Thursday, February 4, 2010

The DNA of Classic Literature:

The Birth of a Classic

When we think of classic novels, probably only a handful come to mind. To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Beloved, just to name three favorites, but of course, there are many others, such as, Mark Twain’s, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Finn, The Old Man and the Sea, and Gone With the Wind, for example, are among the top tier of modern classics. It all depends on whom you ask, and what their favorite genre is.

Notice, although, that in my second short list I snuck in the novel Finn, by Jon Clinch. This contemporary novel, a take on Huck Finn’s father, published only several years ago to high praise by most critics, was hailed as a masterpiece with a flavor akin to Faulkner, and rightfully so. It is in effect, a modern classic literary work. So if the passage of time alone does not make a classic novel, then what does?

Although, in some cases, time periods have helped to define a particular work as classic because of its subject matter, its era. For example, The Scarlett Letter, is very much a classic work and a very important one at that. Important in the sense that this story introduced many classic characters, such as Hester Prynne’s baby, Pearl, who in this author’s mind, is a reincarnation of Ira Levin’s 1967 classic, Rosemary’s Baby, and again in 1996 in another classic, The Devil’s Advocate by Andrew Neiderman. Also, the fact that it was set in the 17th century by a 19th century author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who penned it in 1850, to be exact, gives this novel an authenticity that truly harkens back to a bygone era when read today.

Its importance weighs in as a classic because it was a groundbreaking story for its time, yet it still resonates today because of its timeless themes. Meaning that many of Hawthorn’s literary devices and imagery, its nuances regarding the genre(s) (Horror, Romance, Gothic) were sparkling fresh and brand new; shocking even. (Unless we consider another timeless classic: Mary Shelley’s, Frankenstein, first published in 1818, whose origins came out of Greek Mythology: Prometheus, the creator of mankind)

The setting for “Scarlet” alone is classic, just as the subject matter is, when compared to present day America. Boston Puritans, blasphemy, fornication? Enough said. However, there are many other factors to consider for a novel to be hailed as a classic. While there is no magic formula, there are very specific criteria that a novel should adhere to in order to fall into “classic” parameters.

Here are the most relevant, in no particular order:

1. Subject matter/concept

2. Era

3. Genre

4. Language and style

5. Scope

6. Message

7. Allusions

8. Symbolism

9. Author’s status

10 Controversy

11. How memorable it is

12. Its social impact/relevance

13. Its connection with readers

14. Publicity

15. Word of mouth

16. Its universal appeal

17. Marketability

18. Timelessness

I’ve numbered well over a dozen here, you might suggest a few of your own, this is not rocket science folks, but I think this number of attributes covers the “classics category” to a reasonable extent.

I’m not about to define each one, because that will turn into a boring lesson, which this already is on the verge of becoming. Instead, I’ll comment in general and try to cover each of the criteria.

First and foremost, a classic novel must be an unforgettable story that touches readers in an emotional way. That alone is one of the cornerstones of a good classic. It must be a memorable tale that readers identify with, for whatever personal reason, and also feel a strong connection to. This connection is what brings the story to life, a life of its own, through the new eyes of every reader. It’s what makes the story, heartbreaking, or a raving controversy, a shocker, take your pick, the beauty of it, or its inherent evil, is in the eyes of the beholder.

If a modern classic work of literature, such as Clinch’s Finn, debuts to rave reviews and accolades by his piers, then even so-called debut authors such as Kathryn Stockett and her first novel, The Help, can write classic novels too. Need more proof? Look no further than Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. This was Lee’s first and only novel. A book written only decades ago and considered today as one of America’s greatest novels of the 20th century. Make a list of all the attributes that I’ve numbered above and see if most, if not all of them are a part of Lee’s novel. They most certainly are.

Also, many of yesteryear’s classics were revolutionary in their time because the subject matter was so controversial and so daring to begin with. Sensitive issues spark controversy, which spreads like wildfire and before you know it, one story remains indelible in the minds of its audience. That collective spark also unites like-minded zealots who will die defending their point of view either against or in favor of the story. This mob mentality is what imbues a particular movement, in this case, a story of injustice that raises questions about morality, and the preservation of freedom for all in America.

Which, is to say that some of these books will endure for many generations, while others, would hardly matter in today’s publishing world because of their particular subject matter, especially in today’s volatile publishing environment, where profit is the first and last consideration. Not a mega money-maker? Not relevant? No contract. It’s just that simple.

Look no further, that’s today’s publishing model in a nutshell. But then again, there were very few publishers back in those days so getting published was probably not so easy either. There were fewer writers per square mile so just about anyone with a little extra gray matter had an edge over the less fortunate, usually rich folk with a good dose of higher education and social status.

Traditionally, classic works of literature have also had their share of controversy in their time, another essential gene that is part of the DNA of classical literature. The Catcher in the Rye, dealt with a coming of age story that dared to say the “F” word when the word “fuck,” was not even in fashion. “Mockingbird,” dared to expose racial injustice when racial tensions were at their peak in the sixties. The Thorn Birds dared to expose the corrupt priesthood in its time. All these novels dared to confront social issues that were at a crossroads in American history. Many of these books have been banned from public schools and libraries, while others are still a standard in the reading curriculum, selling millions of copies every year to students, who either praise or loathe them.

Which brings to mind a novel’s artistic side; its use of language and symbolism. While classic novels fall into a number of genres, literary novels by far encompass the widest range of literary techniques that are unique to this form. The use of elevated prose, if you will, where the author’s form of expression overrides the plot, for instance. And where the strong use of symbolism, themes, and motifs are all part of the art-form. The novel as a work of art, so-to-speak. It’s what typifies the writings of Toni Morrison and Cormac McCarthy, for instance.

Words and symbols are important to these authors and they are masters of high prose for the sake of the novel as art, which by definition requires a minimum number of pages to qualify the work as a novel, not a novella, such as Hemingway’s classic, The Old Man and the Sea, or Morrison’s newest classic, A Mercy. Both these Pulitzer Prize winning authors have written comparatively short novels (about 200 pages) according to standards, but classics nonetheless. Which also proves that novels don’t have to be epics to fit the classics mold, such as Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, or Herman Wouk’s, The Winds of War.

What makes a classic, more than anything else, is its message, whereby the author intends to impart his or her statement to the world. (Paolo Cohelio must be hyperventilating right now.)

And yes, there is always a statement to be made, whether the author admits it, or realizes it or not. What would the purpose of a story be without a statement? (Breathe Cohelio, exhale slowly, my friend.) Entertainment alone would not begin to justify the reason a story is born. There’s always much more to stories than that. Otherwise, we would not be talking about them so much, making them viral with our own word-of-mouth publicity and promotion.

It’s the kind of stuff that makes stories stick in our subconscious and resonate in our minds. It’s what brings us to rage or to tears. It’s the kind of stuff that really matters to each of us individually and collectively as a society.

Gifted authors that are connected enough, get paid for their writing. Not by readers who buy their books in mass, but by award committees that are enraptured by their words. This is very much the case with Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy had written most of his novels when hard sales numbers were not such a priority in the publishing world, and based on the strength of his words and captivating stories, they awarded him Grants to continue writing. That sure goes a long way into the making of classic literature. Something that seems to come very naturally to McCarthy. His awards and Grants are well-deserved.

Classics also make use of allusions. Common literary devices (references, citations, comments) used by authors to add depth and resonance to their work. While some of the allusions are self-explanatory, others remain obscure and they are intended for readers with both, a keen sense of their use, and a sensitivity towards the subject matter, i.e., the author’s intentions within the framework of the story.

Classic stories such as Blood Meridian, Moby Dick, and Slaughterhouse Five, among others, all make use of allusions that echo other works, whether they be artistic, literary, or allusions that reference a particular person or place.

And finally, and probably most importantly, the strength of the story concept must be memorable and timeless. In Hollywood, high concepts rule, and successful stories must adhere to strong concepts, universal ideas, relatable tales that connect at a deep psychological level. These are stories that stick in reader’s minds with lasting impressions, generation after generation.

You’ll notice that in my long list of almost twenty attributes, I don’t list any publishers. That’s because no one buys a book or a novel based on the publishing house that printed it. Readers could care less about the publishing house, because in fiction, it’s all about the story first, the author second.

How many stories do you know and cannot name who their author’s are?

When was the last time you bought a classic novel because Random House printed it?

Classic literature is all about these three most important things: it’s all about the story, the story, and yes, the story.

Not just the story for the sake of stories, mind you, but stories because they affect and sometimes change what we think and how we process the world around us. That’s the power and influence of classic novels.

Something that not all books are born to do.

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A Reminder of my Next Post: What foreign movie was novelized in the seventies?

Hint: An American actor starred in this unforgettable role. Can you guess who it is? Find out on Monday, and see the unbelievable before-and-after pictures of his unknown co-star and her near tragic future. Shameful.


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