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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Question of Classic Literature

Who decides just what classics are? In high school, we’re told to read novels such as Moby Dick, Pride and Prejudice, and the verbose and dull Portrait of A Lady, by Henry James. Emphasis is put on a strong background in classic literature because, supposedly, itwill round out our personalities and turn us into mature students. However, the doctrine comes into question when the senior class decides that, yes, it is a good idea to release lots of mice into the hallways of your local high school or decides to remove the American flag in favor of the old pirate standard, the Jolly Roger.

These classics are not found to be all that interesting and, if anything, they turn a majority of students off reading for pleasure immediately. Not all of the required reading is dull; generally, students can relate to or at least understand novels such as 1984 or Catch-22, even if the historical references occasionally go over their heads.

Yet, my question is, what makes a novel a classic? Commercially popular series such as Christopher Pike’s Goosebumps and Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley High prove that just because a novel leads to a plethora of royalties for the writer doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be remembered by history. Supposedly the great novel, Deliverance was written by a frustrated James Dickey, who’d found it nearly impossible to support his family on poetry alone. It was pitched to me as a struggle of one man against the evils of his fellow man and a primal desire to survive in the wild. Apparently, it didn’t just glorify murder, violence, and machismo.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy the odd junk novel every now and then. I’ve read my fair share of Danielle Steel and Stephen King, but I recognize them for what they are: entertainment. I doubt they were written with the intent of making any sort of statement or impact that would echo in the minds of generations of readers to come. Sometimes, a good story is what it is. It doesn’t need to have any amount of esoteric meaning read into it.

I would pit contemporary writers like Arturo Perez-Reverte and Isabelle Allende or novels such as The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay against William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. These modern masters are more than capable of holding their own, and even though they haven’t been dead for a century or more, they are still capable of creating an artfully written work that speaks just as loudly as that of any of those who have gone before.

In spite of that, credit must be given to the undeniable genius of writers like William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe. Both had a command of language that is nearly unheard of today. Shakespeare’s works have yet to find an audience they cannot reach with his witty, elegant, and often, ambiguous prose, while Poe can turn a phrase that is capable of echoing within even the darkest confines of the human soul.

I don’t want to replace these legends or elevate novelists like Harold Robbins to the same level, but I also don’t want to see contemporary talent appreciated only when it has been rediscovered after several decades of neglect. It’s difficult to know what stories are worth rereading and which should be donated to the library for someone else to enjoy.

Literature is largely a matter of opinion. Sometimes, it is the silliest stories, such as children’s books, that may make the greatest impressions. It is bad to forget the foundations that were laid for the fiction or non-fiction authors we love today, but it’s even worse to overlook the talent that surrounds you. The age and prestige of the novel or writer shouldn’t be the only reason to flip through a book. In other words, don’t judge a book by its cover.

About the Contributor
MiMi Yeh served as arts editor for The Mass Media the following years: 2001-2002; *2002-2003; 2003-2004 *Evan Sicuranza served as arts editor for Fall 2002 Disclaimer: Years served is based on online database and may not detail entire service.