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Rethinking the Classics

 article about Rethinking the Classics

This article belongs to The Writing Life—The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly column.

Rethinking the Classics

While the fashion front has been lenient in creating room for more styles and accessories, the literary world often balks at changes in its lineup. A few weeks ago, I explored readers' hesitancy in giving YA novels their due. This week, I'd like to focus on books we see as classics. Why can pearls and the little black dress share space with dangly earrings and shiny gowns, but Charles Dickens and Jane Austen have to keep their distance from John Irving and Mary Gaitskill?


When I was in college, we blamed the resistance to new literary works on school boards and administration. However, I see now that it runs far deeper than that. A friend of mine has admitted to snubbing novels of the twenty-first and late twentieth centuries. She is well-read, but is more willing to accept books and authors from earlier time periods. She will pardon their literary styles - even if not up to par with some current authors - and holds the books in high esteem. Why, I don't know. Is it societal, because we are taught from a young age that these are the authors and works to know; that these works are "good" and worth our time? And, if so, why can some break free of these ingrained notions and others cannot?


I, too, was taught to listen to authority, but I never found myself bound to these old rules. I took each novel as it came. I loved John Steinbeck's and Edith Wharton's examination of human nature. Yet, while I gravitated toward Dickens's exploration of society, I balked at his intense description and writing style. When did laborious prose become a characteristic of fine literature? And who decided that it was a classic in the first place? And even if it once was, why does it have to remain on the required reading list? After all, can there not be new classics? As writing grows and evolves, aren't we doing students a disservice by limiting their literary knowledge to writers of the past?


I am not saying that Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky should be left at the curb with the weekly trash. No, classic authors of the past provide insight to a different time and morals and allow us to learn from their writing styles. However, why not expand the "good" literature list? Are schools and readers so vain as to think that quality writing stopped one hundred years ago? Ironically, many of these "classic" authors were not considered great in their time. But, we should learn from the past and not wait over one hundred years to give current novels their places on the map.


Many universities and high schools have revised the canon and added contemporary authors to their curriculums. Students in these classrooms have now been exposed to a variety of superior works from which they can hone their own writing skills and develop their own opinion as to what constitutes as "literature." We should all aspire to do the same.


I will give old classics another chance if others will do the same with newer authors. Perhaps, making a list will help. We all have an idea of what we think is necessary for a work to speak to us. For me, it's about the writing (I tend to gravitate toward florid language that not only is beautiful but also moves the plot along, not words just for the sake of words), connection to the characters, and the feeling that a novel has transcended a level of literature though story, theme, etc. - a feeling that this book was special and has changed something within me. If we put down on paper what we think makes a book a classic, we can start to create our own cannon and in the end be exposed to a world we never considered before.


Let's start each other off with a few contemporary novels we consider to be must reads. Here are five that come to mind now, but there are many others. What are yours?


  1. Outside Valentine by Liza Ward
  2. Veronica by Mary Gaitskill
  3. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  4. The Icarus Girl by Helen Oyeyemi
  5. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger


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