What becomes a legend classic most?

How many of you remember the ad campaign for furs that used the “What becomes a legend most?” slogan? Okay, anyway…

I’ve been thinking a lot about the books we consider “classics” or “great literature” lately. Why are they the classics?

Take A Tale Of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, for example. Wikipedia says that well over 200 million copies have been sold worldwide. That’s a lot of copies, even if you subtract the number sold to high school sophomores over the years. It’s considered a classic and one of the greatest books written in the English language.

Do you think that Charles Dickens thought, in 1859, when he first put pen to paper to write ATO2C, he had any idea that it would one day be revered as one of the greatest novels ever written?

Of course not! Charles Dickens probably never thought that it would even be a book when he first wrote it. It was written for his weekly magazine, All The Year Round, to sell issues. Starting on April 30, 1859, he started publishing one or two chapters every week, publishing the final chapters in November of that year. There’s a very good chance that, each week in homes all over England, the previous week’s issue became “bathroom tissue.”

It didn’t matter to Dickens. He had a story to tell, and he told it. And people read it. And people liked it so much that the weekly installments were gathered together into a book and published.

What about Shakespeare? When he wrote his plays, was he concerned with scholars in later centuries analyzing and dissecting them, and with teachers forcing them on students as examples of great literature?

What, are you nuts? Shakespeare was concerned about putting butts in seats at the Globe Theatre. Well, okay, they didn’t exactly have seats, at least not many. But the idea was to fill the Globe every night. And he did. And, over the years, people continued to stage his plays, and read them and study them and fall in love with the way The Bard used the English language as she was spoke in the 16th and 17th Centuries.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby because, according to Wikipedia, he wanted to produce “something new — something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned.” And he did — and it didn’t sell. He went to his grave in 1940 believing he was a failure and that his work was crap. Of course, after he died, the book was rediscovered, sold thousands of copies, and became a staple of high school English classes, where students are asked such insightful questions as, “Why did Gatsby wear a pink suit?” (Answer: His violet one was at the cleaners.) Fitzgerald wanted to measure the success of his book in dollars and cents.

We could sit here all day and do the same thing with every author of a classic novel, and the answer would be the same: they did it for the money. And they made pretty good money, too, enough to support their families and, in Hemingway’s case, pay for hunting trips. The reason they were able to sell lots of books or magazines or tickets was because they had a story to tell and told it in a way that kept their audiences engaged.

So, why are these works considered classics? Because people liked them. The stories were good and kept audiences engaged. They’ve stood the test of time. Were they well-written? It doesn’t matter. The story was the important thing. And that encompasses everything: plot, character, setting, description, you name it, they made the story great.

I can hear you now: “Oh, so does that mean Fifty Shades of Gray will one day be considered a classic?” My answer: Maybe. A lot of people bought and read the novel and its two sequels. If it stands the test of time — if people continue to read it and study it ten years, fifty years, a hundred years from now — then yes. Ditto the novels of James Patterson, Sandra Brown, and other novelists, the plays of George S. Kaufman, David Mamet, Paddy Chayefsky, and other playwrights (and screenwriters, and TV writers, and radio writers), the work of poets…. Maybe even you.

You can see my point: a story doesn’t become a classic because some anonymous committee says it is, it becomes a classic because the story engages and captures the minds of audiences over time.

I’d like to know what you think. Do you agree, disagree, and more importantly, why?

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#ROW80: Ten things I learned this round

Click to visit the challenge!
Click to visit the challenge!

So Round 3 of 2014 is over, finished, done and dusted. I’m happy to say that I did very well with my goals this round, to blog every day and use Evernote every day and learn about it. I did both, as I had hoped to do.

Here are ten things I learned from this round of ROW80.

  1. Blogging every day is hard. Coming up with a subject and writing about it in some coherent fashion looks a lot easier than it is. I’d sit down with the idea I’d knock out 500-1000 words in half an hour, and three hours later, have something that was akin to a first draft. I’m much less likely to file something in the trash than I was when I started.

  2. Blogging every day is a great way to come up with ideas. All my worries about coming up with ideas fell by the wayside when I realized I had a post due by the end of the day. I don’t look at idea generation as something to be studied any more. It’s now just something I do.

  3. My writing has improved. I’m getting to the point faster and eliminating the “weasel words.” I’m following Elmore Leonard’s rule, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” I know I have a lot more work to do, but I made progress.

  4. Making more visits brings more visits. I focused more on visiting other blogs and leaving comments, and I’m getting more traffic. “More” in my case means double figures. This was something I “knew” but hadn’t put into practice.

  5. I didn’t ask too much of myself this round, and was still plenty busy. Writing a post every day and looking for future topics kept me running. I learned the most about using Evernote by using it to research things for the blog.

  6. I need to get back to morning pages. One area that suffered was my daily three pages of word dump first thing in the morning. I was doing them after I finished my blogging for the day, and by then I was too tired to write anymore. A shame, because I was taking ideas from there to feed the blog.

  7. I’m reading many more blogs in search of blog topics. Where my Feedly had roughly 200 blogs in it when I started this round. It now has 300, though some are dead. I also spend time on BuzzFeed, LifeHacker, LifeHack, Apartment Therapy (if you’re looking for settings, it’s great), Mashable, StumbleUpon, and others. All looking for things to write about here.

  8. Technology is a wonderful thing. I already knew this, but every time I think I’ve seen it all, I find something new that makes my life easier. Specifically the things I talked about in this post. Pocket is the center of my universe, because it’s so useful. I can funnel all my research through there and choose pages to save permanently, and IFTTT moves it to Evernote for me automatically. Last week, I started using IFTTT in conjunction with Feedly to move posts saved for later to Pocket. I could go through Feedly to move them, but it’s a hassle on the desktop. I can do everything in Feedly using the keyboard.

  9. You don’t have to know everything about Evernote to use it. I’m using it to save my research for blog ideas, and I’m still learning about it. But I’m not in that big of a hurry. The New York Times used to have an ad campaign selling its Sunday edition: You’re not going to read all of it, but it’s nice to know it’s all there. Likewise, Evernote is huge, but even if you aren’t going to use all of its features, it’s nice to know they’re all there. (You know what the New York Times could use? Comics. Funny pages. Like Nancy, Luann, and Dilbert.)

  10. I still enjoy being a ROW80 sponsor. I said this last round, but it was even more fun this round. It’s been fun getting to know everyone, and even writing the sponsor posts hasn’t been a hassle.

So, it’s likely that next round will be a lot like this round was. I’m going to continue posting every day (at least once, sometimes more than once), get back to doing my morning pages on 750 Words, and a few things I haven’t decided on yet.

For now, that’s the Thursday Ten for September 25, 2014. Hey, I’m 58 1/2 today!

Maybe we’ve been teaching it all wrong…

Shakespeare-didnt-write

You might remember Daniel Davis as Niles, the sarcastic butler on the TV show The Nanny, but he’s also a fine Shakespearean actor. His British accent is so good that the producers of The Nanny wanted him to work with Charles Shaughnessy, who played Maxwell Sheffield on the show. Shaughnessy is from London; Davis is from Gordon, Arkansas. He’s an expert in acting in Shakespeare’s plays, so if he makes a statement like the one above, I would tend to trust his judgment.

I read the ROW80 post of Mike Roberts, who runs the blog Anything but the Best is a Felony. Mike makes a comment in his post that got me thinking about what Davis said. Let me share it with you.

If I were ever to, in another life, become an English Lit. Prof., I would teach the classics like a Writer, rather than a scholar. I would point out HOW Austen paces her novel and how we get to know the characters. (Emphasis mine.)

I learned more about how a novel is put together after reading some of the hundreds of how-to books on the market today than I did in eight years of secondary education. If I had known half of what I know now (and I’m no expert on the subject, believe me) when I was in high school, my grades in English would have improved and I would have enjoyed the assigned reading much more. If I had known about character arc, or three-act structure, or what to look for when I read a novel, I’d’ve had a ball. Maybe some of you were taught those things; I wasn’t.

Likewise, Shakespeare wrote plays. Plays are meant to be performed. They’re meant to be heard and seen, not read. I can think of one brief scene we acted out in high school, the assassination scene in Julius Caesar. (All right. We did have a very entertaining class where we put Shylock on trial.) On the page, they’re dry and dusty; on the stage, they come to life.

Most high school English teachers haven’t appeared in a Shakespeare play. Most of them haven’t written short stories, novels, poetry, or plays (screen-, tele-, or other). They might have done one or the other, but for the most part they have an academic understanding of all of these. Compare this with the sciences. You don’t often see a chemistry teacher teaching biology, or a physics teacher teaching earth science. You have world history and US history teachers. Why don’t we have Shakespeare teachers, poetry teachers, novel teachers?

What do you think? Am I just ranting for no reason? Or do you see what I’m driving at?

Two for Tuesday: Barney Kessel

I’m going to feature some of my favorite jazz guitar players from the post-World War II period over the next couple of weeks. First up is Barney Kessel.

Barney was “an Okie from Muskogee,” you might say, having been born in that town in 1923. He’s best known for his improvisational style in a trio setting and for being a first-line session player and guitar teacher in the 1960’s and beyond. He’s also known for his work with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd, performing as “The Great Guitars.” He had a seminar called “The Effective Guitarist,” presented to many players during the 1970’s. On his 1983 album Scoop, Pete Townshend dedicated an instrumental, “For Barney Kessel,” to him.

Barney suffered a stroke in 1992, effectively ending his career, and died of a brain tumor in 2004, but left behind many recordings and instructional materials. We’ll probably be hearing many young players who were influenced by him for years to come.

On to the music. First up is a solo chord melody arrangement of Bacharach and David’s “Alfie,” from the movie of the same name. It was taped in 1979 at The Maintenance Shop in Ames, Iowa.

Second is an example of his trio work, with Bob Maize on bass and Jimmie Smith on drums, his rendering of the standard “Shiny Stockings.” It appeared on Concord’s 1996 album Jellybeans.

There are a number of other recordings and videos of him on YouTube, including a number of his instructional videos. Be sure to check them out.

Barney Kessel, your Two for Tuesday, September 23, 2014.

BATTLE OF THE BANDS: Results of “On Green Dolphin Street”

BATTLE OF THE BANDS! (BOTB Top Photo)

I really should have kept this one to two contestants. Only two of them got any votes, anyway.

It was a lot closer than I expected, but Sarah Vaughan edged Miles Davis by a final core of 6 to 5. Not much love for Barney Kessel, who one judge said sounded like she was pushing a cart through the grocery store, although another said Barney’s came in second. Nor was there much love for Chick Corea, who admittedly was a bit out there–but then, that’s part of his charm.

I’ve already figured out the next battle, and yes, the song is much shorter, so I’m putting three contestants out there. And this time the original isn’t one of them. Tune in next Wednesday for that battle.