Excuse the hyperbole. Was going to go with ‘My Recent Aversion to Classic Literature’, but what a wishy-washy, nancy-arse title. Today’s post comes because I feel like being a literary anarchist, like raising a little hell. My tongue is firmly in my cheek, though. Well, mostly.
I finished Joyce’s Dubliners last night, but rather than review it I thought I’d write about something that’s been bothering me for a while. Over the last year or two, I’ve been plummeting out of love with ‘classic literature’ (umbrella term, here applied liberally). As mentioned in my Guide to Reading for the Aspiring Writer posts, I champion eclectic reading habits and usually sandwich one classic between every three–four contemporary books. Classics, I’ve always thought, are like vegetables: they taste rubbish, but are good for your development. (Analogy’s retrospectively flawed; these days, I love vegetables.)
Here’s why I once thought it was important to read classics:
- They’re highly regarded by most of the literary community. (Hence calling them ‘classics’ and not ‘past mistakes’.) When I was young, fresh-faced and uncynical (jokes – I’ve always been cynical), I had no idea what books I liked to read, so tended to follow others’ advice.
- Classics had to be good because they’d somehow endured and remained relevant. I mean, for Boo Radley’s sake, many are still part of the zeitgeist today! Why else did the latest film adaptations of Anna Karenina, Les Misérables and The Great Gatsby gross through the roof? In truth, these books remain relevant – at least in part – because they are still being studied in most high schools and universities. Many classics are multifaceted and require (or at least benefit from) close critical reading, which is why they’ve become syllabus staples. (Controversial aside: Apparently it doesn’t matter that most are boring and wont to scare prospective young readers away.) Take, for instance, Orwell’s Animal Farm, a book that superficially deals with animals, but is actually using allegory to satirise and criticise Stalin-era Soviet Union. Although there are oodles of relevant, contemporary literary titles that could replace them, classics still have a role to fulfil in modern society. ‘If it ain’t broke,’ most teachers must say. (‘Fucking break it already,’ I say, though I concede that modern texts aren’t as rife with symbolism.)
- The deets. Details were important to me. I once naively equated them with depth and quality. Classics are overstuffed with details and, thanks to modern reading sensibilities, are generally harder to get through. Longer tomes, in particular, are often overly concerned with world-building and extraneous commentary. Expect irrelevant passages about architecture, the history of the town square, and some great long-winded facts about a channel of water that doesn’t even feature into the narrative (maybe in the unabridged version, right guys?); expect dense asides about the social and political climate of the time; expect … fucking yada yada yada. The world was different back then. Novelists didn’t spin yarns for reader enjoyment or to fill gaps in the market (well, maybe some did); they did it to capture the culture and mentality of their times.
I’m being facetious, of course, but even writing about the ostensible point of classic literature feels awfully harrowing. Miraculously, I never bothered with contemporary fiction until I enrolled in a creative writing course. I guess, in a weird way, that makes classic literature my gateway drug. To be fair, I do have a few fond memories of classics. There was year nine English class, where an inspiring teacher had me thoughtfully considering Nurse Ratched’s significance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I remember reeling from Gatsby’s poetic death in the 1974 Great Gatsby film adaptation, reading Wuthering Heights – for fun – during breaks at my F1 Indy Carnival pizza-making job (my co-workers used their breaks to, y’know, look at cars and bikini babes), and challenging myself to read Tolstoy at nineteen. I can recall the elation I felt when I first discovered Steinbeck, Huxley, Wilde, Orwell and Salinger. More recently, I adored The Metamorphosis, Lord of the Flies and The Driver’s Seat, and enjoyed the hell out of – and, disturbingly, even related to – Dostoyevsky’s complex, faintly misanthropic Underground Man. I must also throw a mention to Kerouac, my one-time idol, the dude who made me want to leave town, write feverishly and, for a brief spell, be a selfish d-bag. Heady times indeed.
When I enrolled to study, I was reluctant to expand my palette. I assumed everything not written by a revered great was rubbish, and couldn’t see what I might have to gain by reading it. But, as can be evidenced in this post, it seems my arrogance is inverting; classics have become the target of my ire. I can’t squarely define why this is. Maybe reading tastes are cyclical.
At any rate, now that I’ve spent time reading both classic and contemporary literature, I feel qualified to analyse the effect they’ve had on my writing. They say writers assimilate the quirks and flourishes of their peers, particularly when they are inspired by said writer’s work. This is rarely a conscious decision – few writers actively set out to sound like someone else – but it happens. I notice my writing style becomes a little lusher in the wake of reading Ian McEwan. (Can you tell I just finished Sweet Tooth?) It’s not a bad thing: as people, and as writers, we are all but products of our experiences and influences.
You can imagine, though, how someone living on a diet of classic literature must write, and how much they would struggle to mesh with a literary culture that is shifting towards minimalism. It took me years to shake – or at least identify – my habit of overwriting. I’m naturally verbose (see: this post), but have no desire to read or write indulgent, unfocused prose. Overwriting is a common, amateurish mistake, but I feel, at least in this case of my development, that it was more than that, that there was a direct correlation between what I was reading and writing. Reading so many classics caused me to adopt a stuffy, nineteenth century writing voice. Even my non-fiction writing was formal to a fault. My writing had no flow, verve or authenticity. It gave no sense of me as a larrikin, as a romantic, as a young person; it was all coated in pretence. I was uninterested in plot and cared little about the reader’s enjoyment. I had fostered the kind of bad habits writing courses beat out of you.
Of course, the craft of writing is a lifelong apprenticeship, one we all approach at different life stages and from different angles. Maybe it’s overdramatic to contemplate what-ifs. I could, after all, have it a lot worse: I began relatively young, and at least spent a lot of my childhood reading. As a developmental background, that’s advantageous. But I do wonder what sort of writer I’d be like today had I spent the last ten years reading Carver and Cheever.
The expectation today is that books be written and published with current literary trends and modern reading sensibilities in mind. Some believe this produces cookie-cutter writers, but it’s merely a framework; there’s still a myriad of approaches to take within it. (As a semi-related aside: I’ve never subscribed to the school of thought that one must lead a rich, interesting life to write great fiction.) To put it another way: it’s better to read contemporary fiction and pick up rules by osmosis, rather than pick up bad habits from classics.
I blame my misplaced affinity for classics for some of the missteps I took early on. I feel I had something of a false start, as, for the longest time, I actively avoided developing my own voice. But this could just be a case of the handyman blaming his tools. Whatever the case, I’m finding classics harder to stomach of late. Camus’s The Plague was powerful in places, but dry as sandpaper. Pride and Prejudice, though supposedly one of the ‘lighter’ classics, was for me an exercise in banality. (I just couldn’t bring myself to care about the characters’ thin, soap opera-ish motivations.) Dubliners – apparently the most accessible entry point in Joyce’s canon – was inconsistently compelling, but a bleak head-fuck when assessed as a whole. Desolation Angels was classic Kerouac indulgence taken to its nauseating zenith. I could go on.
It’s not that I’m a shallow reader, or that I’m unwilling to do any work; I’m just finding lately that I lack the time and patience to disentangle arbitrarily obfuscated plot points. Some barriers, I concede, stem from translations, cultural differences or a generational divide, but I’ve no doubt Joyce and Pynchon could have achieved their objectives without taking big intellectual dumps in readers’ eyes. I’ll try any author at least once, but I’m no longer interested in suffering through one-thousand-odd pages of irrelevant mess just for the street cred of having done so. I’d rather spend that time supporting thoughtful, living authors, like Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood, Helen Garner, Peter Carey, Junot Diaz and Paul Auster. I’d rather be a part of my generation’s dialogue than endlessly reinterpret the events of The Great Fucking Gatsby.