The Classics Club’s Question #31

Classics Club RenoirWhat about modern classics? Pick a book published since 2000 and say why you think it will be considered a “classic” in the future.

(Every month, the Classics Club creates its own meme by giving its members a question to answer. I’m relatively new to the club, so I’m beginning here with Question #31. I may go back and answer some past questions at some point in time.)

This is a tough one. Over the years, I’ve had quite a few discussions with friends and family members about “The Decline and Fall of Great Literature”. The majority of these discussions have revolved around the question, “What, if anything, written since 1950 will people still be reading 100 years from now?” The answer can’t really be “nothing”, as tempting as it is to say that, because, of course, some books will survive, just as they have through all the different eras. Still, I’ve had a hard enough time with that one but can come up with works like 100 Years of Solitude, as well as books by the likes of John Irving and Anne Tyler, if we’re looking at American writers.

Here, though, the Classics Club, always willing to challenge us in new and different ways, tells us to forget the 20th century. I can’t fall back on The Cider House Rules. I have to come up with something written post-1999 — an era in which we’ve witnessed “The Decline and Fall of the Publishing Industry”, when publishers decided to do such stupid things as providing companion web sites to books and toying with the idea of letting readers write their own endings to books (as if any Real Reader ever wanted to put down a book to go explore a web site or to have to write an ending. The latter is what writers are paid to do, not readers). It’s also been an era of shoddy editing and proofreading (because, of course, publishing companies have to pay to create web sites, and a great way to do that is to lay off such inessential staff members as production editors, outsourcing their jobs to people for whom English is a second language. Notice all the typos and grammatical errors in my blog posts? We writers — even those of us who were once editors — need good editors, because it’s so hard to edit our own stuff), so if you’re someone with an editorial mind, you find yourself driven crazy by the most basic typos and grammatical errors that show up in so many published books these days.

It’s been an era in which we’ve seen many trends embraced by authors, not the least of which is “my clever version of post-modernism.” This means you’ll be hard-pressed to find a book that doesn’t play around with narrative voice, leaving the reader wondering, “Who the hell is speaking now?” or tense, leaving the reader wondering, “When did this happen? Yesterday? Right now?” And it’s been an era in which authors (or is it their publishers?) have decided that the “freshest” thing to do just might be to mix media. Let’s see what happens if part of this story is told via Excel spreadsheet! Let’s tell this story via alternating chapters of prose and collages made from magazine images!

Finally, we also must try to trick the reader and have some huge, unforeseen plot twist halfway through the book. You thought that was eleven-year-old Sarah, the oldest child of the family telling the story? It’s actually Sarah the Dog, and her younger brothers are Bill the hamster and Thad the cat. You thought Rob was waxing poetic about his wife Kelly? He was actually going on about his husband Kelly. You thought you were right there along with Detective Solvit, trying to figure out who’d tortured and mutilated the beauty queen, only to discover that the reason he’s so efficient at piecing together the crime is that he’s not Detective Solvit at all. He’s the psychopathic murderer.

Yes, I read this stuff (I’m a librarian after all), but I so often find myself needing to return to Trollope or Twain or Chandler, if only to escape all the typos and grammatical errors. This means my knee-jerk reaction to the fine folks running The Classics Club was “Nothing.” Again, though, that’s a ridiculous answer. Certainly, some of the books being published today will be embraced by future generations, to be studied, read, and loved. We have some authors who are taking hold of post-modernism and post-post-modernism and doing them right. We have new genres that are working, and some writers who are turning old genres into new classics. In fact, when I began to go back through the works I’ve read, I began to discover I’ve read quite a few of these future classics. I found it hard to choose just one, which means that this book curmudgeon is going to give you more than one (I hope that’s not cheating the meme). I could probably give you ten, but I will stick to five. Here they are, alphabetical by title.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

Say what you will about Stephen King. He will be read and studied by future generations. He’s a man who brought the horror genre to whole new levels in the late 20th century, and he’s also a great candidate for “books into films” studies. 11/22/63 was a different sort of book for him — more sci-fi/fantasy than horror (although those three often overlap), but it was the book that got the snobbiest of critics to acknowledge (however grudgingly) that King was worth our attention. For my part? I’ve always loved King for his imagination and scare factor, and I was skeptical of this “un-horror” story, but I fell right into it, loved every minute of its “what if” challenge.

& Sons by David Gilbert

The late twentieth-century saw a decline in WASP literature and rightly so. We needed to make room for all the fabulous multiculturalism that’s been introduced to us since 1970, but we need not throw the baby out with the bath water, no matter how fond Americans seem to be of doing so. It was about time someone gave us a new spin on the WASP novel, and David Gilbert was the man to do it. This one is a fine example of such (with a nod to J.D. Salinger, since it features a Salinger-like writer). This love letter to New York City is also a 21st-century exploration of the father-son relationship, a hot topic in literature since, well, forever. There’s a bit of a sic-fi twist thrown in for good measure, which I enjoyed, but what kept me reading was the whole question of what makes and breaks father-son bonds. I’m quite sure Gilbert is going to go on to publish other important works.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Stephen Galloway

I was impressed by the pure poetry of this novel, the way Galloway interwove music with words. It was not an easy read, as the topic is devastating, but it was a powerful, historic one. If you’ve forgotten all about Sarajevo, you need to read this book as a reminder of what it was, how horrific it was, and as a reminder of the power of the arts to redeem us all. The fact that it gave us a female soldier, a rarity in literature until recently, is another reason it will survive (as an early example of such characters).

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Full disclosure, I haven’t actually finished reading this one yet, so I may change my mind, but, thus far, I am extremely impressed. Mitchell has proven that there are some writers out there who have turned post-modernism into an exact science. He’s an incredible writer, able to give a fresh voice to so many tried and true writing methods. He’s clever, not for the mere sake of being clever, like so many writing today, but rather, I gather, because he just can’t help himself, and also because he applauds us readers for being who we are, relishing our enjoyment of reading.

Fun Home by Allison Bechdel

This one will go down in history as an early example of graphic memoir. I loved it both for Bechdel’s drawing style and for her writing style, not to mention her interesting story. She has proven here that there’s a reason for the graphic art form –when the right pictures really can do a subject much more justice than a long page of prose, especially when combined with a few words. She’s also proven that sometimes blending media, when it isn’t forced or being used to demonstrate how clever someone is (or thinks she is), can work beautifully. This one will also probably make history for being one of the first memoirs to look candidly at homosexual relationships.

So, there you have it. Five classics for you to get reading now, so that in 40 years you can say, “Oh, yeah, I knew that one was going to last.” In the meantime, tell me what future classics I ought to be reading now.

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The Small Room by May Sarton

Small Room

I read this one for The Classics Club.

I have to admit that I approached this, the second Classics Club read I’ve finished, a little warily when I began reading its Prologue, which is eerily reminiscent of The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart, a book I decidedly didn’t like (funny how they both have “Room” in their titles). We begin here, just as we did The Yellow Room, with our heroine Lucy on a train from New York to New England, a young woman whose physical description we get from her judgment of her reflection (here, it’s in the train window. Rinehart’s was in the mirror in the train’s bathroom), a tired writing technique. Both heroines seem a bit naïve, although adventuresome enough to be on a train alone, headed toward an unknown future.

But that was merely the discouraging Prologue, which probably wouldn’t bother anyone who hasn’t read and disliked The Yellow Room. Get past the Prologue, and this book quickly reveals itself to be a minor miracle. I’m in awe of May Sarton for having written such a rich and deep book, full of provocative ideas, in a mere 249 pages. On top of that, she’s managed to provide us with extremely well-drawn, complicated characters. I’ve read far longer books in which the characters remained complete mysteries to me by the end. Here I was, at first, tempted to identify stereotypes, but then each character goes on to prove that he or she is much more than a stereotype.

The premise of the story is that young Lucy has just broken off her engagement to a medical doctor. Having earned her Ph.D. at Harvard (sort of on a lark, if you can believe that), while he was in med school, she’s decided to take a job as an English professor at Appleton, a women’s college set in New England. During her first term, she discovers that one of school’s prize students, who happens to be a protégé of one of the school’s most revered professors, has plagiarized (from Simone Weil, of all people, a woman who fascinates me in her own right). Lucy has to decide what to do and finds herself caught in the middle of understanding both the student Jane and the professor Carryl. They both seem to trust this new arrival on campus — which is a bit unrealistic but works here because, in Lucy, Sarton has given us a character who is extremely insightful, while being young and insecure enough to be humble in a way that realistically would draw others to her.

Along the way, Sarton examines social issues of the day that are still relevant. We get a chance to see how things have and haven’t changed in the 50+ years since the book was first published in 1961. One of the major themes is a suspicion of psychology/psychiatry, and a divide between the younger and older generations, the older generation being far more suspicious, the younger being more accepting. In 2015, it seems almost laughable that a campus would be split over hiring a resident psychiatrist. By the same token, despite our counseling centers today, many still remain suspicious of therapy.

Sarton also studies generation gaps in this book. I tend to think we’re awfully obsessed these days with the naming and defining of generations. We have “The Baby-Boomers”, “The Gen-Xers”, “The Millenials”, etc. It was a bit of an obsession with the characters in this book as well. No one has trendy names for the different generations, but Sarton notes the differences among the very young (the students), the young (faculty Lucy’s age), the middle, and the older generations. They all seem to be envious and annoyed with each other by turns.

Love, in its many forms, is another theme — both heterosexual and homosexual (brave for Sarton’s time), so is the role of the teacher. Sarton also encourages the reader to ponder what, exactly, excellence is and at what costs it is achieved. Gender roles are another issue raised in the book. I’m listing all these issues and thinking how impossible it must sound to someone who hasn’t read the book that she could have covered all that while exploring the ethical dilemma of making a very young person pay the lifelong price for having made a mistake. Impossibly, though, she does. Oh, and on top of all that, we get a look at class, money, and power. It’s an amazing little book.

Before this, I’d never read any of Sarton’s prose, only some of her poetry. I remember it as being dreamy, so I was surprised by how matter-of-fact, how crisp her writing is here. The poet in her seemed only to shine through in some of her super metaphors and similes. Here’s a nice example:

This was exhausting but exhilarating, quite different from one of the freshmen sections which seemed like a huge, oppressive elephant she had to try to lift each morning.

I got to the end, though, and was no longer surprised. The poet lives throughout this entire book in Sarton’s ability to do what poets always do: evoke so much with so few words. I take multiple hats off to her.

Twelfth Night; or What You Will by William Shakespeare

Twelfth night

I read this one for The Classics Club.

All’s well that ends well, right? And this one certainly does end well after putting the reader through the wringer, piling one mess upon another until it seems the characters will never be able to extricate themselves from the bottom of the pile. I knew the basic story, in which twins become separated in a ship wreck. Each thinks the other is dead, and the sister Viola disguises herself as a man to serve Duke Orsino. Orsino is trying to woo Olivia, a young woman whose father and brother have died, who in her mourning has decided not to respond to suitors. Orsino uses Viola (whom he thinks is the young man Cesario) to get to Olivia, who falls in love with Viola, not knowing she is a he. Meanwhile, Viola falls in love with Orsino. Then, the twin brother Sebastian (who looks exactly like Cesario, of course) arrives on the scene. I also knew this was a comedy (so there’d be no horrific, death-laden ending), and I still found myself worrying, thinking, “How on earth are they ever going to set things right?” That’s the sign of a brilliant author, of course.

Another sign of a brilliant author is that he can write comedy. I’ve said this elsewhere before, I’m sure, but I’ll repeat it here. I know Shakespeare gets most of his credit for his tragedies — and I’m not saying he doesn’t deserve credit for the greatness of those — but I’ve always been a huge fan of his comedies. Years ago, someone told me, “Writing great comedy is much harder than writing great tragedy. Anyone can make an audience cry, but it’s very hard to make an audience laugh.” That’s true. A sense of humor seems to be a much more personal and variable animal than a sense of tragedy. I’ve lived and worked in some places in my life where people “got” my sense of humor and in other places where people didn’t.

Shakespeare would’ve “gotten” my sense of humor, if I can judge by what he wrote. I can still remember reading A Comedy of Errors in the undergraduate library in college and being worried I was going to be kicked out for laughing too hard (as if a librarian would kick someone out for such a wonderful thing!). That’s one of the reasons I was a little disappointed with Twelfth Night. I did giggle a few times, but I never found myself giving way to uncontrollable laughter. Still, that’s a feat, isn’t it? 400+ years after this play was written in England it can still make an American giggle. It begs the question we literary types are always asking: what’s being written today that will still make people laugh 500 years from now?

My other disappointment was the treatment of Malvolio, Olivia’s steward. I know. I know. He’s a pompous ass who deserves to be taken down a notch, but it was all a bit too cruel for my tastes. Make a fool of him, sure, but did they have to continue it to the point that he’s locked up as a mad man? (Although, I have to admit that it was funny when he was complaining about the dark, and they were all proclaiming that he was in the bright light.)

We’re talking about Shakespeare here, though. The disappointments are only mildly so, and the marvels outweigh them. Of course, I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who loves Shakespeare. If you don’t love Shakespeare, I wouldn’t recommend this one if you’re trying to change your mind. For that, I’d recommend A Comedy of Errors. For those of you who love Shakespeare and haven’t yet read this one? Do.