Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Classics

I just finished reading Graham Greene's "The Heart of the Matter," a brilliant and thought-provoking novel. I mainly chose to read it because it was on Time's Top 100, and because Paul Theroux always raves about Greene. But as it is a classic, it made me think: just what makes a book classifiable as "classic?"

Does the story have to effectively touch on social and moral issues that not only reflect the time period it's written in, but also of future generations? Classics seem to be a dying breed; I'm not sure what would be considered a classic in today's genre. But as for those considered to be classics, many wouldn't even be published today. I can't see "The Heart of the Matter" finding a large enough audience in today's market to warrant publishing. About 15 years ago the New York Post submitted the novel "The Yearling" to several New York publishers--and they all turned it down(none recognized the story). They claimed it was rejected on the basis that there was just no market for it. It wouldn't sell today. Young people don't want a novel about a boy and a deer. They want Harry Potter.

Who decides whether or not a book is a classic? Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" was ridiculed during his time as a writer, but suddenly became popular 30 years after his death and is now regarded as a classic. Why the sudden change and what groups of literary elite made this discovery?

I'm also curious about today's classics--mainly, what are they? I used to consider a book a classic based on whether or not there were Cliff's Notes available for them. If there was enough interest in a book to create a marketable analysis then it must be a classic (I say this tongue in cheek). There were many classics in the '50's and 60's--"To Kill a Mockingbird," "Catcher in the Rye," "Catch-22," just to name a few. I wasn't around during that time period, but it seems as though those novels were regarded as instant classics. But what about from the 1970's forward? Are there any out there? Stephen King has definitely been the most prolific writer since the '70's, but as one of my college profs firmly stated, "he's entertaining, but he's not a great writer." But yet another prof said it may be too early to judge King; he may be deemed a classic author in 100 years. Look at Edgar Allen Poe. Poe's stories dig deep into the human psyche, so they're not simply classified as "horror." But couldn't the same be said about King's "The Stand?"

A friend once predicted that Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" was destined to become a classic. But I've barely heard mention of the novel in the last 15 years. It seems to have faded after the poor Brian De Palma film. A few modern authors that I personally view as being possible "classic" worthy are Jeffrey Eugenides, Jay McInerney(if only for "Bright Lights Big City"), and possibly Bret Easton Ellis. But that's just my humble opinion. I'm sure there are many others (Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates) that people would put on their list.

I went to the Cliff's Notes website today to see if I could find any synopses of modern novels. I was surprised to find Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club" on their list. I've never read it, but is it regarded as a classic? Is there another way to judge what books today can be thought of as belonging in this elite category? Or maybe classic novels are like Broadway--whose heyday died 40 years ago.


Blogger tim said...

Have you read "Razor's Edge" by Maugham? I think you would really like it. To describe it roughly, it's about an American who leaves the US after WWI and goes to Europe to find himself.

In my opinion, in terms of modern authors and potential classics:

-Sedaris "Me Talk Pretty One Day"
-Toole "Confederacy of Dunces"
-Eggers "...Staggering Genius" (even though i need to read more of him but I really liked "...Staggering Genuis" and it was difficult to like because of all the hype.
-Adams "Watership Down"
-Vonnegut "Breakfast of Champions" (I never tire of this book)
-Styron "A Tidewater Morning"
-McCarthy "Blood Meridian"

there are others, I am just blanking.

Regarding The Stand. I loved it until it got the the last 300 pages and King did what finally made me stop reading him, he chooses the most contrived endings.
His books to me are like lots of great foreplay with a hot woman and then she has her grandfather take over at the end. King leaves me limp at the end of his books (and not in any kind of good way).

And I found "Bonfire of the Vanities" to be one of the most excruciating reads i have ever had to endure.

I agree with you that you have to look harder to find soemthing to read that you are willing to lose sleep over because you do not want to leave that world. But it still happily exists.
ooh, Philip Roth's "American Pastoral". I do not know if it is a "classic" but it moved me and i could not put it down.

On a side note, I just finished reading your blog and was into it. If your tone for the novel is anything like the way you write your blog, I am excited to read your book when it gets published.

2 questions/comments:
-Gina, Part 3?
-and what happened the night of you, Rob, Kara, and Tom after you let Rob in on the secret?
-and U2. this new album took me back to why I loved them in the beginning. I am glad you are able to appreciate them again. "sometimes you can't make it on your own" is one of my most played songs of this year.

Thanks for the writings.

7:37 AM  
Blogger exley said...

Interesting choices of classics. Never read "Watership Down," but have heard great things. It's on my BIG list of must reads. Read the first few pages of "Confederacy of Dunces" before my cat threw up all over it and I had to toss it. I'll have to get another copy. I always preferred "Slaughterhouse Five" over "Breakfast of Champions." I'm a big WWII buff and am impartial to such stories.

I saw the film version of "Razor's Edge" years ago (Bill Murray's first attempt at drama) but don't recall much of it. But I enjoy Maugham and have just ordered this book from the library.

As for Gina Part 3--I actually wrote it and then deleted it--wasn't happy with it. I'm still planning on continuing with that story. Same with more on the Office story(which will be shorter than Gina--Gina really got into my head, and still does). I've just had a lot going on these past few weeks--impending layoffs, holidays, etc. Gina wants to read what I wrote about her but I refuse to print it out and bring it to the club--if she only knew how to do a proper Google.

And thanks for the comment about my writing and my book.

2:36 PM  

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