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.