Like Hollywood, the writing industry goes through definitive trends.
Most of us are old enough to remember the influx of vampire-teenage-girl romance novels, movies and television series following the success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. And most recently, the popularity of erotica novels thanks to Fifty Shades of Grey.
Although some current bestsellers will fade from pop culture memory with the arrival of the latest “It” book, some will go on to become modern classics.
And in fifty years, if they’re lucky, some books will have earned full classic status.
A classic novel is a book accepted by various institutions and authorities as best expressing the foundations of Western culture. The ability of a book to be reinterpreted and renewed in the interests of readers in the generations succeeding its creation is also a criteria for a classic.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was the first classic I read as an adult, and I absolutely adored it. This was followed by Breakfast At Tiffany’s by Truman Capote and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, both of which I also enjoyed.
I began to feel quite sophisticated, with my little library of classics.
But then I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and hit a wall. I feel as if the action began strong, but by the end it was dialogue-heavy and overly sentimental. I found A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess confusing, and by the time I understood the author’s style, the story was over. And Little Women by Louisa May Alcott bored me so much that I constantly contemplated putting it aside for later.
What I began to realise, is that there are notable differences between classic and contemporary novels.
The 19th century is arguably the most literary of all centuries, because not only were novels, short stories and newspaper serials in existence side-by-side, but television, radio and film did not exist yet.
Romanticism, a style characterised by its emotionally laden language and glorification of nature and the past, and speculative fiction were well entrenched in literature at the beginning of this era. There was also a romantic tendency towards the exploration of folk traditions and old legends.
However, by the dawn of the 20th century, Victorianism had established itself in many aspects of Western culture, including literature. This style uses a more restrained language and focuses on social concerns, such as poverty.
Experiments in literary form began to emerge, matching those taking place in modernist artwork of the same period, and to challenge readers to re-examine and deconstruct preconceptions about the world. This style has continued so far into the early 21st century.
Ultimately, both classic and contemporary novels are reactions to their cultural climates. And that’s really all that good writing is – a reflection of its society.
There are hundreds of articles listing the “Top 50 Books to Read Before You Die” or “Top 20 Books That All Bibliophiles Have Read”, and no matter how well-read you think you are, each list is so personalised that you’ll end up only crossing off a quarter of the titles listed.
By all means, read the classics. Read the latest bestseller. Read anything you want to read. Because the important thing is that you are reading.
What classic novels do you like, and dislike? Why? Leave a comment below.
© Tara Jenkinson 2017