Why Classical Literature Matters To Writers Today - by Ann Troy
“Let me put this as delicately as I can:
If you don’t read, your writing is going to suck.”
In an era that prides itself on valuing time almost as efficiently as The Grey Gentlemen from Momo, the image of reading is often viewed from two angles only: the idealised aesthetic occupation that is liked on Instagram much more than conducted, and a waste of time that steals away the rare hours one could—should?—spend on writing.
But learning and improving a skill, especially a creative one, demands an investment. Eloquence, characters, pacing, dialogue, these are the tools of the writer, and they need to be sharpened and kept precise, whether you are a “Greenhorn” or an old fox.
Classics aren’t called classics because they are especially hard to read. They earned this label, because they got the basics of storytelling right, they touch on fundamental topics and questions, and offer answers that interest everyone. They represent tradition and yet they are innovative. They are the best of writing.
So, if you need to keep your writing tools sharp, why not learn from the best?
WHY IT MATTERS
The Easy Way
The devil’s advocate that you might summon would be: practice. Yes. Practice is an important part of writing. But you cannot always write. You need to fill the tea pot before you pour. Classics represent what interested people over hundreds of years, represents writing honed and innovated by thousands over thousands.
They don’t say it takes ten thousand hours to master a skill without reason. And reading classics will give you the methods you were searching, when you liked the dozen conflicting “ten mistakes every writer makes” posts on Twitter. You will get what writing is, without any complicated guidelines, simply by curling up in your bed before sleeping and roaming a chapter a night. Reading classics, really is a short cut to learning how to write. What makes a book good will imprint on your mind, the more you read good literature. And then you can go on to practice. By the way, what makes a book good?
Now, there is no specific rule for that, but a few features of writing pop up in my mind when I think of the basics, and those you can trust you’ll learn while readings classics.
There is, for one, the ominous pacing, and really, there is no specific guide: you need to get a feel for it. Need to read to know what worked for others to figure out what works for you. How do you build a conflict, how a scene, and how do you add scenes together, like brick and mortar, preferably in a way that is stable? And characters. How do you create characters that are as real as you, that are alive? Granted, you’ll need to do some people watching for this and prepare before you write, but when you do—how can you use the information you have gathered? How do you make the letters on your page, your experiences in to art? In literature, I can sense the worlds beneath those many quoted, memorable lines, which are but hinted at—and that is something you need to read over and over, dissect it, engrave it in your mind.
The truth is, nowadays people are very impatient. They want a quick set of rules and they want to master it immediately. But how would you, if you haven’t seen it done? Classics are the examples to your writing basics. Just as you will not figure out a Bach Toccata from the score if the only thing you ever heard was “Chopsticks”.
I have written a whole article on why eloquence might save your life, not only as a writer, but in short: being well-spoken, and that is, having a good grasp of grammar, vocabulary and structure, means being more convincing in what you want to convey. And especially as a writer, you need to be as convincing as possible to keep the reader glued to the page. Classics will introduce you to exciting new vocabulary from over the past two centuries, instil grammatical dos and don’ts in your mind—which will come in handy during #amediting, and introduce you to the anatomy of scenes.
Moreover, reading classics, especially but not limited to poetry, will introduce you to a quiverful of literary devices. And let me tell you, they are fun to play around with. And apart from that, making use of them is a neat way to bring across subtle messages: An anaphora might underscore your point, a hyperbole might prompt your reader to reconsider. A rhetorical question involves the reader—repetition of sound (re-read the last two sentences) can join dots together and create atmosphere, ellipses can…you get my meaning.
Reading classics opens access to a cornucopia of opportunity. Writing will be more fun and you will feel more like a writer. If you don’t believe me, believe James N. Frey: the author and creative writing teacher champions among others reading “A Christmas Carol” , “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Godfather” in his bestselling textbook “How to Write a Damn Good Novel” (that was the golden rule of three, by the way. Three items, rhythmically arranged, poised antithetically to a fourth…okay, I’ll see myself out…).
It’s something many creative writing textbooks touch on. Art is communication. It intertwines current social topics with past events, questions the now and opens a glimpse into the future. To be able to stand in witty communication with the past—be it a direct quote, the continuance of or juxtaposition to a past writer’s thought, or the mere little joy of hinting at a line, character or plot you love—you need to have read classics. You need to have read what you’re quoting from or working with. You need to know the tradition before you break it. And breaking tradition, offering innovation, questioning things and providing possible solutions are the duties of the author.
But why classics? Can’t you just read a good modern book? Technically all the tradition should be in it, right? Yes and no. Yes, modern literature would incorporate all the points I made above and you ought to read it, to keep up to date. But you would not be able to recognise these points without practice. If you have no idea of motors, and I show you a really good one, made in 2019, will you be able to tell me the names of its components and then build one yourself? No. That’s why physics is often built somewhat like a history lesson. You will get the information bit by bit, as it arose in time.
You’ll look at lots and lots of different motors and learn to recognise each part. Do the same thing with your craft. Which is basically to say, treat it like one.
Now, you could argue that this is not as much an argument for writing but for writers, and you would be right: Ultimately, reading edifies. Stories nourish us, that’s why we crave them. That’s why we need writers like you. And you have every right to enjoy what millions of readers have enjoyed before you. In a way, enjoyment is your duty: You need to feel what you want to instil in others. You need to crave it as much as they do to provide. Reading classics—the works that everyone knows because they have been dearly loved by generations—will give you wisdom and excitement and fulfilment.
And that will change your thinking to the better. This means, you will be more inquisitive, sharper, more focussed, but also happier in life. Just think of the effect, if you can throw in some big names in conversation, how clever you’ll feel, because, well you did achieve a lot by reading and understanding classic literature. And then take that flame and pass it on. Make others happy, fulfilled, clever. Write.
WHERE TO START
The beginning is traditionally the most difficult part. Effort and money would be the next hurdle. But don’t despair just yet. I have compiled a list of short works that you can start out with, why you should read them and where to find them for FREE. If you have read them already, good for you! The sources I name have plenty more to offer.
But what if you don’t understand them? What if they’re too difficult to grasp? Or what if they’re not but you just have to start a literary discussion with pipe and all right now? Well, that’s easy. My contact info is below and I am always happy about mail.
QUICK AND FREE CLASSICS
The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: Sherlock Holmes finds himself in a pile of broken china. Ahh, well. Classic detective. Must read.
The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Alan Poe: Will make you bite your nails and swallow hard. Horror and realism. Don’t pass.
The Garden Party, by Katherine Mansfield: An intensely beautiful story about coming of age, ethically. Short story at its finest.
The Lamplighter, by Charles Dickens: Dickens has written a farce? Don’t be ridiculous! This will clearly lead you to a toothbrush commercial.
She walks in Beauty, by Lord Byron: Will make you want to fall in love. Right now. An abundance of stylistic means.
Sonnet 18, by William Shakespeare: Silky lines of wisdom. Sonnets are your ABC.
The Lamplighter, by Robert Louis Stevenson: A poem for your children and the inner child in you. Wholesome.
The Kraken, By Alfred, Lord Tennyson: Learn about sound and psychology. Highly relevant today still.
The Snake, by D.H. Lawrence: Lawrence in pyjamas and a snake nicks his water. Stirring. Wise.
Ann Troy has married words and paper since she could write. She loves literature, singing and voice-acting with a passion. Cleverness excites her and she sees beauty in everything. It is her mission to bring the love for books back to the old and young where it receded. In her spare time she waters her mint plant and knits socks for her family. Words at @Spill_Words and @InkersWishful.
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Mentioned in this article:
1. Ende, Michael (1973) ‘Momo‘; the Grey Gentlemen steal people’s time by convincing to save it in their bank for later
2. May, Karl (1893) ‘Winnetou I’; a Greenhorn is an inexperienced newcomer to the New World, a newbie
3. Dickens, Charles (1843) ‘A Christmas Carol’; your typical children’s story: ghosts, childhood trauma, gruel and redemption
4. Kensey, Ken (1962) ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest’; basically a how to guide on staying sane in an asylum
5. Puzo, Mario (1969) ‘The Godfather’; Italian James Moriarty and the unwilling son, start the soundtrack
6. Fray, James N. (1987) ‘How to Write a Damn Good Novel’; go read this gem! I read it eight years ago and it’s still my writing-bible; it has taught me so much *sobs*
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