By Keith Fisher
There is a popular movie from 1989 staring Robin Williams called Dead Poets Society. It is a heart wrenching story about a group of boarding school students learning about life through appreciation of the great poets. Using that premise, I’d like to start a Dead Authors society. Like the movie, we could meet once a week (probably online) and discuss something (good or bad) we found in an old book. Maybe I’ll start a new blog—I’ll let you know.
I’m almost ashamed to admit it, but I avoided reading the classics in high school. Of course, I also avoided most of my homework in those days, I read Tom Sawyer and Future Shock, but I missed out on Moby Dick, Grapes of Wrath, and others.
To make up for my ignorance, I’ve been reading classics mingled among the other things I must read. I discovered an interesting thing while reading the Great Gatsby the other day. Although there is a good message and the book is a great treatise of the jazz age, F. Scott Fitzgerald filled it with flowery descriptions that probably earned him high praise in his day. Now he is dead, it’s time to take a look at his work under the desk lamp, and analyze it against the fiction of today.
One of my pet peeves is when I read a book written within the last twenty years and find the author committed one of the unforgivable sins. I constantly criticize myself for committing these sins because I know if I don’t change things like weak plot, POV shifts, and too much description, my book won’t be published. So, I’m left wondering how the book in question got published because it’s so much harder for us today.
Here I am, reading a classic—a book that is supposed to be an example of good writing—and those same feelings crop up. How did this guy get published? To be fair, I enjoyed the descriptions. Fitzgerald’s metaphors and similes are fantastic. I may write down many of them for future blogs, but does Gatsby hold the attention of a modern reader?
To be honest, if I wasn’t listening on my MP3 player at work, I might not have ever finished the book. Readers have such a short attention span today, a book must be near perfect to survive. An author cannot allow a reader to set a book down, or it won’t be picked up again. I’m afraid the classics would never hold up under the standards of today’s market. My friend thinks they would, but with all the rules for hooks in the first paragraph, etc, I still think my editor would find many wrong things.
So, high school students hate to read those books, while English teachers point to them as examples of great literature. It’s no wonder that many students quit reading after high school. Lest I give you the wrong impression, I must say it was hard to write during those times also. Readers took more time reading, and they scrutinized the prose. They held a paragraph in their mind for days, twisting it over, marveling at the symmetry.
But, my twenty-first century mind keeps trying to rush the author. It says, "Get to point already—I haven’t got all day." I found the classics are better if someone reads them to me. Don’t you love the way the narrator speaks in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? I love to listen to it again and again. Words were not taken for granted in those days. But when I read it, I skip over those words in order to get to the meat of the story. Perhaps if we make high school kids listen to the story they might enjoy it more, but then, how would they learn to read?
Since I haven’t made any real point here, you might wonder which side I’m on. Like any good editor, I must offer praise as well as criticism. I hope we all learn to savor classical prose. It may be a better example of good writing than the entertaining stories we write today, but it would never make it on the best seller list. That’s okay though, most of the classics already had their day in the sun.
Good luck with your writing—see you next week.