by he became more popular. But it’s a posthumous popularity. A sort of, “now he’s dead let’s see what all the ‘counter-culture’ fuss was about” popularity.

Maybe there was a reason some of his books weren’t published? And how about, instead of saying “oh, the publishers lacked vision” how about “oh, the publishers saw no commercial value in his books.”

What’s wrong with that statement? After all, publishing houses are businesses. They need to make money to survive. Why should they publish something 4 people are going to buy? And if you’ve read some of Kerouac’s books you should — whether you’re a fan or not — be able to see why they weren’t published during his life time.

Really, if it weren’t for Sterling Lord (Kerouac’s literary agent) there’s a good chance we would not have had the original 1957 “On the Road”. We would either have had the scroll version and/or “Visions of Cody.” And while I enjoyed “Visions of Cody” it’s not as engaging or moving or awesome as “On the Road.”

My point here is: an author’s popularity (or lack thereof) during their lifetime is not a determining factor in what would make their work “classic”.

What makes classic fiction?

Spoiler: this is a rhetorical question. I don’t know.

I’ve sat through university lectures and tutorials hearing explanations about Western canons, patriarchal discourse of reading, books still resonating with current audiences: and, the ever-lame: “well, they are timeless.”

My favourite answer so far has been:

“These books provide readers value irrespective of the time the reader is living in.”

This is different to “well, they are timeless” for the simple reason that it provides an answer. Good fiction writers care about their readers, maybe not directly, but enough to write an entertaining story. And a good story will find readers where ever it is read: whenever it is read.

“War & Peace” is an interesting, entertaining and engaging read — could it have been shorter? definitely. Was the epilogue necessary to the story? certainly not. However, the question of the epilogue’s relevance is more the book reading the reader than vis versa.

“Nineteen eighty-four” is a brilliant read. A little dense in places, a little depressing. But enjoyable, educational and engaging as well as less than 400 pages (bonus!).

“Middlemarch” is entertaining, a pleasant multi-character story. Is it too long? yeah, it too could have been shorter. But for all it’s weightiness it’s still enjoyable.

Classics, then and now

In a previous blog post I wrote, “Brutal Mediocrity: or why no one will read Harry Potter and Hunger Games in 100 years,” I argued not that no one would read Harry Potter in 100 years — but that a books popularity during it’s author’s lifetime was not an effective yardstick for it’s ability to endure.

The foundation for my argument was how Marie Corelli (1855–1924) had been more successful than her contemporaries, Conan Doyle, Kipling and Wells, combined. And how now she’s relegated to the universities, to be studied as a publishing phenomenon.

I tried reading one of her books and it reminded me of what would happen if Dostoevsky and Wilde had an illegitimate love-child daughter who became an author…but that’s not what I came here to say.

My point here is: there’s no way of predicting what’ll be a classic. And there are thousands of classic fictions novels. Some are largely uncontested like Homer, Ovid and Shakespeare, and others like Joyce’s “Ulysses” are still contested.

On finding classic fiction worth reading, and what to do next

As a reader I am less interested in genre than I am in being entertained. I could not care less about the author…unless it’s Terry Pratchett or Umberto Eco. But sadly they are dead.

All I want from my fiction is to be entertained. To escape reality and learn of a different one.

How is this relevant?

I’m not a fan of reading classic fiction because it’s classic fiction. I believe you should only read — in your own time — what brings you value. I cannot imagine reading any of the classics I have unless I wanted to.

Life’s too short to read books that don’t bring you, the reader, any value.

My preferred method of finding good classics is finding an author whose work you enjoy, and then working through their novels. Then find similar authors as well as occasionally reading something I wouldn’t normally think to pick up. My dad said “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre” are good, and I’m glad I read them. Same with “Wuthering Heights.”

So, when it comes to choosing a classic novel look for stories that sound interesting, or styles of writing, or periods in history which fascinate you.

Believe me, Dracula is not a fun read if you’re not interested. It’s a good story, but it drags in places. The end is rewarding, but if you aren’t in the mood for Stoker’s prose, you’re not going to appreciate the story.

At the end of the day…

I am slowly arriving at the conclusion with classic novels that they can be a great work of literature, or so much verbal effluent. And: I’m not entirely convinced the two are always mutually exclusive.

Thank you for reading.

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