What Makes a Book Classic?

“A classic … is a successful book that has survived the reaction of the next period or generation. Then it’s safe, like a style in architecture or furniture. It’s acquired a picturesque dignity …”

-Scott Fitzgerald, from The Beautiful and Damned

When I think of my favorite classics, I remember how much joy they brought me. Growing up I read The Velveteen Rabbit and Too Much Noise, and growing older I read The Little House in the Big Woods, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, The Great Gatsby, A Christmas Carol, Paradise Lost, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre … I could keep going.

I know a book is classic when it is intelligent, when it soothes or inspires me, and when it has clear transitions between its characters’ development, plot progression, and moral teachings. There is no plot summary that can satisfy the definition of a classic, but when readers from the next generations remember the most famous lines from a book, the book has survived into longevity:

  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” (Pride & Prejudice)
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (A Tale of Two Cities)
  • “Call me Ishmael.” (Moby Dick)
  • “You may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden.” (The Tale of Peter Rabbit)

 

That, my friends, is the definition of a classic. I am proud to be one of the readers to enjoy and pass on these tales of wonder.

How to Introduce a Book, and Why I Like Hemingway

He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish….

-Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea

When you introduce a book, you can’t simply give an imagery description of the town, or a bland description of the character’s physique. Sometimes you wait to say who the character is or how the character looks until after you say what the character does.

Here in the introduction of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, I am struck by the short paragraph which tells readers why the old man is the center of this story. Look at the following passage, which is the rest of the introduction, to see what I mean:

It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.

Although I omitted sections for brevity, I included the most important phrase—“the flag of permanent defeat”—which sets the story’s tone and shows the old man’s perpetual misfortune. My favorite lines in the next few pages involve dialogue between the old man and the boy, when they reminisce about the time they first met and how important the boy is to the man:

“How old was I when you first took me in a boat?” [said the boy].

“Five and you nearly were killed when I brought the fish in too green and he nearly tore the boat to pieces. Can you remember?”

“I can remember the tail slapping and banging and the thwart breaking and the noise of the clubbing. …”

“Can you really remember that or did I just tell it to you?”

“I remember everything from when we first went together.”

The old man looked at him with his sun-burned, confident loving eyes.

“If you were my boy I’d take you out and gamble,” he said. “But you are your father’s and your mother’s and you are in a lucky boat.”

When Hemingway won the Pulitzer Prize for this novella, he deserved it well. We now know who the old man is by seeing him with our eyes and understanding him with our minds. That is the importance of style when introducing characters.

How a Story Ought to Be–Truthful and not Grotesque

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay
Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

One of the most prolific examples of fiction theory comes from “The Fiction Writer & His Country,” by Flannery O’Connor, a prolific fiction writer from the 1960’s South. O’Connor explains the reason why most people are drawn to grotesque elements in literature: These people experience grotesqueness in their lives and thus struggle to relate to anything else. They do not enjoy happy endings because they do not experience happy endings. Above all, they do not realize Jesus’ hope, and as a result, their stories have elements that are also without hope.

However, fiction should not include grotesque elements for the sake of being grotesque; rather, fiction should leave readers with a sense of energy, excitement, or hope, while conveying truth in a manner that seems realistic or true to life.

In my fiction writing, I aspire to create this atmosphere and convey my Jesus without words that only Christians would understand or fantastical situations that non-Christians would disbelieve. (If my stories require the character’s demise, I will use it.) I want to gradually incorporate Him in my stories until my readers are accustomed to Him. If I offend them with Jesus, I will not mention Him. Yet if they are open to possibilities, I will show them what joy I have found in Him (such as no stress) and appeal to them through this enjoyable atmosphere.

Aiming for Truth in Fiction–Flannery O’Connor’s Word of Wisdom

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay
Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

In her Mystery & Manners, Flannery O’Connor emphasizes the issue of some writers writing for the sake of being “THE writer” and not for the sake of writing. She instead claims that the writer should aim for truth; for art is truth, and the artists or writers that aim for truth have successfully accomplished this goal, regardless if their names are seen on the headlines of a newspaper.

I believe that O’Connor is labeling pride. Some writers may write to exalt themselves so that they earn millions or win the Pulitzer, when in fact the writer should aim to serve the work and serve God instead. To serve the work is to aim for excellence and truth, not to blatantly state an abstract issue, but rather to convey a sense of mystery that will draw the reader into the story.

To serve God is to accomplish all these things, whether His name or Deity is mentioned. Writers should subtly incorporate this truth into their work for the glory of God. They must not aim to exalt themselves; for in doing so, they may miss the main purpose of writing. They must allow truth to convey itself through a mystery, regardless if their names appear on the front headlines.

How to Represent Your Land in Fiction: Flannery O’Connor’s Thoughts

One of my favorite locations, out in the Minnesota waterside.
Landscape often inspires me. This is one of my favorite locations, out in the Minnesota waterside.

In her Mystery & Manners, Flannery O’Connor defines personality as reflecting the specific region of the character. When writers fails to describe their character’s region or include the idioms of that region, and instead universalizes their setting, they ineffectually loses their grounding and focus. The plot is meant to reveal the character’s personality through colloquialism directly related to the character’s specific region. If a writer, for instance, centers on a story in Georgia about a man born in that state, yet fails to relate anything from Georgia, he is creating a flat, universal atmosphere.

In my own fiction writing, I have learned to place my characters in specific settings in order to convey reality to my readers. I understand I must observe my natural surroundings in order to help my readers fully experience the story. I must show where the writer is through specific dialogue, such as through colloquialism, setting, and action.

Mystery and Meaning in Stories

Photo Courtesy of Pixabay
Photo Courtesy of Pixabay

According to Flannery O’Connor in her Mystery & Manners, meaning is “embodied” within the story, while a theme is an abstract idea, an element that’s recognizable enough to extract from the story. Meaning conveys some “mystery of existence” and can be associated with the elements that matter most to the characters. The writer must convey what matters most to himself or to his readers, not just elaborate on some abstract idea.

When I am asked what the plot is for my story, I understand that one sentence is insufficient for describing my story; I must tell it all. If my theme were easily recognizable, then the plot would be predictable. Likewise, in relation to O’Connor’s explanation, an excellent moral or plot cannot be simply stated without telling the whole story. Ultimately, the mystery of the plot must be intricate enough to grab and maintain the reader’s interest.

How to draw in your readers in fiction

Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia
Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia

One of the most egregious mistakes a writer can make—according to some, not most—is that a writer should not tell a story by simply narrating it. That was done in the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when narrators were seen as the third-person omniscient, frequently in use in novels such as Paradise Lost and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Flannery O’Connor, a prominent Southern writer in the 1960s, spoke very highly on the subject of fiction writing, being a short story writer herself. She said that people who do not understand the art of storytelling tend to compartmentalize a story’s elements, and this is very often done by Western writers simply because of the culture we live in. These writers specifically label their plot, theme, technique, etc., yet O’Connor explains that those who understand the nature of fiction write fiction so naturally that they do not need to rationalize their art; they just do it.

What O’Connor’s solutions are these: Good fiction portrays a person “who shares in the general human condition and in some specific human situation.” It involves the “mystery of personality” and focuses on people and concrete situations, not problems and abstract issues.

For example, I may, like in Jane Eyre, portray my circumstances as I would see it as a maid. I might relay the scents and attractions I feel, the smoke burning in the upper room above me, while I stood dizzy from drowsy sleep, having been roused at five in the morning. The air around me would feel hot and dizzy, and as I heard the crackling of fire, the lights in my bedroom were nearly out, save for the soft blue light coming from the summer morning out my window.

These sights, sounds, and feelings would reiterate O’Connor’s general instruction that a writer ought not to simply say, “I was in my bedroom while the fire upstairs burned the room”; the writer would elaborate on all these sensations so as to draw the reader in.

Telling simply informs the reader of the situation, but showing invites them to experience the situation. Above all, according to O’Connor, “Fiction writing is…a matter of showing things.”