An Aspiring Writer's Blog Site

What Can We Learn from the Classics?

As part of my back-to-the-basics program, one of my goals was to read more of the classics. It’s not something I looked forward to as my dealings with these stories in the past have not been positive. It was often a chore to read them.

I’ve recently read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, some short stories by Poe, and “The Darling” by Anton Chekhov. Let me give you some of my findings on these classic writers.

The first thing I notice above all else is that brevity was not something authors of old valued. They can go on and on about the most mundane subjects sometimes (We don’t care about the Latitude and Longitude, Verne). They also often beat a dead horse (OK, I get Usher is a creepy dude, now get on with the story, Poe). Maybe this was great for their time, but all this narrative that could have been summarized will bore a modern reader to tears.

Something else that really struck me—one of the first things we modern writers are told to do is to show and not tell. This does not seem to be the rule with classic writers. They often explain a scene instead of letting it play out for the reader. Exposition is ok, even if it’s lengthy. Dialogue can be sparse at times. The only exception to all these seemed to be the “Cask of Amontillado.” This story almost read like a modern short story to me.

Also, though these stories may have a lot of details, they are often times low on sensory description. This really surprised me. Verne describes animal after animal, fish after fish (to the point where I skipped these sections), but I didn’t get a lot of the full range of senses: feel, smell, taste. Instead, I got a lot of visual some audio and a lot of the inner feelings and thoughts of the characters. Funny, because we modern writers are often beat over the head with this (“What did that spaceship smell like, dammit?”)

Did I learn anything from these guys? I’m not so sure I did. They are writing from a different standard for their time. To try and emulate them would not do well for my writing career. Do I respect them? Of course I do. For example, “Murders in the Rue Morgue” by Poe, became the template for Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie years later. It needs respect.

Would I recommend that they be read for a beginning writer? Not sure yet. I’ll keep reading and let you know after awhile.

How about you guys? What’s your opinion of the classics? Is it necessary that we modern writers read and study them?

Writing Update: I’m currently working on a dark fantasy short story. I hope to be finished with the first draft soon. I’ll post it for comment later on. Also, I find myself missing the Gideon Plan every single day since I have stopped. It breaks my heart sometimes.

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5 responses

  1. I wouldn’t read the classics myself as a source of study, but that’s me. The difference in times, as you have mentioned, are too great. And from what you’ve said, that the Gideon plan lingers with you, I know you’ll return to it. I know you’ll finish; and maybe sooner than you think.

    August 21, 2012 at 3:16 pm

    • Thanks, Nate. I’m starting to wonder if reading the classics is not unlike knowing one’s history. You learn from the past. You get an understanding of where everything came from. Being a history dude, I can appreciate that. But geesh, some of these classics are hard to wade through! I’ll get back to the Gideon Plan soon enough.

      August 22, 2012 at 9:39 am

      • Hey, just so you know I’m nominating you for the Lieber award, check out my newest post in about half an hour or so for details. Thanks for everything, following your post has been one of the better things I’ve done on here, keep up the good work.

        August 22, 2012 at 9:41 am

  2. I have heavily studied the classics (English Major with a concentration on Renaissance Lit.) and I think they are a valuable tool if you know how to look at them. Understanding that their audiences were usually middle and upper-class, educated people with not much beyond reading to entertain explains a lot of the length, and books at the time of Verne and Melville were often sold and paid-for in terms of word count (hence the often lengthy descriptions of minute things), Modern readers are spoiled in terms of brevity, since the modern world requires that we digest the same amount of information in a much shorter period, Style and types of description, and the creation of certain atmospheres (especially in Poe) are my favorite things to pull from the classics. Though I Love the language too.

    August 23, 2012 at 9:44 am

    • Hey, Kandaha. Thanks for stepping by.These are GREAT comments. I don’t have a lot of background on why these authors wrote the way they did and your information puts some real perspective on it. I’m not so sure I agree that we are spoiled as much as we have different tastes these days (I have a masters degree and consider myself pretty intelligent). Also, one could argue, I suppose, that if the author was making his story lengthy because he got paid by the word, he was selling out his craft for cash. One would almost think that authors have the same issue today. Some novels are just way too lengthy! Your insight has meant a lot. As I continue to read the classics, I will keep your thoughts in mind!

      August 23, 2012 at 10:40 am

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