Are You Sure You Want to Write Great Literature?

“′Classic′ – a book which people praise and don’t read.” – Mark Twain

At my college preparatory school, our vacations weren’t unfettered thanks to “Summer Reading” that required us to read four books during break. Our list going from seventh to eighth grade was limited to four books so we had no choices. I only remember two – Pride and Prejudice and The Oxbow Incident. I’m sure none of the boys would have read Jane Austin and I promise I would have never read The Oxbow Incident if not forced to do so.  I never regretted reading either book.

Going into ninth grade, we had to read Les Miserables. Consuming this gigantic tome wouldn’t have been quite as bad if we hadn’t had to read three other books as well before early September. Les Miserables was such an overarching requirement that I can’t remember the other three books. I do recall feeling quite upset when Fantine had to sell her hair, then her front teeth, then turn to prostitution to support her child she’d abandoned to unscrupulous innkeepers. I mean, how much money could a toothless, hairless prostitute earn? That autumn I quipped to the teacher that, “I would have been less miserable if I hadn’t had to read it.” She was not amused.

Tenth grade meant two more large volumes: East of Eden and Moby Dick. The others were shorter (I think one was another Jane Austin entry) but trying to tackle the unromantic Moby Dick felt all-consuming since it held zero appeal for me, a teen girl.

I thought the school wimped out when the following year they issued a list of about thirty books and let us choose. The boys immediately checked out the shortest books from the school library so I was stuck with longer ones. Ironically, I can’t recall any of the books I read for school that summer.

All this gloom despite the fact I love to read. I like long books when I find them on my own. For instance, I read Gone with the Wind in the seventh grade and read it again in the eighth grade.

My school was or is hardly alone. Students are assigned reading all the time, to everyone’s benefit. But I wonder what the authors would think of schools forcing unwilling and bored students to read their books. Novelists write for income but also for love of story and craft. Don’t all storytellers want readers to enjoy their work?

Maybe you’ll never write a book that students will be compelled to read long after your death. But if you can touch hearts and minds of your generation, isn’t that a gift from God?

Your turn:

What is your favorite book that would be considered great literature?

Do you want to write great literature?

 

52 Responses to Are You Sure You Want to Write Great Literature?

  1. Avatar
    Brennan McPherson April 27, 2017 at 3:41 am #

    My favorite book that could potentially be considered “great literature” would be Dune. But really. . . I think “great literature” is a bit of a stretch there. I grew up playing video games, not reading books, so I’m late to the “great literature” table. I was never forced to read whole classics, so I’ve been slowly making my way through them in my adulthood.

    I was supremely bored by Moby Dick despite being a male into epic struggles. On the other hand, I found East of Eden extremely interesting, but oppressively dark and filled with shockingly vulgar content. It’s definitely a bit ironic to see people giving relatively clean Christian novels (that are a little on the edgy side) bad reviews for being “violent,” etc., yet who list Steinbeck and Hemingway as favorite authors. I love Steinbeck, and sometimes can appreciate Hemingway, but give me a break. They both wrote brutally violent (in Hemingway’s case, extremely brutally violent) books.

    I think everyone would like to write books that are considered great literature, but you raise some good points as to how the authors would feel about their literature being shoved down people’s throats. I definitely wouldn’t appreciate it. . . though I’d appreciate the consistent sales. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 7:48 am #

      Steinbeck and Hemingway are such icons that I imagine most readers hesitate to say anything negative about either author. You make a great point about how oddly our human filters can work!

      Dune is creative and I think it would be considered great literature in its genre.

      Going through the classics is a great project. Feel free to let us know which one you’re reading now if you like.

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      Anne Braly April 27, 2017 at 2:31 pm #

      You really want replies? So here is mine: Jane Eyre continues to be my all-time favorite–a classic. Middlemarch had interesting scenes, but I tired of it and never got beyond chapter four, or such.

      Possibly there are some captivating books in the classics, as well as in the modern “best sellers”.

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    CJ Myerly April 27, 2017 at 4:23 am #

    I love Les Miserables. In school, we never had required reading which irked me. Then we read Les Mis. I prefer lighter reads than the classics, but I can’t get enough of it.

    I hope to write great literature. For me, it’s more important to write a romantic novel that leads to Christ. I’ve read so many romance novels. There are some that stick long after I read. Sometimes even years. That’s what I want to write.

  3. Avatar
    Rebekah Dorris April 27, 2017 at 4:34 am #

    Since I suspect authors have to be dead before their works can be categorized as “great literature,” my favorite examples of great literature probably aren’t widely recognized as such.

    Certain works by Brock and Bodie Thoene like the A.D. Chronicles are a feast to the eye and palate, with turns of phrases so rich I frequently stop reading aloud to my husband and just gush over the language.

    Add to this the modern improvement of nail-biting plots and the timeless element of life-changing truth cloaked in story, and I believe these works deserve a place alongside the greats.

    No one should force feed fiction any more than they should force feed filet mignon. Still, I’ve been guilty of forcing their books into friends’ hands, so I can understand zealous teachers trying it. In the case of the Thoenes, I’ve heard their Zion books are required reading in certain Israeli college history classes because of their rich teaching of the miraculous return to the land in 1948.

    So at least I’m not alone!

    Finally, do I want to write great literature? I want to write like the Thoenes. Teach truth through gripping, historically accurate fiction. A girl can dream!

  4. Avatar
    Sarah Hamaker April 27, 2017 at 5:58 am #

    The problem is that kids don’t know good literature, much less great literature, unless they are confronted with it face-to-face. This starts in preschool with parents selecting age-appropriate books that are well-written (the original Little Golden Books are excellent examples of wonderful illustrations bolstered by good writing).

    Left to their own devices, kids will read the easiest books available–hello, anyone been to a Scholastic book fair and seen all the movie-TV-cartoon-toy tie-in books, which have extremely simple language plus no true story line.

    So it’s up to parents and educators to introduce, yes require, kids to read classic books with timeless themes. The goal isn’t to make kids love those books–in some cases, that’s nigh on impossible–but to open their eyes to what makes great writing, to tackle a wide variety of themes, to gain empathy and insight into cultures not our own, and to gain perspective and maturity.

    Do all books do all of those things? No, of course not. Do all classics accomplish those things? Again, no. But school is about laying a foundation for life, and in that, I’m all for mandated summer reading lists–it’s a practice we adults could do with too.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 7:43 am #

      A summer reading list for adults is a great idea! I think we’ve gotten some candidates of book selections through these comments.

      Good insights about what’s available in books today. I think parents gravitate to the tie-ins because they already trust the characters and companies. On the flip side, I have cousins with small children and I appreciate how they enjoy books that are a little different.

      I loved checking out hundreds of books at our library and reading them to the girls when they were small. I hope all parents will find the time to take advantage of the wide array of books in their local libraries.

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    Heidi Gaul April 27, 2017 at 6:45 am #

    I recently read Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and loved it. Beautifully written with a grand theme and complex characters, it deserved the Pulitzer and won it. Another book I loved and certainly lacking a happy ending is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Wow! Clean writing, perfect pacing. Sigh. It lives on inside most who read it, poignant and heart-rending.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 7:39 am #

      Thanks for the recommendations, Heidi. Both of these sound like deep, intriguing stories.

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    Angela Breidenbach April 27, 2017 at 7:10 am #

    I was taught to read at 4. By 3rd grade, I was sent to 4th grade for reading. By 6th grade, I was put in a special group to learn speed reading. There were maybe 6 kids in the entire school in that group. I still speed read… except great books. My favorites from 4th grade were Island of the Blue Dolphin and Black Beauty. During my preteens and teens, I read every Readers Digest I could get, Gone With The Wind, and devoured any book with a great story. Call of the Wild and Where the Redfern Grows (both series) also stand out.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 7:38 am #

      I read fast, too, and the books that make me slow down are the best, no matter what the category!

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 27, 2017 at 7:20 am #

    Forcing the classics on kids is, I think, a large part of why they get turned away from the joy of reading.

    Some are able to appreciate ‘Les Miserables’, ‘Wuthering Heights’, and the like, but most aren’t there even at the end of high school. I know I wasn’t. I loved to read, but I read stories that held relevance for my hopes.

    And then there was ‘In Cold Blood’, an assignment when I was fourteen. I loathed the book, and detested Capote. The book was all too readable, and Capote a gifted writer, but that reading experience took something away from my heart. And I never forgave the teacher who assigned it.

    Sometimes I suspect it’s an ego thing; teachers and administrators like to point to an advanced (and now politically correct) syllabus. They can brag on their best students, and feel , in their faculty lounges, the dark and bitter gleam of malice as they put down the students who don’t seem to ‘get it’. Students like me.

    I don’t really care if what I write becomes ‘classic’ or not. It’s out of my hands, so I don’t think about it.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 7:37 am #

      Oh, Andrew, I am so sorry you had such a terrible experience with some of your teachers. Sadly, every school seems to have one or two teachers who should have chosen a different profession.

      True crime is definitely not a genre for every reader. At least now you can read what you like!

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    JPC Allen April 27, 2017 at 7:39 am #

    “The Hobbit” is the only book I remember being required to read and actually liking. I was in seventh grade. I would rather write a book that’s read because it is liked rather than because it’s required.

    As a former children’s librarian, it’s important for kids to read what they like. Once they get in a habit of reading, an adult can suggest books slightly different from their favorites and slowly broaden their taste.

  9. Avatar
    Pat Lee April 27, 2017 at 7:41 am #

    I envy you.
    I don’t remember being required to read an entire book of anything while going to school. We always had collections as our texts, parts of books from which the teacher taught us the finer points of literature. When I entered college, I took two (not on purpose) literature classes back to back and was reading a book a week for each class. I never went anywhere without a book in my bag.

    When I homeschooled my children we read entire works. My son loved reading and basked in the literature we discovered together. He learned history reading historical fiction. His enrichment by reading has brought countless dividends in later life.

    Now I always have a book going. Jane Eyre is waiting her fourth time through. Can’t get enough story in me.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 8:00 am #

      I’m so glad you were able to discover reading books on your own and passing on that love! There’s nothing like reading a book written by an era’s contemporary to get a clear picture of the times.

      I enjoyed reading our literature books in school because they had such wonderful short stories.

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    Loretta Eidson April 27, 2017 at 7:43 am #

    Honestly, I cannot remember all the books I read during my school years. I do, however, remember racing to the school library to grab mystery books by Phyllis A. Whitney. Today, though the likelihood of me writing great literature is slim to none, I still think striving toward that goal makes for better everyday reading.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 8:02 am #

      Loretta, I just went on Amazon and found some of those books. I think I’ll check them out!

  11. Avatar
    Pamela Black April 27, 2017 at 7:48 am #

    Beloved by Toni Morrison is one of my all time favorites that I would consider a literary classic.

    It’s heart wrenching, however if it were required reading I think it would have the potential change the way the next generation understands racism.

    That’s what good literature should do in my opinion–change the reader at the heart level.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 8:04 am #

      Yes, and the real talent is putting the story itself over the issue. I tell my clients that if a book becomes the “adoption” book or the “abortion” book or the “domestic violence” book, then it’s probably dead in the water at a publishing house. In my opinion, you want the reader to become involved in the plot, then say at some point, “Wow, this writer is actually talking about (insert topic)” and that gives me a lot to think about!”

  12. Avatar
    Bruce Blizard April 27, 2017 at 8:02 am #

    The Grapes of Wrath or maybe The Lord of the Rings.

    But, as someone who spent 23 years teaching high school English, I can see a potential problem with the summer-reading scenario you described here. For young readers, difficult books require context. The books you were assigned are worthwhile, perhaps vital, but a young reader needs a leg up to decipher Melville or even Jane Austin.

    I used to tell my students that no author of an assigned book had the reaction of a 21st Century 10th grader in the back or her mind as she wrote. Without context – historical, biographical, or cultural – great books will often remain indecipherable, and a student’s only recourse (in self defense) is likely to be Cliffs Notes or Wikipedia.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 8:07 am #

      Bruce, you bring up an excellent point. It’s actually the ambitious student who’ll investigate on the internet!

      Regardless, the school does need to back up reading requirements with further education on the topics, history, and books themselves. We always discussed assigned books.

  13. Avatar
    Glenda April 27, 2017 at 8:34 am #

    I don’t know if Treblinka by Jean-Francois Steiner is considered a classic but my Sophmore English teacher recommended it.

    It’s “the inspiring story of the 600 Jews who revolted and burned a Nazi death camp to the ground.”

    Honestly, my only take away from that reading at the time: Fight to survive. But it’s exactly what I didn’t know I needed.

    I’m only now grateful all these years later to that man with a number tattooed on his arm.

    Going to BUY that book, now.

    Do I want to write a classic? It depends. (Ha! Steve Laube! 🙂 ) If a reader is moved by and remembers and refers my works, YES!

    Otherwise, another doorstop is not my goal for writing a book.

  14. Avatar
    Carol Ashby April 27, 2017 at 8:40 am #

    My college-age kids went to a Christian college prep school. They read many classics: The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, Of Mice and Men, The Pearl, To Kill a Mockingbird, Tale of Two Cities, The Grapes of Wrath. Some they liked; some they tolerated. They had to write a >12-page report on a literary figure: a biography and a review of some of the writer’s works. I’m glad they had that experience. Most of those books they would never have read on their own. Many had themes worth pondering as a teen learning to understand a fallen world.

    I don’t aspire to writing works that are classed as “great literature.” I don’t have to sell a hundred thousand copies to achieve what I call great success. I want to write novels that tell a gripping story, beautifully crafted, that encourages readers to consider their own relationship with God in a way that deepens it. Time will tell if I’m succeeding.

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    Jerusha Agen April 27, 2017 at 9:46 am #

    Thanks for this post, Tamela! It was amusing to hear of your experience with great classics as a youngster. I didn’t appreciate them much until in high school, and then only a select few.

    After graduating with an English degree, I was over-educated enough that I’d lost my taste for reading popular novels and stuck exclusively with classics for years (once I wanted to read again at all, which took a couple years. I can relate to the woes of forced reading!). Thanks to finally encountering a Christian fiction author whose writing I loved, I’m back to reading Christian fiction regularly (good thing since that’s what I write). 🙂

    But back to your question, my all-time favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird. I also loved War and Peace. I actually intensely disliked that monster for much of the reading until I reached a point where I found myself tearing up and realized I’d fallen in love with the characters and the story. My other favorites are most of Jane Austen’s novels. Unbeatable real romance and wit!

  16. Avatar
    Effie-Alean Gross April 27, 2017 at 10:25 am #

    Tamela, Great post! To answer your question, yes, I do want to touch hearts and minds. I’ve written PERSONAL LETTERS: GIFTS FROM THE HEART to do just that. Recently I released a promo video available on my website: http://www.EffieGross.com. I hope you and your blog followers will visit. So far, encouraging responses have come from an attorney, a congressman, a realtor, and many others as far away as Australia. I’m praying that an agent will find that the book will touch hearts, too. However, I must admit that MOBY DICK was one of my favorites!

  17. Avatar
    Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D April 27, 2017 at 10:29 am #

    Tamela, my favorite book of “great literature” is Bleak House by Charles Dickens. Part of the fun was trying to keep track of 74 main characters. I would love to write great literature myself. I would be happy with semi-great literature, for that matter.

    • Avatar
      Carol Ashby April 27, 2017 at 11:12 am #

      Kindred spirit, Sheri! I love Dickens. I read most of his when I was traveling a lot for work in the late 80’s. Great reads on a plane or in an airport and mostly long enough to last a whole trip so I only needed to pack one book. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 11:27 am #

      Another one I need to add to my growing list of revisits, Sheri!

  18. Avatar
    Janet Ann Collins April 27, 2017 at 10:42 am #

    As a bookaholic I read and enjoyed lots of classics as a kid. But today most of them couldn’t get published because they don’t start with the action, have lots of description and other things we’re told not to use in our own writing. Younger people today want everything immediately, but they don’t know what they’re missing.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray April 27, 2017 at 11:36 am #

      So true about how books have changed. I imagine today’s generation will age into wanting to read some of the longer stories in time.

  19. Avatar
    Edward Lane April 27, 2017 at 10:58 am #

    “The Sun Also Rises” is a classic I enjoy. One of Hemingwway’s critics called it a travel guide, but I love reading it. My top goal for the book I am proofreading is to introduce people to Christ.

  20. Avatar
    Amanda Wen April 27, 2017 at 11:23 am #

    Ha! I love how even Certified Book People sometimes struggle with the classics! The only “classic” I have on my shelf is Jane Eyre (and I have to confess, when I reread it, I skip her miserable childhood and go straight to the part where she meets Mr. Rochester!).

    As far as whether I want to write a “classic,” like one of the posters above, that’s out of my hands. However God chooses to use what I write is A-OK with me.

  21. Avatar
    Norma Brumbaugh April 27, 2017 at 12:42 pm #

    I grew up without reading the classics and without people encouraging me to read them. But I liked to read, hence I kept hearing their titles referred to by other writers. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to read some of the books you and others have mentioned. We lived in the mountains and life was slow and outside was snowbound, so I began to enjoy and absorb these great works. I enjoyed every one I read and felt more knowledgeable for the experience. It was great having a working knowledge and then affinity for the books and the authors’ writing styles. I think I’m an old soul at heart for I love the experience of slow plot formation and the copious dialogue found in many of them. Moby Dick, though, was a stretch, but I loved its opening line.

  22. Avatar
    Shannon Redmon April 27, 2017 at 5:56 pm #

    I think the ones I remember most from our reading list was Huckleberry Finn, Alice and the Wonderland, and the Scarlett Letter.

    I did not read Pride and Prejudice, but absolutely adore the movie adaptation with Keira Knightley. Have watched it too many times to tell.

    By the way, love this post! The paragraph about Les Miserable was so funny, I read it to my son. Hysterical!

  23. Avatar
    Laura April 27, 2017 at 8:33 pm #

    I have always adored the “classics” and continue to prefer them to many modern works. I have a nostalgic bent but also find the language, artistry, profundity of thought, theological wrestling, and pacing in a lot of the greats to be unmatched. Sitting down with Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby or The Song of the Lark is like savoring a superb meal composed of only the finest ingredients. Three of my absolute favorite classics are The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and almost anything by Willa Cather. Faulkner, in general, makes me feel like an ant. Having said all this, I was never force-fed the dead geniuses, and most of their works I read outside of school of my own volition. They were never a burden and always a treasure. I think it’s important that children be exposed to such writers because they are the foundation on which present writers stand, and so many of our best modern authors draw heavily from their works.

    As far as any ambition to write great literature, I would settle for writing something periodically beautiful and moving that points people to the Lord!

  24. Avatar
    L K Simonds April 28, 2017 at 1:36 pm #

    There are so many good novels, aren’t there? It’s fun to read about which stories spoke to different people. I’m with Jerusha Agen: My all time favorite is To Kill A Mockingbird, and it’s the book that made me want to write. The high point of my roller-coaster experience with self-publishing years ago was finding a handwritten thank you note from Harper Lee in my mailbox one autumn afternoon. I had sent her a copy of my novel, thanking her for “setting the bar we still aspire to.” I keep the note in a copy of Mockingbird given to me by a dear friend, a Boo Radley kind of friend. The book and the note feel like sunshine every time I see them.

  25. Avatar
    Elizabeth Sadler April 29, 2017 at 11:09 am #

    Les Miserables is actually one of my all-time favorites, haha. But I did read it on my own in 9th grade. I was so enamored with the musical, I decided to read the book, and have read it a couple of more times since then. Nearly all of my favorite books are classics–The Three Musketeers, Le Morte D’Arthur, Jane Eyre, Paradise Lost, 1984, etc. But I like some more recent ones, too.

    I never resented being “made” to read in school. That said, I read almost nothing for American literature. I just couldn’t bring myself to finish any of it. I’m pretty sure I’d rather sear my eyeballs with a branding iron than read one more word of John Steinbeck. But give me the British classics, and I’m in heaven!

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