We read to escape our daily lives; we read to gain an understanding of life. Since the development of writing more than five millennia ago, many talented storytellers have composed stories that fulfill both of these divergent needs. Theirs are classic works of fiction.
Take Homer’s Odyssey, composed in the 8th century B.C. and still the exemplar for adventure stories. On his way home from war, the hero has to battle the elements and supernatural forces for ten years before reuniting with his family, vanquishing all villains, and finally appeasing the mighty gods. With each translation, Homer’s epic enthralls another generation of audiences. It embodies all the traits of a classic work of fiction: human interest, timeless appeal, and carefully crafted prose.
Fiction writers portray situations that recur due to our human nature: love, loss, betrayal, war. Their stories become classics when the characters’ experience strikes a universal chord, no matter how foreign the situation. So, like Lucy Honeychurch, we, too, would prefer a room with a view on our travels. We may never have rafted up the Mississippi or escaped inhuman treatment, but, like Huck and Jim, we have wondered whom to trust as we navigated through our lives. Similarly, it’s through our sense of dignity that we identify with Okonkwo, the tribal leader in Things Fall Apart, who rages against subjugation.
Even in fantastic or supernatural settings, classic stories explore familiar human strengths and weaknesses. The alienation of Gregor Samsa reveals a recognizable family dynamic; never mind how he was transformed into a grotesque bug. The citizens of Middle Earth – wizard or halfling, elf or dwarf – can all be corrupted by power and redeemed by fellowship, like humans. Likewise Frankenstein’s terrorizing “creature.” Classic fiction shows us that, good or bad, what makes us human makes for great stories.
Some stories endure because it’s their specific settings that fascinate us. In the 11th century, Murasaki Shikibu, a lady-in-waiting to the empress of Japan, fictionalized life behind the scenes of the imperial court in The Tale of Genji, the first novel ever written. Such works transcend their original language while retaining their historical contexts, capturing our imaginations of bygone societies. As their readership grows and language evolves, the stories are retold again and again, and they never get old. Just recently, Thomas Malory’s 15th-century epic of the Knights of the Round Table was brought up to date by Peter Ackroyd in The Death of King Arthur. The courts and customs of knights and ladies are long gone, but their power plays, their dangerous liaisons, even their speech and attire – the appeal of these abides.
So what’s the write-by date of a classic? Poet and Columbia professor Mark Van Doren reportedly defined classics as books that stay in print. For publishers such as Penguin Books, those published in the past century are “modern classics,” and their list is continually updated. These include The Call of the Wild (1903), Lord of the Flies (1954), and The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) – stories that have provoked thought for decades and may well do so for decades more. As Italo Calvino put it, a classic work “has never finished saying what it has to say”; it keeps enticing readers to enter the world imagined by its author and discover its story for themselves.
What a classic story says to every reader, it says in carefully composed words. The Great Gatsby, which Fitzgerald himself called “a consciously artistic achievement,” took three years of writing and revising. Les Misérables took seventeen. Not that great books all take that much time – Austen wrote Persuasion within a year; Alan Paton completed Cry, the Beloved Country in three months. Whatever the process, the finished work must speak to readers universally, and to each reader particularly. This is no mean feat for any writer.
The first words might invite – like “Call me Ishmael” – or they might dare us to read on, as Celie does in The Color Purple: “You better not never tell nobody but God.” Conan Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes a memorable line: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Virginia Woolf, who reveled in words, always penned exquisite prose: “The day changed … into evening, and with the same sigh of exhilaration that a woman breathes, tumbling petticoats on the floor, it too shed dust, heat, colour …”
By the time we arrive at the final words of a classic, we might feel as ready as reluctant to close the book. We can only hope the author has more to come, as Dostoyevsky suggests at the end of Crime and Punishment: “That might be the subject of a new story, but our present story is ended.”