JM Williams

A home for all things fantasy and sci-fi.

What Makes a Classic?

Dec
21

This is something that has been brewing in my head for some time. Perhaps fermenting is a better word, because it’s begun to stink.

I ask you, what makes a book a classic? Besides that some stuffy old white men in an ivory tower say so. What makes a book or a story endure?

It’s well acknowledged that Moby Dick is terrible long winded, that Melville in his opus, had a tendency to go on long tangents.

The book Dune, by Frank Herbert, is often consider the best science fiction novel of all time. But it, too, suffers from some weak writing, and more critically, constant and almost nonsensical point-of-view jumps. Not only is the POV done in a way to reveal everything upfront, leaving no room for the reader to wonder or inquire about events or character motives, the POV even jumps heads after one or two paragraphs!

An interesting side note is the fact that the “best science fiction book of all time” is actually more fantasy than science fiction. Sure it’s set in space, in what seems to be the future, but little about how the world functions is explained, and explanation is what makes science fiction scientific. But I digress.

Both Moby Dick and Dune are considered by many to be classics. Both have been reprinted continuously and have had their stories told in other formats such as film, to this day. This is despite the fact that if someone were to have pitched either manuscript to a modern agent or publisher, it probably wouldn’t make the cut for the problems I have already mentioned.

What’s another famous book that has been reprinted and turned into film several times?

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Tim Curry will always be Pennywise to me.

Now, I’m not going to suggest that It is a literary masterwork. But Stephen King is one of the most popular writers of our time. And as noted in The Guardian, “It is one of King’s most enduring novels; it’s crossed over from just being read by his fans, and become a part of a wider cultural consciousness.”

But IT is far from a great book. In places, it is even outright bad. I am currently about sixty percent through the audiobook, but I know the story, I’ve seen the movies. And I am becoming more and more convinced that the movies are simply better.

Most people will tell you, about any film adaptation, that the book is better. This is primarily due to the book having more content, and being able to explain the characters better, cover more ground. In the case of IT, length is a bane not a boon.

Clocking in at 1100 pages or more, depending on the format, the book is a beast. Length is not, by itself, a problem. There are many long books that work just fine. But people seem to have a tendancy to equate length to quality, that a long epic must be some sort of masterpiece. Masterpiece IT is not.

It was Stephen King himself that famously said in his manual On Writing to “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” To this he was rehashing the age old writing rule of write once, cut twice. Writers today are expected to cut down their work, to make it efficient and concise.

It’s perhaps not surprising that On Writing was first published in 2000, almost 15 years after IT. And it shows.

In this book, King violates almost all of his writing rules. In regards to cutting and editing, the book has several sections and even chapters, that have no bearing on the central characters. They might be nice and scary chapters, they might illuminate the monster a bit, but they are far from essential. They would not survive a modern publishers red pen.

The structure of the book is all over the place, and relies on the main character having amnesia, an old cliche. There’s a reason why the films are more appealing. They are linear, and don’t really mention the amnesia bit. It is, in fact, wholly unnecessary for the characters to not remember the events of their past in order to bring the memories up in the narrative bit by bit. It is a a tired, and unnecessary narrative tool.

Then there is the writing itself. King said in On Writing, “Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created for the timid writer in mind.” Well, King must have been timid in his earlier days, because his book is just stuff with adverbs, bad adverbs. Things like “[the door] banged gustily” and “sitting miserably.”

These combinations of verbs and adverbs don’t even make sense. Adverbs are tied directly to the verb they are modifying. So in the case of “banged gustily”, while King surely meant to mean that the closing of the door caused a gust of wind, what it really means is the sound of the bang was like the wind, as in not loud or at all intimidating. And how does someone “sit miserably”? When I heard that one, the first thing that came to mind was sitting on thumb tacks or something. The miserableness must be related to the verb sitting, that’s how adverbs work. It does not relate to the state of the person sitting. To convey that, you should say something like “Richie was miserable, sitting by himself.”

King continues his assault on adverbs in On Writing, saying “I insist you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions.” Tell that to the guy who wrote IT. I would guess that more than a quarter of the dialogue tags in that book have adverbs. There are whole exchanges where each new dialogue tag has some cute adverb after it. Some are just bad, like “‘daddy… ‘ she whispered huskily.” How do you whisper huskily? A husky voice to me is one that is deep and resonant, the opposite of a whisper.

And of course there’s the problem with Beverly. King should be given credit for how socially conscious his book is. He addresses class, and racism. You even get the feeling that he tries to deal with sexism, too, but he fails. The book is horribly sexist. The only lead female character is constructed solely through her relationships to men. She is also the only character that is sexualized, and often. We are introduced to her in a chapter section that is in the POV of her abusive husband.

Moreover, I have trouble believing that Beverly, after being abused by her father, would fall in with another abuser. My understanding is that child abuse makes people hyper-vigilant, and turns them into future abusers, not victims. There is a time when, during that introductory section, I get the feeling that King might be leading us on, that Tom Rogan just thinks he is in charge and it’s Beverly abusing him. But no joy.  Tom Rogan turns out to be one of the most cliched, and unbelievable characters I have ever read (“I’m going to teach her a lesson”–does any man, even the most abusive chauvinist really think that? I feel like they probably don’t process what they are doing until it’s done).

So with all the problems in this book, and the others mentioned earlier, why are they considered classics?

It’s the story.

King’s book might have problems with it’s prose and structure, but the story is incredible. There’s a reason why Moby Dick is replicated in countless revenge stories. Most people know what Romeo and Juliet is about, but can’t recite more than a few lines from it and often mistake the meaning (wherefore art thou, Romeo?). But the stories are timeless.

The stories are classic.

Well, that’s all the time I have for right now. I think I’ve said my peace about IT. Now I need to finish it. The audiobook is 44 hours! What in the heck?

What do you guys think? Have you read any classics that probably wouldn’t cut it today?

~J.M.

2 Responses to What Makes a Classic?

  1. Woah JM – big topic, I’ll try to keep my rambles brief! To keep on track with the King-vibe, in Hearts in Atlantis one of the protagonist says “sometimes read a book for the story, sometimes for the writing” – I think that’s a factor, although not a deciding vote. I tend to err on the view that Classics are time + opportunity – so, The Hobbit is a classic to me because it was the first book to introduce me to high fantasy [time]. Classic’s don’t necessarily have to “be the best” in my opinion, but one that lays out the vision + the voice in a way that reaches people in a new way?

    • J.M. Williams

      I fully agree. But I think there is a common perception that “the classics” were all masterfully written, which for me at least, tends to not be the case necessarily.

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