Of the many challenges I’ve faced as an writer, perhaps the greatest has been merging my love of classical literature with contemporary writing styles. I don’t like modern books. That’s all there is to it. Have I read them all? Of course not, so I can’t say that this is true across the board. But some of my favourite authors include Twain, London, Melville, Fitzgerald, Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson… Until very recently, no one from even the last half century. Poe was probably the single greatest inspiration to start writing seriously, and he’s about as antiquated as they come.
You can’t connect with a modern audience, however, if you’re using early 19th Century vernacular. You just can’t. So with a heavy heart I picked up Hemingway (being about as modern as I wanted to try). Imagine my surprise when I found his deadpan prose not only palatable, but fantastic. I was immediately hooked, and proceeded to read six of his most famous novels one after the other. I couldn’t put it down! I don’t normally enjoy being wrong, but this was an occasion in which I was thrilled.
I haven’t really found a suitable replacement for Hemingway since I decided to give him a break, but there are modern authors I’ve been enjoying. Bernard Cornwell spins really excellent tales of adventure, and I was also surprised to find that I enjoyed Anne Rice‘s vampire novels. Iain M. Banks is another science fiction writer who’s created a brilliant world in his Culture novels, and of course there’s no overlooking Frank Herbert. He virtually defined the medium as a serious practise with his Dune series.
Yet a recent inspection of the top sellers from the New York Times best seller‘s-list left me nauseous. Is this what passes for literature these days? The prose was dead, cliché, uninspired. Yet reader reviews were raving! “The best book I’ve ever read!” shouted one enthusiastic reader. Books with four and five stars that are international hits. I was dumbfounded. Yet rave review after rave review left me wondering if perhaps I was on the outskirts of the literary world. As I massaged my aching temples night after night, staring forlornly at my computer screen, waiting for words that would not come—crafting each paragraph meticulously and trying to capture some of the astounding and life changing passages I’d read in my favourite books. I must be doing it wrong.
Yes, and no. There are audiences for both types of literature. But, as reality TV has proven, most people are content not thinking. The less people have to think, the better, and so it is true for the books they like to read. My target demographic is too small—the market would destroy me if I ever released the kind of novel I’m aching for, the kind of thing I like to read.
So after long deliberation, I headed over to the local Barnes and Nobel and began perusing the best sellers section. I passed a lot of books, but finally found myself standing before Game of Thrones. I stood there eyeing the book for a long time, like two prize fighters sizing each other up. I didn’t think I’d like it. In fact, I assumed I’d hate it. I’d seen the TV series on HBO, and my expectations weren’t high. I carefully pulled it off the shelf and flipped to the prologue. Stiffling an inward groan, I began reading.
And, in spite of myself, I liked it. It wasn’t Faulkner! But it wasn’t bad.
I ended up buying it, and taking it home I liked it so much. It’s not that I think it’s a fantastic novel, but it does a lot of things right. Martin’s strength, I think, lies in the smoothness of the story. Everything flows exceptionally well, each chapter and character and scene are seamless, from beginning to end—there are no tedious hang ups or snags that halt the rhythm. This is something I feel I have a lot to learn about, so I’m not only finding that I like reading the book, but that it’s also teaching me a great deal.
A book really needs to connect with me on both of those levels—I don’t like reading something and mentally correcting or editing the writing as I go. I don’t want to feel like I could do it better, in essence. George R.R. Martin understands how to keep a story moving, and even managed some poetic imagery here and there. The story and setting aren’t particularly original or stunning, but they’re well-crafted, and that’s worth a lot. I’ve heard that I shouldn’t get attached to any of the characters, but for now, Game of Thrones is a wonderful book and learning experience, and has already given me hope that there are more contemporary authors out there for me to discover.
I’ve yet to read The Game of Thrones (it’s on my list) but I’m intrigued with your distaste for more modern lit. As a post-modernist myself, the urge to chime in can’t be quelled. Based on your more classic preferences and your predilection for Hemingway, might I suggest some Kurt Vonnegut (start with Breakfast of Champions), Raymond Carver, and John Steinbeck? I’d also be interested in hearing your thoughts on Toni Morrison and Louise Erdrich, who are two of my favorite female writers because they’re not afraid of anything. Finally, I suggest that you read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon. If none of the others works out, I guarantee you’ll like Curious Incident. Guarantee.
I haven’t read Vonnegut, but I appreciate the recommendation. As soon as I’m finished with the first Game of Thrones (I have a feeling I won’t be reading the second, just a feeling), that’ll be what I pick up. When I’m done with a book these days I seem to have trouble finding what to read next, so that should help.
I do really love Steinbeck, he captures people astoundingly well. But you surprise me with the Curious Dog. I remember hearing about that when it came out and thinking it was exactly the sort of thing I wouldn’t like. I’ll download a sample on my nook and give it a peek, I do like being surprised.
Do you assign literature to your students? What sort of things do you have them read? I remember taking a class from a graduate student my freshman year and being assigned a lot of very, very contemporary pieces about social issues and modern lifestyles. I guess the books really spoke to her and my peers, but I couldn’t stand it and dropped out of the class. It’s always been difficult to find books that are both entertaining and challenging, but I’m trying.
I wish I could assign literature to my students, but we just don’t have the time. Our classes run for only four weeks and the turnaround time on everything is so quick that I put more focus on the short story. I do think it’s important to get students excited about reading and writing by using more contemporary work that they can relate to. As much as we might want the general public to appreciate the classics, it’s far too idealistic and I’ve found that calling a spade a spade is best in this business. That’s not to say that I don’t share higher brow stuff with my kids who seek it out, but I think we’d have a nation of more careful and interested readers if more focus was put on work kids could more easily relate to than what’s been cannon for the past 40 years.