Friday, July 29, 2016
What Makes a Book "A Classic"? And Are Critics Wrong?
Just recently, I finished reading Under the Volcano, which the Modern Library calls the 11th best novel out of 100. But here's the thing. When I say "reading," I'm taking huge liberties with the word since I really just finished skimming the book. That's not to say that I didn't give it an earnest effort. I sat and really tried to pick apart the book and take my time for the first 100 pages. But after that, when I realized that not much was going on at all (on the surface) and that the plot could really be summed up in a single sentence--A drunkard drinks a lot, finds a dead body, and then, bad stuff happens--I kind of found myself skimming whole chapters and then looking up on wikipedia to make sure that I got all the key details from each chapter, which I had.
So, why is this a classic? Well, most would say that it's the prose itself that makes the book so noteworthy, or that it has all these crazy references to other classic books that makes it such an enjoyable read (It's like the Paul's Boutique of novels).
But whatever the reason, I just couldn't get into it. There are whole chapters that are just inner monologues that really felt like they were going nowhere, and it just wasn't an enjoyable book in any way. The same goes for Lolita, which is number 4 on their list.
While I made a real effort to finish Under the Volcano, I honestly couldn't get even remotely close to finishing Lolita, which was just too boring for words. (I'm not too big on the Kubrick movie, either, so maybe I just don't dig the story). But that's what makes the list so weird. You have books like those, which are undoubtedly the stick your nose in the air kind of titles, and then you have genuinely interesting, plot-driven books like Slaughterhouse-Five, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and Brave New World (Which is actually quite high at number five). So what's going on here?
One might say, well, duh, books are beloved for different reasons, and I get that. But how do you have such artsy-fartsy books like Under the Volcano and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and then have a book like Slaughterhouse-Five, which has a subplot involving a man's beliefs in a planet called Tralfamadore? More importantly, do the critics really know or have a say in what can even be considered one of the "best books" in modern literature?
And what's really interesting to note is that if you look at what everyday readers consider the best modern novels, they have a whole bunch of wacky L. Ron Hubbard books, as well as that nut, Ayn Rand, and her objectivism. Atlas Shrugged, it should be noted, isn't even ON the top 100 list of the modern library. Neither is anything by sci-fi writers, even though many would consider Foundation by Asimov a classic. Or does genre writing not count at all when considering the "best" modern books?
That's why I believe that it isn't really much to put stock in either the critics or what general readers would consider great literature. Personally, my favorite book is A Confederacy of Dunces. I don't think it's great because of the writing, which I actually thought was kind of so-so. It's because I honestly couldn't stop laughing at certain moments, and I just really loved the characters. Especially Ignatius, who is my favorite character that I've ever read (Oscar Wao is a close second). I like it because I think really fat, obnoxious people are funny, and I can understand if others don't enjoy a story that could follow such a ridiculous human being, but then again, I'm not calling it the "best" book, which I think is too grandiose a word when considering what a book sets out to be in the first place. But then again, people like to point out how intelligent they are, so books like Ulysses, or movies like Citizen Kane, act as the sort of cornerstone for pedantic people. I don't know. Either way, don't read Under the Volcano if you're looking for an enjoyable book. It may be considered one of the best modern novels, but man is it boring. But that's just one ardent reader's opinion.