Monday, November 18, 2013

Writing 101: The Danger of Classic Literature

Jane Austen. Herman Melville. Charles Dickens. Believe me, I could go on and on. These authors, and many others, created books in their lifetime that would go on to become classics -- books that are so good they're assigned reading in schools. I pretended to read most of them during my own school days. 


And by "pretended," I mean that I didn't read them but I paid attention during classroom discussions. You see, I love classic literature as much as the next bookworm. But I think there's a also a danger in it, and I'm here to warn you about it. 

And You, Sir, Are No Mark Twain

I didn't read those books in school for one reason: those books are really hard to read. The poetic language is magical it's true, but it's also cumbersome as all get-out. The lyrical, multi-syllable words are incredibly outdated and the long-winded, musical dialogue no longer rings true. Reading those words aloud will transport you to another time and place...because those books were written in another time and place.


Your books must be written for a modern audience, and that means you can't use words like "twixt" or "fortnight" very often. If you do, many of your readers might not know what the hell you're talking about. The danger of classic literature is clear: you might absorb too much of that highly overwrought, flowery style. 

Books are not like that anymore. Many of today's authors advocate getting to the point in a clear way. This is because the average reading level for American audiences is grade 8. I couldn't get through Moby Dick or The Scarlett Letter in high school, so clearly I didn't have the skills to figure them out at grade 8.

Classic literature was written for the tone of its day. People really spoke that way back in those days. They don't speak like that today. This is why your books have to be written in today's tone, not yesterdays. So read classic literature if that's what you like, but don't absorb so much of it that you find yourself writing in a similar style. It's wonderful to look back at those writers of the past, and people still buy those books today, but they're classic for a reason. Write in a way that's true to your time, and you'll write a book that could one day become a classic in its own right.

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