Revisiting the classics

My Mum, when I was younger, used to read me the books of Ellis Peters. I loved them. In my innocence and naivety I never realised that they are, in fact, pretty poor. The crime-solving (and let’s not forget that the Ellis Peters award is still given to the best historical crime novel every year) is weak; the romances that always went hand-in-hand aren’t even worthy of Mills and Boon. But they’re loved and still a most pleasant way of passing an evening.

Same goes for Agatha Christie. Hugely important, the first name of the Golden Age of crime-writing – but are her novels actually that good? Not really. You couldn’t expect them to get published today.

See, I have a theory that books – like popular music, in fact – are much better now than they ever were in the past. There’s been a massive improvement throughout literature and now classics are held as such more for what they did at the time than for their actual literary merit.

Take James Joyce’s Ulysses. By all accounts that’s a fearsomely difficult read. Can you really hold that out as genius when most people can’t get past the first few chapters? Take Philip K. Dick. Now PKD’s been a huge influence on me. He was, is, and will be the first person you turn to if you want ideas. Just look at the influence he’s had on movies, all the novels he’s had adapted. But he too was, by modern standards, a pretty poor writer. He jumps from mind to mind so you often don’t know whose thoughts you’re sharing. His prose is unnecessarily complicated. You often have to re-read his paragraphs three times to get what he means.

(Same goes for William Gibson’s Neuromancer, by the way. Another genre-progenitor that’s fearsomely difficult to read. Asimov’s not great either.)

This is not a criticism of these particular authors, by the way. I admire them all hugely and it’s never possible to divorce a writer from the times and circumstances they wrote in. Without them we’d never have their successors – like me. If I can write it’s because I was raised on Peters and Christie, Tolkien and Dick. They taught me a huge amount about literature and stories and craft.                                                                                

But do they stand up as good novels by modern standards? I say no. I say they’d never be published today.

I’ve never read any of Dan Brown’s stuff; seems to me there’re a lot better things to choose in a big old literary market. But everyone who enjoys his books says that they’re incredibly easy to read. Isn’t that, first and last, what we need from a novel? Something that sucks you in, drags you along, and turns you out as a slightly different person at the end? In terms of craft I think you could make a pretty decent argument that he’s a better writer than all the aforementioned.

And what of Tolkien? Lord of the Rings – most popular novel in the UK, a creation that’s influenced every fantasy (and historical) novel ever since. Single-handedly this work created the epic fantasy genre.

But there are faults. Some, the songs and poems, I don’t actually mind so much. But the characters are all drawn so shallowly. Only Sean Bean shows any real character development. The plot holes are legendary. It’s my assertion that this book never would have been published in today’s market – certainly without a hell of a lot of editing. Ditto Kerouac’s On the Road. Not sure about Catcher in the Rye. I reckon Catch-22 might have scraped into print, although the non-linear structure might frighten more than a few agents.

For all the talk of a decline in literacy in the Western world, the standard required to be published has improved enormously. More than that, the number of good quality books that are being rejected for publication is incredible. Is this a sign of the democratisation of reading? That it’s not just a hobby for the ‘intellectual’, the ‘elite’; reading is now for everyone and the hoi polloi require books that are easy to read – even if they lack the depth and psychological truths of a Virginia Woolf?

Maybe that’s a bit cynical. Maybe it’s that we expect more these days. We expect reading to be a pleasure, not a duty. We expect books to be properly constructed, the laws of point-of-view to be obeyed strictly. We demand an absence of errors. And whilst a good story can still blind us to obvious plot-holes, we’re looking for these things more and more. We’re less forgiving, perhaps.

It’d be fascinating to know what the luminaries make of our modern tastes. Would Tolkien enjoy Terry Pratchett? Would PKD be a fan of Ann Leckie? Dostoyevsky – would he like Akunin?

In a hundred years time which of today’s books will be classics? And will they be the ones that are most read?

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6 thoughts on “Revisiting the classics

  1. Shakespeare is really difficult to evaluate in this way. I suppose the answer must be ‘yes’ as the language has changed so much: there’s no way an editor would take something on written like that – even a historical novel has to conform to modern expectations (an exception is Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Hawksmoor’, which is partly written in authentic seventeenth century English. Unfortunately that also makes it considerably difficult to read). I think Shakespeare’s language obscures his meaning – except to scholars – and so it’s hard to be really clear and objective about the real merits of the writing. But the stories remain good – excellent, even – and, as far as I’m any judge, Shakespeare still stands up. But he’s a playwright, and so outside the remit of this article!

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    • I am an avid reader. But I like to escape from life with a book. Therefore, it has to be ‘an easy read’. I agree Robin. As I said to you over the weekend, I couldn’t get into Tolkien at all, although I tried very hard through the recommendations from family members and friends. I read Joyce at school, but found it difficult. There does seem to be a certain snobbishness about the classics, but try as I might with some of them, I find that taxing, and not at all enjoyable.

      I know this might seem crass to some of your blogger fans, but I started reading Dick Francis (or was it his wife?!) at the age of 16, and got through every novel within a couple of years. Since then, every 7 years or so, I read through the lot again, and always enjoy them.

      I have also discovered Edward Marston and his historical novels recently, through a Christmas present, and escape with them. Now you have told me how easy a read Dan Brown is, I will try him soon!

      It has to be a page-turner for me. I am no critic, or genius literary expert. I just want to escape with a good book….

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      • I take no responsibility for Dan Brown! Seriously , Colin, thanks for your comment. I think you’ve hit what most people – not all by a long shot, but most – want from a book. To relax, to be absorbed and swept along in the story.

        I tried Edward Marston but prefer Andrew Martin 🙂

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  2. So in essence you credit the writer whose work is easier to read as being better? You state the plot holes in Lord of the rings but all fiction will have plot holes somewhere. Is there not a separation between great works and easy reading? Some can cross the boundary but not many. As always I refer you to the scientific world. The nobel prize winner is great beacuse so few can understand them. In time their work will be reprocessed into the easy reading of textbooks. The nobel prize winner is great but the textbook is fun.

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    • Not at all – what a book has to say is as important as how it’s said. Hence my admiration for Philip K. Dick – but I really do think he’d struggle to get published in today’s market because expectations have changed. I know I was being provocative when I said Dan Brown was better than Joyce; I don’t actually mean that. But I think it’s true that books are, by and large, better written nowadays.

      I’m also not sure the analogy with the Nobel Prize stands. Science is very different to art, and although I reckon there probably is a parallel with scientific textbooks and ‘reading guides’ for Shakespeare etc, works of art are not produced to be studied. They’re produced to be enjoyed. They work by influencing your emotions, not the rational parts of the brain. For sure they can be analysed and dissected, but that’s secondary to the emotions they produce. And books that are clearly and coherently written get to those emotions more easily. And that happens more easily in modern works.

      Massive generalisation, of course, but there you go

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