People Don’t Read Classics; They Only Talk About Them

Ella askes an important question: “If you want to be a good writer, do you need to read the classics?” She believes her writing has improved after having read great literature for the past few years, but she wonders if it is necessary. Should the average writer read the classics in order to mature or are there other options, this one being simply the road less traveled? I think the would-be good writer should read the classics and study some of them too. But now that I’m thinking about it, “good writing” is a fairly relative term, isn’t it? We have to define what we mean by “good writing” before we can decide how to accomplish it.

For more writing advice, Mark Bertrand suggests spending time singing, painting, photographing, or other creative, non-writing enjoyments as a way to enhance your creative writing. I guess blogging doesn’t count, does it.

7 thoughts on “People Don’t Read Classics; They Only Talk About Them”

  1. Phil, you’re right, my post was definately lacking in any definition of ‘good writing’. It’s an interesting question: I can’t really put my finger on what, specifically, makes some books speak to me while others have no effect at all. I’ve definately read some classics that made little of no impression (Dostoyevski comes to mind) and some modern genre fiction (Laurie R King and Isaac Asimov) that I thought was excellent.

    The best point made in the comments on that post was to read lots of whatever you like. And get lots of practice writing. Thanks for more food for thought!

  2. We have to define what we mean by “good writing” before we can decide how to accomplish it.

    Don’t be too sure. I wonder if it might simply be a prejudice of the Western mentality that we must define things in order to understand them. In a course I took not long ago, it was asserted that in the Hebrew Scriptures things are described rather than defined.

    I think that reading of Classic literature is a must for writers and for non-writers as well, for reasons that CS Lewis explains well in his essay On the Reading of Old Books. “Classics” are classics because they’ve stood the test of time, and we learn to recognize what’s good by reading it, like bankers learning to recognize counterfeit money by handling large amounts of the real stuff.

    I’m thankful there’s lots of classic literature around, as we’re certainly not going to enjoy all of it. For example, I don’t doubt that Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” is a “classic” or that profound things are said in it, but when I saw it performed at college I found it extremely tedious. A group of grumpy people sitting in a room. Talking. For hours. But I have no quarrel with those of you who may count it among your favorites.

    It would seem that a balance of activities would help writing, and to live the things you’re writing about.

    I would think that blogging would be good practice. It certainly gives you a clue as to what readers are going to react to (sometimes one can be taken by surprise by a huge reaction to something that seemed like a minor detail in one’s post, or by utter silence at a post that seemed provocative during its writing).

  3. Michael, you may be right about definitions and descriptions, but it doesn’t rule out the definitions, does it? Should we rule out Ella’s question all together?

    As I was writing about literature and good writing, I thought that we argue over what’s good, what isn’t, and further what’s best among what’s obviously good. As you said, classics have had time for the grass to grow under their feet, but what about current writing? How can we tell a writer he is good, even great, with more substance than that his story moved us?

    Good writing is composed of strong subjects/themes, word choice, clarity, artistic honesty, and a few vagaries. I should say more, but I’m not a good writer.

  4. Good point, & good question. Definitions are a good thing and definitely have their place. We just don’t always need them to gain understanding. As for how we tell if current writing is good, I sure don’t have the whole answer, or even a very big part of it. Sometimes it’s manifestly obvious immediately, sometimes it takes awhile to tell.

  5. Well, C. S. Lewis wrote to a young creative writer that she should read good books especially if she was a fan of popular magazine writing. (That’s very much a paraphrase of what he said.)

    For myself, I would say that some writers definitely would gain by reading classic works. That might not be true for all writers. There may be some who just have a sense of the possibilities of language, who have had rich, suggestive experience upon which to draw, who intuitively know how to reach their audience with words and imagery that will move them – – without having to immerse themselves in others’ writings. But I don’t know that there are many such creative writers other than Homer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.