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Friday, May 3, 2019

Should I/Must I Read the Classics? (Mailbox)

Must I read old-timey classics?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. I am pleased to announce I am only like two years behind in answering most people's questions.] 

Judith asks:  

I grew up French Canadian and only been using (speaking, reading, writing, even thinking) [English] since 2014, give or take. So 5 years at this point. I was told in one of my writing group[s] that I "had so much to learn from old-timey classic" and probably couldn't pretend to call myself a writer if I had never read them. My only experience reading classics was in college (and in French) and I couldn't understand half of it. I can't imagine doing this in my second language (even if it is the one I use the most nowaday). I mostly (read 'only') write and read fiction anyway, so it doesn't seem relevant to me?

What's your take on it?

My reply:

I'm going out on a limb here and guess that you left out the word that I put in bold and brackets in your question. I suppose by this math, it might also possible that you are eight or nine and English IS your first language, but that seems far less likely––especially imagining you in a writing group with other pre-teens, one of which happens to be a total snob. If so, I'm sorry you're inheriting such a fucked up world from my generation, but if we can fix the climate change thing, you'll probably live twice as long as I will and see humanity take to the stars, so that's pretty cool.

Oh and tell that other kid to go watch some fucking Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Cat Noir, and loosen up.

Buuuuuuuuut assuming that you're talking about full fluency in a second language (congrats by the way, that shit is double tough and the English refusal to settle on just one root language makes it one of the harder ones, so triple tough), it definitely changes the landscape. I'm also going to assume that we're talking about your ability to write in English.

Let's break this down before I give you a straight up or down answer because I'm nothing if not overwordy. Besides, I can shoehorn a LOT more shitty jokes into a nuanced answer.

Should you read shit you can't even read?

So the question on the table, as is, seems to be should you read books that are so hard that you can't even understand them.

Hang on. I have to look incredulously at the camera for this one.

Ahhhh. There we go.

That's a big negatory, Judith.

I'm not talking about quiet discomfort during reading something difficult or a book that makes you look up a word or three each page, but if you can't even follow what's going on, that's not really reading. That is basically translating (even if you're being good and only doing English to English you are essentially translating hard English into everyday English), and translating happens in a whole different part of your brain. It's the reason we don't give 1st graders (or people first learning to read) a copy of Infinite Jest, and just tell them "Hey, but by the time you finish, you'll be amazeballs." Because that's not how any of this works.

There are a lot of classics that are easy to read. Harper Lee, Steinbeck, Orwell, Hemingway, Carver. Even Vonnegut is pretty readable. And while you will definitely hit linguistic shift as you go further back, if you take it one step at a time, rather than just diving into Cymbeline, you should be okay.

Is this relevant if you only read/write fiction?

*record scratching noise*

I'm trying to decide whether it's weirder that you think there's no old-timey classic fiction or your friend thinks you should be reading old-timey NON-fiction if you want to be considered a "real writer." Like, both those things are equally dismissive of CLASSIC FICTION. Did I misread this?

I'm not saying that it wouldn't be valuable to read the source material of someone like Locke or Smith or even seeing what the ACTUAL parable of the cave reads like (although translations have their own sort of artistry and licence in that tension between readable and precise). Reading some of the great thinkers of human civilization is kinda cool. But that stuff is pretty dry. Like imagine eating a tasteless cracker...but without having a glass of water nearby. And the cracker is stale. And there's a stack of them.

Like, really dry.

If you're mostly wanting to write fiction, you should probably mostly read fiction (although with the caveat that you should never exclusively read what you want to write in, just because of how refreshing and useful it can be to sometimes break out of that modality). Just like if you want to publish meaningful philosophical thought, you should probably mostly read philosophy and philosophers or if you want to...well, you get the idea.

However....just so we're clear. There are a bucket load of "old-timey classic" works that are FICTION. From The Epic of Gilgamesh to Utopia all the way through history and up to Alice Walker or J.D. Salinger, all are considered "classics."

Should you read old-timey classics?

So let's get my bias out of the way. I'm an anglophone. I'm an English major. I'm a voracious reader. I have OPINIONS on classic literature and classic authors. It's one of the few subjects you can bring up at a party and I will come out from the corner where I'm petting the cat and stand on a table and bloviate for hours. Not all of my opinions on classic literature are complimentary. Some of them are downright "Fuck all these dead white guys!" in timbre. But most of them recognize a high quality of prose in that writing which has been canonized and all of them acknowledge that to understand the literary tradition in which one is attempting to add something, it is extremely helpful to have been exposed to it. Some of these works have kicked off entire literary movements.

And they echo into today. If you haven't read Beowulf, you might not understand what Tolkien is doing with elves (because they are seriously removed from the fae traditions of Great Britain). If you haven't read Le Morte d'Arthur, you probably are missing a lot of references and thematic explorations in Babylon 5. If you've never read Hamlet, The Lion King is probably no deeper than a kid's movie. Arguably this is more than just the party trick of being able to show that House M.D. is modern medical Sherlock Holmes. It opens up new dimensions of appreciation and comprehension of popular culture. Everything from Faulkner's influence in A Song of Ice and Fire to the Victorian literary themes in the Twilight Saga to the romantic tradition of knight errant tracing a line through gothic literature to land squarely as (....drumroll) the modern day detective all add dimensions and layers to the appreciation and understanding of fiction.

Should you read these books? You should. These are good books. These are not shitty third drafts rushed to print because they're cash cows. (Dickens maybe.) Once in a while it's really good to take a pass through something classic. It's good for you as a writer, as a reader, and if you want my nerdy English major opinion, as a person. Our ability to have compassion lives in these vivid portrayals of other people and other times. These days, we can't really write the same way these old-timey authors did if we want to sell/be published/be taken seriously, but they were SO good at crafting a sentence or finding the perfect word. Drinking from that well once in a while and letting it influence us is probably really good for a writer.

I agreed with your colleague when he said there's so much to learn. The great writers of the past basically have private tutoring sessions on tap for anyone who knows how to listen.

Must you in order to 'pretend to call yourself a writer'?

Fuck that guy. Fuck him right in the ear.

I agreed with your colleague right up until he turned into an elitist ass-strudel and conveyed that you probably shouldn't pretend to call yourself a writer if you'd never read them. That's when, in my mind's eye, I began to imagine him as very Harold-Bloom-shaped and hanging off a cliff over some crocodiles.

"Do you hear something? Someone calling for help?  No? Pass me the Grey Poupon, would you?"

Do you know what you have to do in order to "call yourself a writer"? (This is not a trick question, by the way.) You have to write. That's it. That's the end of the list. Now if you want to publish, get some fans, make a bunch of money, improve your writing, or be excellent, there's some nuance. You should read. You should read a LOT. You should probably read a ton of what you want to write, but also some other genres and stuff just to mix it up. And you could definitely do worse than an occasional classic lit book thrown onto the ol' To-Be-Read pile once in a while, but you don't HAVE to do any of that shit to "call yourself a writer." That guy's just being a supercilious fucktrumpet, and you have my permission to laugh at his pompous shartbagle face if he pulls that again.

Tons of writers don't read classic lit. They still read a LOT (because that's how you get the tools to be a good writer) but they don't read fucking Byron or Chaucer. They are grounded in a more modern tradition––particularly one that emphasizes a new diaspora of voices.

You, Judith, have an even more exciting opportunity. You can bring a French tradition into your writing. I mean you're going to do it unconsciously because you were raised on French stories and French kids books and French linguistic/cultural influences. But you can also do it explicitly the way a lot of Latinx writers talk candidly of their cultures, infuse their English writing with words and phrases from Spanish, and explore the varied cultural themes that have come to them from the Spanish-speaking side of their lived experiences.


I danced around this above, but I'm going to come out and say it explicitly. The English speaking world has a literary tradition that is racist and sexist as fuck, and that shit hasn't gone away because we're all living in some enlightened period of enlightenment now (*cough*). Really, really, really good writing exists from today and modernity and even from "old-timey classics" eras, writing that has not been canonized, chiefly because it is from voices that are marginalized in our society. I think many of them are technically recognized in official long-as-your-leg canon lists (yes, even of Harold Fucking Bloom), but they are not the titles taught in high school or usually even college (outside of a niche class or somewhat subversive professor), and they are rarely what lit snobs are thinking of when they tell you to read a classic.

However, these are also GOOD writers. These are also tutors across time. These are also authors who have something worth saying. But we don't live in a world that is willing to give up one of six books by Faulkner to read Jean Toomer or Luther Standing Bear. We won't edge Hemingway off a few academic lists to make room for Rabindranath Tagore, Lu Xun, or Ralph Ellison. Academia and lit sommeliers are still in the phase of, "I'm not racist, but all the writers I can't bear to take off the curriculum to make room for anyone else happen to be dead white guys."

So even if you were to go read some old books, you don't have to read the old books "they" say are classics. In fact, you might be better for it if you took them with a grain of salt and "diversified the ol' literary portfolio."


  1. Here here. I love the way you build up the points to lead us to this "well hell yeh" feeling at the end.

  2. Faulkner and Joyce are not your first choices, my friend.

  3. To that short list of early to mid twentieth century classic authors whose works are easy and enjoyable to read, I would add just one from the nineteenth century: Mark Twain.

  4. Most of my favorite classics are translations originally written in French, Russian, or Spanish, with some American and English ones that I know for a fact have versions translated for lots of languages. That's the thing about classics. They're world renowned. And I agree with everything Chris says here. You should read the ones that interest you or you'll be cheating yourself, but not to impress butt trumpet over there. Lol

  5. I'm so touched that you included Lu Xun! (I'm Chinese). Yeah, some of my favorite authors are white (Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot), and they do write well. But there is certainly a dearth of literature from non-white, non-cishet authors. (Though I've heard that Oscar Wilde and Ralph Waldo Emerson are bi. ��) About niche classes, I was also an English major, and took a class on African American literature. Raisin in the Sun was written by a black lesbian author (Lorraine Hansberry), which was a breath of fresh air in terms of racial and sexual diversity!