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?