Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Classic books can be difficult to read. Have you heard a disappointed reader say this?
If this book were written today, no publisher would touch it.
It’s often used as an argument that the classic should not be popular today or a worthwhile read. As if people today call it a classic because it has always been labeled one–not because of any internal merit. I see it all the time on Amazon reviews of classics. (There is also a brilliant website that chronicles these complaints and more.) Since it’s so common, let’s look into this claim a bit.
- Changing Times, Changing Tastes
Remember acid-wash jeans in the ‘90s? And don’t even get me started on the ‘80s. Stylistic trends, whether in clothes or in books, change with the times. Oliver Goldsmith, perhaps the greatest novelist of the late 18th century, was famous for his lively and brilliant style. This is the first line of his best-known novel, The Vicar of Wakefield:
I was ever of the opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population.
Is it a lovely style? Yes. Absolutely. But I have serious doubts that an agent in 21st century America would pick up a novel that began with this sentence. And yet, if one of the best prose stylists of today were writing in the 18th century, say, Cormac McCarthy, guess what? No publisher would have touched him. What we consider the best today would have flabbergasted the most respected harbingers of taste in the 18th century (Samuel Johnson, anyone?), and vice versa. I suggest you make sure that you are legitimately comfortable reading each author’s unique style as well as understanding the conventions of the era before judging it. Otherwise, you’re doing yourself a disservice by judging it through a modern stylistic lens.
- Different Cultures
Reading The Tale of Genji, called by some the earliest novel and by others the greatest epic of Japan, I was fascinated by the exoticism of a culture so distant and distinct from mine. That said, because of these differences I am painfully aware that I must have been missing many important, beautiful, and deep aspects of the book. Sometimes the most spectacular traits of a book are lost in this cultural (and often linguistic) divide. For example, Japanese poetry from this time, of which Genji is chock full, is distinguished by a heavy use of puns. I relied on the translator’s footnotes even to be aware of that. So if you didn’t get War and Peace, consider that it may not be due to lack of skill and talent on the author’s part, nor because an editor today would chop it (and Genji) in half before even considering to publish them.
- Making a Statement
When James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake, did he expect it to become a best-seller? Did he even expect all the fans of his previous work to like it? I would venture to guess No on both counts. But did Joyce expect it to become a classic? Yes, he did. He famously said that it was the type of book a scholar “should devote [a] lifetime to…like the Koran.” In some ways, this book’s inaccessibility is both what makes it a classic and the type of book no modern publisher would touch. Joyce was pushing language and style to their limits—intentionally. No one has done it like Joyce has, not quite, and because he actually succeeded, he deserves canonical status. Would I begrudge you refusing to read Finnegan’s Wake, myself? No way. But attempting to explain your refusal by saying it couldn’t be published today is missing the point.
- The Era in Retrospect
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most rabid bestsellers of 19th century America. It’s also home to some of the most searingly sentimental and outrageously manipulative prose and plot points of 19th century America. I personally believe no one today would publish it (language and racism aside). Yet it’s still read and still acknowledged as a classic. Why? Because it captures the era of ante-bellum America (particularly the side of the victors of the Civil War, the North). If you want to learn about that era (and every self-respecting American should), this novel is valuable in a way that a modern history can’t be. Gatsby is a classic partially because it captures the spirit of a specific side of 1920’s America. Ditto for David Copperfield and Victorian England. Classics are kind of like Pawn Stars: they instruct while they entertain.
5. Sine Qua Non
Sine qua non: without which, nothing. Some books are classics because of the depth of their influence in the literary world. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a seriously flawed book: it is very likely that no publisher of today would print it just how it was published in 1885–those final chapters would have to be significantly changed or cut altogether. But Hemingway was speaking of Huck when he said,
All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain.
If you’ve read and loved Hemingway, note that Hemingway would have been a different writer if not for Twain. So would Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Jack London, Jack Kerouac…the list goes on. And if you’ve read and loved these authors, I’d argue that an exploration of their influences, their roots, can make your appreciation of them all the deeper.
In The End
The Japanese have a saying: Ten People, Ten Colors. In other words, each person has his own preferences. Me, I can’t stand The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve read it twice, and I acknowledge it’s a near perfect short novel, just like The Great Gatsby or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I admire Catcher for the genius of its prose. And I drop-everything-adore Salinger’s other work, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. But I just don’t like Catcher. Holden Caulfield is not for me. It’s ok to dislike a classic. But for the reasons stated above, the argument that a book isn’t worthwhile because a modern publisher wouldn’t touch it is rather absurd.
I’d love to hear my readers’ thoughts on this topic, especially because I make some pretty opinionated statements throughout my argument. Do you agree with me? Disagree with me? Or just take issue with me calling Finnegan’s Wake a classic? I want to know. Alternatively, you can just thank me for introducing you to Bad Reviews of Good Books.