I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Five Most Overrated Classics (and Five that Deserve the Label)

On my Dragon Prophet blog, I've been chronically my reading for 2013, when I was trying to focus on reading classic novels that I'd somehow managed to skip in my reading to date. Some of these books left me stunned by how wonderful they were, the sort of books I wanted to run out and immediately start telling my friends about. But, because human nature is perverse, the books I usually wound up telling my friends about were the truly wretched ones, the books that turned out to be tedious, pointless slogs. In the end, I read 36 classics. Here are the five best, and five worst:

The Five Classics I read this year that I loved the most:

The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells--An absolutely stunning book that explores man's relationship with God and tries to fix the line between what is human and what is beast, and just how thin that line may be. Beautiful writing, fascinating characters.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte--Of the romances I read this year, this one was my clear favorite. Jane has dignity and self sufficiency. She has to support herself, and has goals beyond just getting married. In contrast to, say, Pride and Prejudice, the obstacles to her happiness are genuine and not trivial. The lovers in Pride and Prejudice are kept apart by misunderstandings and class barriers that didn't resonate with me. The man Jane loves, on the other hand, is already married and hiding his deranged murderous spouse in the attic! That, my friends, is a barrier to romance. Alas, the book does fall apart a bit near the end, when the Jane's fortunes improve mostly through strokes of good luck instead of actions that she takes. Still, for truly deep, complicated characters, this book is hard to beat.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey--Holy moly! The language of this book is lyrical and evocative, written from a distorted point of view that misunderstands reality in a way that illuminates it. The plot and pacing are terrific, there's several characters you wind up caring for, and there are thought provoking explorations of how far society will let you go as an individual before you enter the zone of crazy. The one flaw is cringe-inducing misogyny. Every female in the book is a castrating bitch or a saintly whore, and the female antagonist is finally "put in her place" by a sexual assault. That said... wow!

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut--Daring story structure, writing that is both plain and simple and poetic and surreal. A must read for those who think of WWII as the "good war." A beautiful tragedy.

Catch-22, Joseph Heller--Yeah, another WWII novel. Easily the funniest book I read this year, built around the most agonizing tragedy you can imagine. The way the story keeps building up layer after layer, from a dozen different character's perspectives, is a real high-wire act that leaves me amazed at how well it's pulled off.

Speaking of classics that left me amazed...

The Five Classics that I can't believe are considered classics:

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson--A good premise smothered by the author doing everything in his power not to actually show us much of Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. Stuffy writing, the barest imaginable plot, made all the more bewildering since Treasure Island by the same author is such an wonderful, fast paced, tightly written book.

Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne--Oh god, I can't believe I slogged all the way through this boring pile of words. The most shallow characters you can imagine, for no particular reason other than "just because," decide to go wander around in a really big cave. Lots and lots and lots of pages of characters looking at rocks. And, while I'm forgiving of outdated science in older SF, even when this book was written the whole notion that there were forests in the center of the earth had to be built around pure wishful thinking rather than any sort of evidence. The book's one virtue: It kept 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea off this list!

Dracula, Bram Stoker--This book is still famous today based on four or five awesome chapters at the beginning of the book, really some of the best horror ever written. And then... it feels like a different writer steps in to crank out the rest of the book. The hunt for the vampire is mostly a committee meeting. Seriously, there are chapters--chapters!--devoted to Mina typing up and organizing notes. Every time Van Helsing spoke, my eyes glazed over. And, the final climax is just about as anticlimactic as it could possibly be. Still, the first few chapters almost kept it off the list.

Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift--I admit, there's some funny stuff in here about the absurdity of how humans organize their societies. But, reaching the ten funny paragraphs requires wading through chapter after chapter of Swift bleeding his premises completely dry. We get it, Jon! These guys are really small! Or big! The real weakness of the book is that it's utterly plotless. It's just a record of weird stuff that just happens due to good luck or bad luck. And Gulliver himself is a complete non-entity, devoid of personality or goals, just a tourist in his own life.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac--Probably my most controversial pick on this list, since it's influenced so many writers. But it suffers from the same flaws as Gulliver's Travels. There's no plot, and the characters are all surface. Sal Moriarty is supposedly a fascinating, well drawn character, but, Jesus, if you met this guy in real life, you wouldn't want to spend five minutes in his company. He's a deadbeat who impregnates women and abandons them and tries to distract you from all the damage he's causing by talking about the beauty and mystery of life. I liked this book when I read it years ago, but, now I know children abandoned by their fathers, I know people who consider themselves too concerned with the life of the mind to be bothered with holding down a job, and I have no patience for a book that tries so hard to explain why such behavior is beautiful.

If someone wants to make a case for any of these five books, I'd love to hear what you found good about them. I know tastes vary, and my own prejudices can sometimes blind me to the charm of art that other people adore.


Samantha Bryant said...

Dr. J and Mr. H gets all its press, I think, from what other writers and producers have done with it since. It's a wonderful premise. But, I agree, that it's one of the dullest things I've ever read.

James Maxey said...

Yeah. I found that a lot of the classics that have been most heavily adapted were those that had an interesting premise but failed somehow in execution. I guess people feel like it's within their power to retell Dr. Jekyll better than the original version. When I read Dracula, I found myself wanting to rewrite the story the way I thought it should be told, since there is so much potential there. I didn't feel that way about Journey to the Center of the Earth, though. Man, that book just sucked.

Mr. Cavin said...

I'm not sure how I feel about the idea that we really get anything out of approaching these works with fresh, millennial eyes. I mean, these books didn't achieve their popularity, or maintain their spotlight, by being only what we've grown to accept as a modern novel. Our modern ideas of narrative momentum--beginning middle end, emotional arcs, and three-act structures--don't at all jibe with how these novels you're ranking were originally constructed to be. I feel like this is a much larger issue for some readers than others.

Maybe the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde feels a little musty and dry after years of having its colorful transgression moved to the front of, and blown out of proportion to, the slight psycho-thriller it was initially supposed to be? Fans of the day might have turned that last page to be shocked by a completely unexpected ending. But we learned that ending first, it's in a dozen Warner Bros. cartoons, no longer a twist or a spoiler but the whole conceit of the story to us. How can going back and reading the original not be a total letdown now?

Or in the case of Journey to the Center of the Earth: Here is a book written an a picaresque style that mirrors the popular chapter books of the time, pulp fiction that that already proved accessible to a robust market. Who had the time to read more than five pages per sitting? There is also something to say about the fact that it may come across more gracefully written if you were to read it in French. Looking over the Wikipedia entry I see that many early (and therefor public domain) versions of the translation were heavily abridged and rewritten. In any event they were probably not the tippy-top of the iceberg when it comes to clever translation--before 1900, it's hard to believe the same scholars Anglicizing Dumas and Hugo would have been putting pen to paper on Verne.

Anyway, just some ideas. This modern reader likes meandering Gothic-type novels, has no trouble wading through ninety-five chapter urban crime thrillers cobbled together from a decade of Penny Dreadfuls, or even comedies of manner that describe the first-world problems of a gaggle of upper middle-class social hopefuls in changing times. I also like paleo-futurism, am interested in orientalism, and really dig what might've started out as science-minded fiction and has become magic voodoo nonsense in the intervening years. I don’t really like to make lists of my own. But about yours: (see next comment)

Mr. Cavin said...

(continued from above)

Dr. Moreau is my favorite book in this list. I tend to like all Wells, actually. I find his a really energetic and fun writer to read, full of interesting ideas and social observations. I like Conan Doyle, too, by the way.

Shit, I like all the Brontë sisters books I’ve ever read. Still a bunch I haven’t read, though. I like Jane Eyre, but I like Wuthering Heights even better--and if I remember correctly, you didn’t like it all that much. I’m planning on giving Charlotte, Anne, and Emily another spin this year sometime--it’s been far too long.

Cuckoo’s Nest: I haven’t read it. But is it fair to ding a book, characterized by the artistic unreliability and schizophrenia of its narrator, as being misogynist? Wouldn’t that just be another uncomfortable character trait?

Vonnegut and Heller: yes and yes. Man I especially love Catch 22 (the movie version’s good too, but got so overshadowed by the genius of M*A*S*H that it was received poorly at the time and never reclaimed the appreciation it seems owed).

I like both Jekyll and Hyde and Center of the Earth a more than you do, though I’ll admit to never planning on reading the Stevenson again (and you should probably not even bother with Kidnapped). I, too, like Treasure Island a lot, and felt a little set-up when J&H was neither adventuresome, lively, or particularly interesting. I dig all Verne, but I am wired that way. We do agree that 20,000 Leagues is better than this one, but I still like it a ton better than you do.

I like more of Dracula than you do, too. I think it’s excellent right up till Lucy dies and Jonathon Harker is discovered alive, if not well. That’s about halfway. After this point, though, the book goes really bad really quick--even for someone as patient as I am.

I also found the experience of reading Gulliver’s Travels a bit of a slog. I think this one is a prime example of a book that should be read chapter at a time with a week of other reading in between. The problem with reading satire several hundred years later is that much of it has been rendered meaningless. Even when you understand the context, there is no genuine way to connection it with experience in any way that makes it matter. I have little patience with even the satire of today, actually. It’s usually so rooted in one particular culture and social issue that it doesn’t travel or date very well. So when I read Gulliver’s Travels, I think I did so in what I imagine is the easiest way for modern consumers to mine that book for something useful: I looked at it like it was a fantasy adventure fable--à la Baron Munchhausen or the One Thousand and One Nights--and then spend the book fighting the urge to feel defeated when there is very little in the way of action.

James Maxey said...

I try to be account for the different literary conventions of the era the books were written in. So, for instance, it's a pretty common trick of older novels to present themselves as a true narrative of someone telling the story of some extraordinary person or event they witnessed. Both Island of Dr. Moreau and Jekyll and Hyde are stories told through framing characters, so that we experience the title characters only at a distance, through the filter of a narrator whose only purpose in the novel is to provide us information about someone far more interesting than themselves. But, Moreau proves that there's nothing wrong with this device. It's a brilliant, well executed, thoroughly engaging book. The same device in J&H just didn't work. I think the key is, Wells used the device to reveal something interesting at an intriguing pace, while Stevenson used the trick to hide the one interesting thing about his book from the reader for as long as he possibly could. Once you have the big reveal in J&H, that's pretty much all the story there can be. With Moreau, once you learn the truth of what's going on, the story only picks up momentum.

As for Cuckoo's Nest, the narrator isn't a misogynist. He's just telling the story of another patient (yet another framing narrator), and he's unreliable in interpreting events, but pretty faithful, I think, in reporting them. There aren't a lot of female characters, but those who do appear are usually shrill and emasculating, or else wild, fun women who's primary purpose in life is to make sure men have all the sex they can possibly handle. If there was even one female of any real substance in the book who broke from these roles, I'd assume that the author was making a social commentary on the way men think about women. There is one good nurse who doesn't fit the pattern, but she shows up late in the book and has, at most, a half dozen paragraphs, so I don't know that she counts as a counter argument.

I still like having characters I can root for, which is why I preferred Jane Eyre to Wuthering Heights. While I didn't love the second book, I never really gave any consideration to giving it one of my five "overrated" spots. It was a powerful book with complicated characters and passages of stirring writing. The only thing I didn't like was every last character in it! I'm having a bit of the same problem at the moment with Lolita. Wonderfully written, reasonably well paced, and at times suspenseful, but I'm having difficulty figuring out if Nabokov has a larger point beyond, "Hey, my narrator is a horrible person!" I'm hoping for something near the end that provides meaning to it all. For instance, I though I hated Tarzan of the Apes until the very last page, when I suddenly discovered that the book really deserved it's spot in literary history. It's amazing how a perfect final sentence can change my opinion of the whole book.