More on "Greatness"

>> Saturday, August 7, 2010

Yes, this is another topic I've discussed before but my good friend, The Mother, pointed out a pertinent article so I had to jump in with it. In this case, the article is all about six great novels that were originally hated. Now, I discussed earlier how hard it was to determine what is/was great when something first comes out. This article brings that view into focus.

What amazed me, however, is that I literally didn't like a one of them. Now, I know people who like one or the other of them, so I'm not saying they're not great. I'm saying they didn't speak to me (The best thing that ever happened to Tolkien, in my opinion, was Peter Jackson, but that's just my opinion). but that sparked a few other trains of thought. One of which falls from my much earlier assertion that "classic" is largely determined by time. But, it occurs to me not every book survives through time because it touches people even today, that is says something timeless.

Some books are classics largely because they mark changes in the written word, set precedents, demonstrate key qualities in the written word, or even effect social change. Beowulf, for example, is unlikely to speak to the average student. What makes it worth teaching in school, (which is probably why it is still in print) is that it is one of the earliest examples of a story documented in English or a form of it. Chaucer also set a precedent, and though I can intellectually get into what makes it worth examining, it doesn't touch me.

Some books or stories are firsts in some arena or another. Some make tremendous use of language, set a new trend, typify a movement, or changed the kind of characters we, the readers, would accept. Some challenged social mores or prejudices. Some brought social disgraces to the light of day.

Now let me be clear. There are many classics taught in school that can still touch today's audiences, that are timeless, even if they do one or more of the things that I alluded to in the previous two paragraphs. Poe, for instance, comes to mind. Or Washing Irving. Or Shakespeare. But there are, in my opinion, some works that probably would have wandered off into obscurity if they hadn't demonstrated some teachable thing or another.

Having said that, there are a number of classics that don't disappear because, generation after generation, people find themselves compelled by the original works, even though they don't do any of the things that would make them key elements in academia. They have stories or flights of imagination or characters that speak to people generation after generation, even if the original audience thought little of them, even if the writing will never be "classic". Even if they're full of flaws.

Wuthering Heights comes to mind. I'd hate to have to teach the novel. It's full of unlikable characters, less than stellar writing and improbable action. I read it a dozen times growing up and I have it on my ereader so I can read it again when ever I want because, though the characters are unlikeable, they are compelling. The book is up to its eyeballs in passion and emotion and, if you get caught up in it, it can wring you out.

A dozen other examples come to mind like Jane Austen or H. G. Wells or Edgar Rice Burroughs or Arthur Conan Doyle or Collette Or Dorothy Sayers or, yes, Georgette Heyer.. Stories and works where characters touch us, or our imagination takes flight or we see things in different ways. Sometimes we're amused. Sometimes we're touched. Sometimes, our minds are intrigued and forced to think about things differently. Different fans of the same book can often find different reasons for being compelled.

Frequently, these are the books we return to over and over again. Interestingly enough, these are also the books that are least likely to die, even if curriculums change or better examples come into place. Why? Because they are introduced to the next generations not by teachers as books required for school, but by people who love them as the reasons they love to read.

In my opinion.


  • The Mother

    I agree. Even about not really liking most of the books on that list.

    I'm going to have to find a new world view. You and I are running out of things to argue about (well, at least while everything is quiet on the healthcare front).

  • Dr. Cheryl Carvajal

    Hate to say it, but those books weren't really written for you.

    They were written for men. The only one I find remotely compelling is Brave New World, though I thought the film versions of the Lord of the Rings series were fantastic.

    Pride and Prejudice, along with many other fantastic novels, survives mainly because we women love it. I cannot tell you how many men have admitted that it means absolutely nothing to them. I wish I could say differently, but I'm afraid all I've seen points to the possibility that men and women simply think differently--and entertain themselves differently, too. Yes, our tastes blend in a little, but mainly we diverge.

    And men are in control of what's deemed "good literature"... unfortunately. Moby Dick, of this list, was the most awful. I have no idea why it has survived, or why anyone read it.

  • Stephanie Barr

    It's not an invalid point, Shakespeare, but I don't think gender's enough, though it might be a factor.

    I (and many other women) read many male classics (Verne, Wells, Burroughs, Doyle) and several "female" authors, like Collette, Sayers and Heyer, have considerable male followings.

    It should also be noted that there were many novels written for women and men during those same periods of time that never made the long term cut, all but forgotten now.

    You have to be able to touch some audience, I believe, to make it indefinitely if you aren't just an intellectual curiosity. And, at least for me, some "classics" are just that.

    But that's just my opinion.

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