By Len Lawson
After high school and college, not many of us have the desire to read classic novels again or anything associated with classic literature because perhaps it takes us back to that educational setting where tests, homework, and studying—or the lack thereof—were the norm. In today’s society, we seem to want the hottest new book from the shelves; if the buzz is good enough about a new title or a new author, we as readers desire not to be left out. The thirst for the contemporary leads the masses to bookstores for the best titles and the best authors in the land. If our friends ask us—because we are writers—what the best book is to read right now, then we are expected to give them the book that everyone is talking about. We are compelled to offer an expert analysis if they ask, “Hey, writer, what do you think about that new Twilight/Hunger Games/Fifty Shades of Grey?”
Science fiction, young adult, and fantasy remain the gold mine for today’s writers because of the overnight success of books-turned-movies in those genres. Can I tell you that the classics were once contemporary? Classic authors became iconic because people connected with their work. Ernest Hemingway was regarded as a legend in literature and society during his time because of the early success of books like The Sun Also Rises and because of the late success in his career of The Old Man and the Sea. He was the James Patterson or the Tom Clancy of his generation. Even J. D. Salinger struck gold with his one-hit novel The Catcher in the Rye not because of high-tech, futuristic imagery or the ambiguity or pseudo-eroticism of vampires and werewolves. It became a cult classic because it brought controversial subject matter to the forefront of American culture.
In other words, the genre didn’t make them great. The works themselves were great! In today’s writing, authors seem to have to be in the right genre to even dream of any success—success not just as in million-dollar book deals; success simply as in publication. The classics are still timeless because they explored themes that are timeless. At the heart of Ellison’s Invisible Man is not only the struggle with race in a civil rights culture but also the fundamental struggle with identity. Everyone can relate to the questions: "Who am I?" and "What was I created to do?" The classics go beyond writing for profit, plot, and prestige; they attack the heart of the human condition.
In the tough world of publishers, editors, agents, and writers, integrity in our works sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of looking for the next big thing. I appreciate the classics for their simplicity and their complexity against the backdrop of their historical contexts. What will history say about our generation’s writing? Our best writing seems only to titillate the senses. The business of writing has become more commercial than controversial. I respect any writer who can capture a generation with his or her work consistently or even momentarily, but in my heart as a purist, I long for works that challenge our beliefs, question our culture, and upset the protocol. Show me a book that uses storytelling to do those things, and I will show you a classic!