Why are classics still powerful today?

by Gina Burgess

Several years ago an author sent to publishers in London, England several of Jane Austin’s classics: “Pride and Prejudice”, “Northanger Abby”, and “Persuasion” with his name on them. He did this because he was bumfuzzeled why his own work, a thriller, had not been bought. Only one publisher called the author on his blatant plagiarism. Others sent the manuscripts back unopened because they didn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. But some had issues with the manuscript content–not plagiarism, but the actual writing.

“Pride and Prejudice” received a letter back from an acquisitions editor saying the work was way too wordy, had too many archaic sayings, and it wasn’t something the publisher could purchase. [Insert shocked, bug-eyed look here.] This is the kind of editor that is supposed to know books.

I am bumfuzzeled there isn’t at least one or two new authors out there that have the talent of Jane Austin or Alexander Dumas or Baroness Emmuska Orczy who wrote “The Scarlet Pimpernel”. Their works were not blatantly Christian, although God was mentioned and morals played a large part in the plots. There was no foul language or graphic sexual content in their works. They wrote excellent stories. The emphasis was story, not “realism”. The realism came through, of course, because of human nature. That is what makes an excellent story real, not foul words or graphic scenes (which to me, is lazy writing when trying to develop character). When will writer’s learn this simple fact?

What I’m seeing is either great storyline with poor execution, or great execution (good writing) and a storyline full of potholes. Maybe one or two in the last year has been professionally edited. Sure. I’ve read lots of debut books that are 4-star worthy. Usually, it’s the 3rd or 4th book where the author gets his stride, though. Creston Mapes is one of them. (He already knows I said this because I told him so.)

I know publishers have huge amounts of slush piles (that’s a stack of unsolicited manuscripts that are almost never read). But, if Jane Austin gets tossed, we are in real trouble. That speaks volumes about how books get chosen for publishing.

Here we have a situation that is not only annoying, but frightening, too. Publishers who are very well respected in the literary circles as well as by the buying public rejected the works that have stood the test of time for 200 years, not to mention the multi-millions of dollars they have made around the world (remember “Bride and Prejudice from Bollywood”?).

Maybe the publishers problem is the screening process. Maybe their problem is… I don’t know what their problem is.

What is “classic” about that?

It would seem that standards have deteriorated to fluffy-nothings or coarse discourses peppered with vulgarities of foul words and graphic scenes in the guise of “realism” or “modernism.” What, I ask you, is literary about that?

I hear the refrain, “I wanted it to be as real as possible.” That is the mantra of almost every writer I have come in contact with, including the Christian fiction writers on two message boards. It is fiction. What, I ask you, is real about fiction? Why do authors need fiction to be real-life?

When I was about 10, a new mall was built in Monroe, La. My mom and sister would shop the clothes stores and I would shop the book store. I used to spend my entire allowance on books at a secular bookstore. I spent my evenings and free time on weekends reading. Television never held any fascination for me, besides my imagination was much more vivid when reading than watching something on TV. The books are always better than the movies. (Remember “Bride and Prejudice” from Bollywood?) My parents never feared I would choose some book that my child eyes would be subjected to foulness of the underworld kind. It just wasn’t published.

Even the movie “Gone With the Wind” paled in comparison to the book by Margaret Mitchell. My parents were subjected to many burned dinners until I finished that book.

I think movies and television have snatched the creativity from our children, which is why there are so few really creative, imaginative, and good literary works today. And which is why publishers seem satisfied with publishing fluffy nothings or coarse discourses. And which is why the buying public is not discriminating enough to demand better fare. (Of course, present company is excluded. I know you are writing a work of sheer genius or you wouldn’t be part of Authors Community, right?!)

Now you’ve heard my rant. Why do you think classics are still best sellers today, but we are not being served reading fare that is classic worthy? Or are we?

Gina Burgess is an editor, illustrator, and author. She is COO of AuthorsCommunity.net owned by Common Sense Marketing Strategies, LLC.

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40 thoughts on “Why are classics still powerful today?”

  1. Great, food for thought. I think there are great authors out there. We just have to work together, encourage each other, and share each other’s posts and books. Sharing each others books doesn’t take away from our sales it can encourage new people to find us and buy our books.

  2. This is true about children’s literature as well. As a teacher, I found many third and fourth graders never heard of the classics and when I tutored middle school children on one to one they had not heard of any of the classics either until we started to read them together. Then their enthusiasm for reading bounded. Even the little ones had never been told the nursery rhymes and fun play on words to spark their interest. I am recommending some classic children’s books on my next blog posting. I hope it helps.

  3. I read an article in the Readers Digest many years ago that really impressed me and I wish I had a copy of it somewhere to easily refer back to. It was quite unforgettable though. This article claimed that popularity polls proved that movies like the Laura Ingalls Wilders series and other family -style shows truly did sell better than the corrupt stuff they try to shove down the throats of the public. I’m sure the same would apply to books, but who’s going to be bold enough or have the financial backing to create a Quality Publishing Company so that modern-day classics can get a foothold? Naturally, I believe in my books and would like them to be treasured by people who love quality, memorable literature.

    1. Hi Marilyn,
      Too true. All anyone has to do is research which movies made the most money in the past 10 years and it is, hands down, the family movie. Lots of critics have said, “Oh sure, that’s because parents bring their children to the movies and 4 tickets make more money that 2 tickets.” Well… duh!

      If the movie industry were truly in it for the money, then they would be churning out lots more family-friendly movies than R-X rated movies. But Hollywood isn’t following the money. It is following an agenda… just what agenda exactly, I’m not sure.

      1. I actually know what agenda they’re following — an agenda to destroy our sense of nationhood so our enemies can take over our country and enslave us! (And it’s no wonder, given that many of the studios are actually owned by enemy nations!)

  4. I LOVE reading the classics. They are so much more in depth than much of today’s writing – mine included! I have my students read a lot of older literature every year. One of them actually thanked me because he read a lot of things he enjoyed that he wouldn’t normally have picked up.

  5. Dave Fessenden

    I have not read “Pride and Prejudice,” but I’ve heard the basic plot, and it doesn’t impress me. (Yes, I’m dissing on a literary classic; I’ll leave my address with Gina for those who wish to send me hate mail.) I am not surprised that an editor said the book was wordy. Victorian and even early 20th-century novels are notoriously wordy. (Robert Benchley once did a parody of Faulkner where he spends at least a page to describe walking across the kitchen floor and opening the refrigerator door.) And of course, “Pride and Prejudice” is full of archaic sayings — modern readers have to remember it was a contemporary novel at the time it was written, not a historical novel. We read it today and we grant allowances for the fact that it was written over 200 years ago. A 21st-century novel is a far different animal, because nobody will grant the same allowances for a novel by a contemporary author. The bottom line is, we can appreciate classics from previous centuries, and even learn some things from them, but we’d be crazy to try and write like that!

    1. Dave…Dave… spoken like a true publihser/agent 🙂

      When my daughter was in college, her anthropology professor had the students read Pride & Prejudice to understand better the customs and language of that day. Your point is well taken.

      However, a 21st-century novel should not be full of bad editing and bad writing, which I find even from the Big-5. It’s the GREAT writing of the classics that I lament not having, not the wordiness or the “literary” slowness to tell the story. Let a great editor loose on a wordy classic and you’d have a wonderful, worthy-of-21st-century novel.

      A lot of authors today have no concept of anticipation.
      A lot of authors today have no concept of real character development. They use shortcuts like foul language or kicking the dog to indicate wickedness rather than the sheer evilness in Chateu d’If, and its sadistic warden, Armand Dorleac. That is great writing.

      1. I agree with Gina.
        No hate mail to Dave, but you must read before you can comment, really. Austin is not Dickens and didn’t get paid by the word. Don’t take me literally Dave. It’s important to discuss/chat/banter and even to disagree:)
        She’s hilarious as well, and that is subtle. Subtly, I think — or lack thereof — is something that Gina is referring to.

  6. Loved this article, Gina. You bring up so many interesting points. And that author sending out Jane Austen’s manuscripts…too funny. What an experiment!
    I don’t think it’s this current trend of lightweight reading that has phased out Classics. Short fiction that is turned into (lucrative) ‘series’ books. These get the reader addicted to simple plots and typical characters. Nothing wrong with simple however, the classics are far from it. They are complex and multi-layered. I think publishing houses (the few that are left) are focusing their attention on basic pop fiction that appeals to the masses. I believe classics do not and never have, appealed to the masses. $$$ is in mass sales. SIGH. As for vulgarity, well, I think it’s always been there even in some of the Classics. The difference is that our interpretation of vulgarity has changed over the centuries. Who would disagree that Madame Bovary, or Lady Chatterley’s Lover were not considered vulgar by some people during their time period?

    There is quite a bit to think on here. The state of publishing in general and writing in particular. Thanks for the brain food. Plus, I love that you spent all your money in the book store. LOL. Perfect.

    1. Thanks, Lisa 🙂 Do you know how many books a girl could purchase with $5? Barely enough to satisfy a voracious reader for two weeks during the summer. All I had to do was keep the house clean, put lunch on the table, cook dinner, and read. I bought as many as I could find that interested me. That was when books cost $0.50 and tax was probably only about 3-4%.

      Yes, pop fiction is what we’re down to, but I think part of the blame goes to the Readers. We aren’t demanding enough. Back when I was spending so much on my reading, if I ever ran across a poor storyline, I’d just chunk the book figuring it was my fault for not being more discrimnating. I think that happened maybe three times? I wonder what would happen if we would rise up, take the books back to the store and insist on getting most of our money back. Perhaps in the days of fast food and ATMs, that would be too inconvenient for Readers to do.

  7. There are plenty of books that are classics today that were shocking in their time, even if they had no explicit sex or profanity. Tess of the d’Ubervilles comes to mind. So does Baudelaire. Do you consider To Kill A Mockingbird a classic? It’s been banned for profanity. Ulysses was banned. The Great Gatsby’s been banned. Hemmingway, Faulkner, Nabokov have all been banned. One of my all time favorites, All The King’s Men, has been banned. While I’ve certainly read (probably stopped reading) tiresome fiction that substituted profanity for good dialogue, I’ve read a lot of wonderful literary and good commercial writing today that includes sex and/or profanity. Most of my favorite authors are 19th century or early 20th century, but I like a more elaborate style than is currently popular. I love Austen. I worship Tolkien. I also love Jean Genet. I read erotic romances – when I can find good stylists. Sex and profanity don’t make writing bad – bad writing makes writing bad.

    1. Very true, Yves. But frankly Fifty Shades of Gray won’t ever make the list 🙂 Sadly, I think more people were shocked by The Purpose Driven Life than Fifty Shades of Gray.

      I thought The Thornbirds was amazing. I have read some truly great debut novels (so much so that I purchased the other 3 or 4 books in the series). Usually, the writing stays great throughout. I’ve also read some good debut novels and found the authors got better and better in subsequent novels. I’m not dissing the great writing of the 20th and 21st centuries. I’m just lamanting there is so much trash that we have to wade through to get to the good stuff 🙂

      Agreed, bad writing makes writing bad. However, 9 times out of 10 an editor or the author throw in the sex and foul language to disguise the bad writing.

  8. The reason classics are still ‘classic’ is quite simply this: true yesterday, true today, and likely truer still tomorrow. They speak to a universal of humanity, the triumph of humanity itself, or, at the very least, the human spirit. This same ‘experiment’ of submitting famous work for ‘consideration’ as a test was also tried long ago with the screenplay to Casablanca. Same results basically. Two acquisition editors thought it was too highbrow for today’s audience, one considered it ‘vaguely like a movie from the 1940’s, while the others didn’t get it at all, and didn’t even recognize it. Not surprising, actually. In 1940, the average age of a skilled book editor – senior acquisitions, that is, was 55. In 1999, the average age was 25. Given what we know about today’s generation, and their inability to look beyond their navel-gazing and cell phones, is it any wonder they cannot recognize ‘real/reel’ art when they see it? Not disparaging ‘youth’ – as in my twenties I was already in love with Austen, Hemingway, Tolstoy and Mary Shelly…oh yes, and Oscar Wilde. Later, I expanded that repertoire to embrace, Margaret Mitchell, Ayn Rand, Louisa May Alcott and Frank Norris. Since then, there have been others. As for film – I have always loved ‘classic’ Hollywood. It’s a no brainer. The dialogue was more ripe, the situations filled with intriguing characters and the full flourish of wit and class. Today’s readership either have no need for such qualities, or (choke!) no patience for them. To quote Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly – Quel tragedy! But honestly, until we get senior editors back in the publishing houses and movies studios whose scope of knowledge is better than the latest Harry Potter or Fifty Shades of Grey (oh, please!!!!) you’ll continue to have C-grade dog meat peddled as grade ‘A’ chuck at your bookstores and movie houses. Art is not what is written about the everyday, but what emerges as reflection from the lives we live in the here and now. It’s sad. But today, I don’t even think readers would know a Grace Metalious or Jacqueline Susann, despite the fact they were front running feminists, to be followed by their lessers like Kitty Kelly and Jackie Collins much later on. Today’s literature and movies do not enthrall. They merely fill up our leisure with crap, smut, trash and junk. So, if you are weaned on ONLY this…how inspirational do you think its influence will be on the next generation of writers and film makers? Hmmm?

    1. Great points, Nick. We could also mention Alistair Maclean and Louis L’Amour who managed to actually develop characters in adventure stories without the good guys wearing white hats LOL And the master of modern anticipation, Irving Wallace with The Prayer of Owen Meany.

      …crap, smut, trash and junk. So, if you are weaned on ONLY this…how inspirational do you think its influence will be on the next generation of writers and film makers?

      This is the greatest lament of all!

  9. My wife and I were just talking about the state of literature. My first novel is considered a classic by some for the very reasons you mention: realism with a theme of redemption. Lately, I am unable to read hardly any American fiction and this was the point of the discussion with my wife. Instead, I am reading Arctic noir, books set primarily in Iceland and Sweden but also Greenland and other Scandinavian countries. First of all, they have a strong sense of place which is what I find missing in so much American fiction, largely because Americans have little sense of place. Secondly, they are very accurate police procedurals with strong characters, good plots, and in most, a sense of decency.

    1. This is one reason why I love the Guttenberg Project. I find a lot of old classics on there free to download to my Kindle. Authors such as Wilkie Collins, Oscar Wilde, Robet Louis Stevenson… The list holds a lot of authors I’m not familiar with but intend to get to know 🙂

  10. THIS is what Bradbury warned all of us about in Fahrenheit 451 (which, contrary to most people’s perception, is not primarily about censorship — that plays a secondary role — but about the dumbing-down of society through a combination of super-fast-paced minimalist writing and political correctness!) But he was mistaken about one thing: he believed this was a natural process (and had his villain, Beatty, explain it as such), whereas at this point it’s apparent that this is a deliberate malicious scheme by America-hating terrorists (who had been in charge of the entire media sector since at least the late 60s) to weaken and subvert our nation so it could be destroyed! And the ONLY way to deal with this is to THROW OUT the publishers, literary agents, “professional” reviewers and other self-appointed gatekeepers (yes, EVERY SINGLE ONE of them) and change to an entirely indie-publishing system based on unrestricted publication and ranked by customer reviews/ratings only!

    1. I’m afraid it’s more than just dumbing-down society. It’s all the instant this and instant that, which has pervaded our thought processes, that has give us a sense of urgency and immediacy that cuts short life enjoyments. Songs we listen to on the radio have programmed us to think a 4-minute or 5-minute song is too long so forget about a 15-minute masterpiece. That kind of process bleeds over into other activities. Then we have the microwave that fixes our dinners and lunches in 5 minutes, and rather than sitting down to a family dinner, we eat on the run. So who has time to enjoy a 500-page classic? Sigh.

  11. I’m not surprised today’s publishers would reject Jane Austen. I’ve said many times on many forums that the likes of Joseph Conrad, Victor Hugo, and Edgar Allan Poe would forever sit on a slush pile in today’s publishing world. Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs tried my patience, with its long descriptive passages and the front-loaded backstory of more than 100 pages, but that may have been more the result of a poor translation and living in a society that demands immediate gratification.

    I once posted a Joseph Conrad excerpt as my own on a writer’s forum only to have it bashed. When I mentioned they’d criticized the work of the writer many rank as the greatest writer of the 20th century, they backpedaled some.

    Times change, best practices in fiction writing evolve. Today’s writer must compete with text messaging and Internet shorthand, both of which have conspired to shorten attention spans. Writing courses advise against style—Elmore Leonard claimed style was the author’s attempt to butt into the story. I’ve been told I have a very recognizable style, or voice. It was intended as a compliment. But it has kept me from achieving more notoriety in this industry.

    Writer’s are no longer free to tell the story only they can tell in the manner in which only they can tell it. We must hook the reader with the very first sentence or we risk losing the reader. Backstory is a no-no: “Just dump it into the story somewhere.” Descriptive narrative is boring. Who cares, we’re told, what color are the curtains, no matter who expertly the writer uses them to describe the mood of a character who is considering pulling the trigger on the Glock in his mouth.

    Publishers are looking for that sure-fire bestseller they can sell to a Hollywood producer to turn into next summer’s blockbuster movie. For a time, it was vampires and werewolves. Publishers expect books to jump off bookshelves with no investment. Bestsellers aren’t so much written as they are created by a publisher who stands behind them, champions them, invests in them.

    A few years ago (I believe it was 2014), I read that 60% of Americans didn’t read a novel that year, and 40% of college graduates claimed they never crack another book after graduation. Those numbers were expected to grow. I can believe that. I work with a lot of Millennials who admit to not reading. People my age say they enjoy reading but just don’t have the time. I must be an anomaly. I make time for what I enjoy doing, and that includes reading. I’d like to read more, but it takes away from my writing.

    The classics. Do they stand the test of time? Maybe in creative writing classes and for a select few readers like me who like to connect not only with characters and stories set in bygone eras, but also with writers who died centuries ago. It’s the closest I can come to time travel.

    1. Whoever said, “Follow the money,” was extremely wise. Society will always find ways to make more money and make it in a shorter time than last year.

      Of course, it is sad there are so many who don’t read and seem proud of that fact. They don’t know what they are missing.

      I have a little more faith in the reading public. I do not believe a publisher can ram a book down the throats of society if it isn’t a well-written story, or doesn’t have a shock element. Even some of society’s most famous people’s books haven’t become best sellers.

  12. Part of the reason is that we have received the sifted content of centuries. We’ve lost the really bad stuff — or it’s around but we don’t read it anymore (dive deeply into the Gutenberg Project if you want to see some of it).

    And there are classics being written now, except that they’re not classics yet because they haven’t gone through the process. Someone noticed that it’s the 70th anniversary of 1984. When it’s the 150th anniversary of 1984, it will be a classic. Will it make it? I’m not sure, but it looks like it’s on track.

    One factor that marks a classic is that it’s worth reading again and again. I tend to read in the fantasy and science fiction genre, and I can name a few authors who look like they might make it:

    Neal Stephenson
    Ray Bradbury
    Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
    Stephen King (he has at least one good novel among a lot of schlock)
    JRR Tolkien

    There are others, but they’re eluding me right now.

    1. That is very true, Jan. The classics have been sifted and found worthy. I hadn’t thought of that. I did read an old book printed in 1939 or 1940 and found it extremely good. Can’t remember the name of it right now. The problem is I couldn’t find it anywhere online when I searched. That one will go down without being sifted. So, I’m quite sure, there were many great works of fiction that just got lost down through the years, too.

      Hopefully, the great works of the 20th and 21st centuries won’t get lost and will float to the top as cream reading.

  13. There are new “Classics” written all the time. Both in the generalist term and in redepictions of “The Classics”, “Circe” was recently worthy of note. Many writers of today will have books considered classics in times to come. “Dan Simmons” sadly missed by Jan (above), Stephen King for sure, Perhaps Susanna Clarke (hope that I have spelled her name right) Peter Hoeg, Ian Banks,oh and I could go on and on. All of those mentioned are better than Jane Austen (lol- and I enjoy archasims) but people still read. Fewer than before, perhaps, but I am still here and devour a couple of books a week, Assuming I am sleeping at the time. During the insomnia (lol- also a Stephen King novel) one a night or every second night. “The Nights are long and filled with shadows” My daughter usually reads two books a week my son, fewer, one every two weeks. My neighbours boy never has a book out of his hands. jeguest as well as GinaBurgess suggest a dumbing down and I cannot imagine that to be true (though I have no scientific evidence for my assumption).
    Yet, what I can say to refute the comments is that Ian Banks (mentioned earlier) took five chapters in his book “Excession” to describe four dimensional thinking in sincere mathematical terms and still had a bestseller (also nominated for a number of prizes- I think it won a few, though do not hold me to that statement). “Circe”, also mentioned earlier, explores the life of the Nereid witch, that held Odysseus captive from a femenist point of view. Peter Hoeg uses long descriptive passages to describe each scene of his lauded novels, sells well and wins regular prizes as do the likes of Eowyn Ivey and Cecilia Ekback. I really do not know where the “dumbing Down” and disinterest in reading comes from. For that matter it is suggested (I have no idea wither this is true or not)that early in his career, Neil Gaiman thought, at one point that his readership were not “ready” for his novels and so produced a “Graphic novel” instead and that drew his readership closer.
    Write the “right” book and you will be a success no matter what publishers think. Many authors have proved that.

    1. Granted, Raymond, points well taken. One of my professors in college back in 19hahmmm pointed out that we are subject to our circle of influence and what we know. He gave the example of purchasing a new red car, say a Mustang. We then start to notice all the red cars and all the Mustangs on the road. We first thought we were rather unique getting a Mustang because no one we knew had one. Then we notice them all on the road and find out we aren’t so unique.

      I know there are some truly great modern authors in all genres. I guess the main lament I have is that out of 8 or 10 books I pick up in a month, I find only 1 or 2 are worthy of a 5-star rating… maybe. Thirty years ago, it was only 1 or 0 books out of 10 that were not good books.

      Don’t forget Frank Herbert!

  14. The “Classics” also are turned into awesome films, over and over again.
    I think there are a couple of reasons (of course the above discourse shares too) that I think
    there aren’t more great books…

    The fast pace of life today means folks don’t take the time to compose. We can easily type and retype. Jane Austin had to write by hand (man, her handwriting must have been awesome!) and couldn’t have started over again and again. She had to think things through and “get it right”.
    Also, we expect less effort for more reward, don’t we. Fast food, lay-away plans… it’s all part of the same symptom.

    Great blog post, Gina. Thanks!

  15. I have written a Children’s educational book “Back in Time” A very classic story about my childhood, and how children used to make their own toys. We are living in a time with a quick fix. The classic days of stories are gone with the wind. I am very old fashioned and enjoy reading classic stories. I believe that when writers added more sexual series , they think it is more interesting and their book sells faster . This is the type of world we in, sex sells.

    1. Marie, my dad had a “toy” stick that he called Stick Boy. It lived in his little boy pockets and he played with it under the house. As a man he invented many things in the aviation field such as a “breather” for acrobatic bi-planes so when they flew straight up they wouldn’t stall out. I believe the imaginations that reading and playing children do while young strengthens their adult imaginations. No empiracle data, just from what I see.

  16. Great discussion. There’s so much bad stuff on TV and at the movies. Reading is also hard to find that isn’t junk. Going back to some of the older authors gives us some great material and food for thought.

  17. When my daughter (now 37) was in elementary school I bought Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer to read to her because I loved them and the movies, and she had never heard of either. B. Dalton’s had them for $2 each. I would change my voice with the character’s and she loved it. I also bought War and Peace for $3, still have it, but haven’t tackled it yet. Great article, thanks!

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