In the modern era, consumers––often young people––seem to like vintage things. Record players, retro mini fridges, and Polaroid cameras fly off the shelves. People like Cadillacs, The Beatles, Audrey Hepburn, glass Coca-Cola bottles, Pac-Man, and Marilyn Monroe even though the “golden ages” of those things and people have long since passed. They don’t go out of style because, well, they’re classic. So why is it that the writing techniques used in Classic literature are one of the few “retro” things that haven’t come back into circulation?
Even people who aren’t literature enthusiasts recognize their titles: Jane Eyre, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, Gone with the Wind, On the Road, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pride and Prejudice, The Three Musketeers, Moby Dick. And that’s only a few of them. Though their names have become commonplace in our society, Classic literature is something many people associate with groans of discontent in high school English classes (but, to be fair, for a lot of people that’s books in general). These novels are either loved or hated by audiences worldwide, and it’s largely for the same reasons.
First of all, they move slowly. This is something most people who have ever picked one up can agree upon. Large swaths of descriptive texts, lengthy dialogue, and intense attention to detail mean that these books tend to be rather long, and getting through one cover-to-cover is often regarded as a feat. For some people, this is one of the most endearing things about these books; for others, it's the reason for their hatred toward them. But it’s important to look at why Classics are long. In today’s society, be it because of smartphones or easy access to television or any of the other distractions scientists have suggested, people have shorter attention spans. Reading is no longer the most accessible form of entertainment, so the successful books published today tend to be plot-driven, action-packed, and as a whole shorter. The object is to print something the reader can't put down. In the past, Classics took longer for the story to unfold because authors and publishers believed in the exposition. They took the first forty or so pages (sometimes longer) to establish the characters, create the setting, and build an emotional connection between the characters and the reader. They imagined that the reader would be willing to stick with the tale until the real story began, so they didn’t worry about constricting word counts. Now, the action has to begin immediately or people lose interest, and we sacrifice characterization at the altar of engaging plot. Most of the time, the goal is not to inspire thought or change as literature sometimes was intended to in the past; it’s to make money for the publishers. That doesn’t mean that there can’t be a “good” book published today or that there is no such thing as a thought-provoking successful tale, but it does mean the modern-day Classic (if it even exists) takes a different form.
The closest book I can think of to a Classic––the only lucrative one published since 2000 that I would argue to be a work of art––is Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. For anyone who hasn’t read this, I highly recommend it. Hosseini masterfully balances plot and characterization, spinning a web of gorgeous prose that is both culturally significant and engaging. But even so, it isn’t written in the same style as the Classics of old. It is shorter, faster-paced, and more introspective. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by any means, but it’s different from the traditional style. Will Harry Potter ever be considered a Classic? I have no idea. It did essentially invent the young adult classification and revive the declining genre of fantasy––also, it’s actually really good––but I’m not sure it will be commonly referenced in fifty years because, though a fun and lovable saga, one could argue that it doesn’t hint at the societal and cultural issues that allow a book to remain relevant in another era. Will we remember it? Yes, I think we will. It won’t fade into obscurity. But global bestseller doesn’t always equal work of art.
A Classic, so it would seem, must have characters that feel like real-life, a plot that in a lot of ways is secondary to the human relationships involved, and be worthy of remembering. Can that even exist today? Could it be successful in a cutthroat market looking for the next big moneymaker? Or would it become one of the myriad of good, quality books that sits on the shelf and never sells? I don't know for certain, and I'm not sure if there's an impartial way to ever tell. Art, as it's always said, is in the eye of the beholder. It's just a question of whether one believes our society can still produce literary art, at all.