Books / Critique

A Curmudgeon on Classics

Cedar here: I’m up to my elbows in Dragon Noir, having fallen behind with travel, and recovery taking longer than I’d anticipated. So my First Reader and in-house curmudgeon reminded me that he’d done a couple of posts for just these occasions, because under that crusty exterior beats the heart of… well, we won’t go there. So while I struggle with the icky bits of Fairy politics, you all can discuss in the comments what you think is a classic book, and why. 

There was a discussion in the Facebook version of Sarah’s Diner recently on what makes a book a classic. For those who don’t know, Sarah’s Diner is a fan group for Sarah A. Hoyt. This generally means a well read fairly intelligent group with a breadth and depth of knowledge that could make a huge difference in the world if it could be harnessed.

Many in the group were confused as to the meaning of classic in reference to literature. They were convinced that any great book was a classic, without realizing that classic in literature includes a quality of endurance. I personally consider Cedar Sanderson’s Pixie Noir a great book, but it is hardly a classic. It might become one some day but for now it is simply a very enjoyable read. I consider almost anything by Charles Dickens a depressing piece of dreck, but the books are classics. You see classic means a book that speaks to generations and has an enduring quality. This is why the term “Instant Classic” is an oxymoron. Hugely popular when written means nothing, though it can be an indication. For example Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Idiocy was hugely popular when released and today, just a few years later is mostly used as an example of why popular does not mean good.

Many of the books  considered classics by the people who read them when young aren’t. A perfect example of this are the Heinlein juveniles. Wonderful books when written and spoke to most of us who read SF from the 50s to the 70s. They were damn good but, technology has made them nearly unreadable to younger generations. They are put off by the tech they consider ancient and commonplace that wasn’t dreamed of when the books were written. This is going to be a problem for much of SF ever becoming classics. When technology and science is central to your theme it is difficult to remain relevant when society sees a sea change in science. The works of Edgar Rice Burroughs don’t get hit so hard because they were basically fantasies and in my honest opinion his classic fantasies may be the only “SF” still enjoyed in the 22nd century. I say may be because there are a few other contenders. Robert Heinlein’s Glory Road may be the only work that lasts through  time.

Even if a book is memorable enough to be instantly recalled a generation later it doesn’t make it a classic. I have a book on the desk beside me, The Drawing Of The Dark by Tim Powers which makes for a prime example of this. It was written in 1979 and I read it about then. I didn’t think it was particularly good, but there wasn’t a lot of fantasy available at the time.  Still some things about it stuck in my mind, enough so that when it got mentioned later, I recalled it from a few bits. A gentleman in the diner mentioned that it had a similarity in title to Sarah Hoyt’s Draw One In The Dark, but was about magical beer saving Europe in the 1500’s. I immediately asked if there were a few details such and so and found out that yes I did remember the book from one line 35 years later. I got a copy and reread it. Nope not a classic and not all that good. Memorable does not a classic make. In all fairness to Mr. Powers this was one of his early books and he later  made a name for himself in Fantasy circles. While I am not a fan I did not wish to leave the impression that he was a bad author, just not as good as he later became. Besides, tastes vary and some others probably loved the book.

So what does it take to make a book a classic? Well first it must be good enough to sell during its early years. If it doesn’t sell when new it won’t be around to be read later. That isn’t enough, it must also be good enough to read and reread, again so it hangs around without being forgotten. Does that make a popular book a classic? No, not really. I love my Ringo/Weber March series and have reread them but, they aren’t classics…yet. Will they become classics? Maybe, this brings us to the next and most important thing a book must do, speak to your grandchildren. Not when they are small and crawl into Grandpa’s lap to be read to but, as adults choosing their own books without your input. If Ringo is still selling well in 2114 then he may have a classic on his hands. He will not, of course live to see it but, that is always true with classics. The true test of a classic is that it can stand the test of time.

I leave you now with the hope that you have a better understanding of what a classic is. Or at least my thoughts on what a classic is. With the modern fluidity of language the term classic may mean “Old Fashioned Dud” by the time this sees publication.

 

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18 thoughts on “A Curmudgeon on Classics

  1. “why popular does not mean good.”

    For quite some time it has meant the opposite, in my opinion. In trying to think of good classics, all I can come up with is Alice and LOTR. hmmm… coffee might help.

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    • They do, it’s just very subtle. It might be how I have the settings, to allow deeper threading. It could also be this blog theme, which I am not liking the longer I use it. But if I take half a day to play with the blog, I’m going to have to smack my hands… need to be writing!

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  2. I think a lot of Mil SF will do ok, particularly if it’s almost alternate history. Janissaries (classic, IMHO) and Forstchen’s Rally Cry come to mind. There’s some other stuff like Foundation or Flowers for Algernon that might be outdated sometime, but probably not soon.

    Having said that, even though something like The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is dated, I think it’s still a great read. I guess that might have to do with it being slightly less dated when I read it.

    Fantasy does seem to hold up better often. I started a thread some time back about which books held up to re-reads, years later. I offered up Riddlemaster of Hed as a pro, and Sword of Shanarra as a con.

    I guess, to paraphrase some one, I can’t define a classic, but I know it when I see it.

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  3. Well I’ve reread a lot of “Classic SF” recently and very little would be good to younger readers. The equally “Classic Fantasy” fares better though Tolkein seem to be starting to suffer from generational slide because of changes in the way we read

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  4. Based on the way things go, I’m worried that Shakespeare will fall off the back end. Can fiction cease to be a classic?

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    • I’m not sure. Bulwar-Lytton is only remembered for “It was a dark and stormy night” these days. In his time he was considered a great romance novelist. In fact the reason “IWADASN” became the famed horrible opening is because it was such a good one, til it got overused as all get out

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  5. Robert E. Howard’s work might not make the “classic” list for everyone, but it does for me. It’s all fantasy, and sort of set the standard for “heroic fantasy”.

    It’s true his work isn’t for the folks that have to have great character development, or are looking for character driven stories.

    Depending on whether you’re talking about Conan, or one of the several other series he wrote, there is always a great world built. Though you might not see much of it in a short.

    His fiction wasn’t character driven, nor world driven. It was action driven.

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    • And Howard’s work may very well become classics, possibly already are. His work was done nearly a hundred years ago and is still selling well. It obviously speaks to more than one generation. The only real question is are his books classics or simply his character iconic?

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