Monday, August 27, 2012

When Writers Reread the Classics...

When I first read The Scarlet Letter by Nathanial Hawthorne in high school, I thought the book was amazing. The characters jumped out from the pages and the story held my interest, in spite of the fact it was an English assignment and I had to take notes and write a report by a looming deadline.

When I read the book again in early 2011, I was refreshing my memory of the story before reading Heather: The Missing Years of The Scarlet Letter, A Novel by Paula Reed.

It was hard to keep my attention on the original story, however, because my focus had changed. I am now a victim of today's "writing rules." I had trouble with the distant omniscient narrator who only told what he saw. I'm so accustomed to reading first person or close third person novels where we hear the thoughts and feelings of the characters firsthand, that I struggled with catching the characters' emotions and thoughts strictly from their behavior and body language.

I actually avoided rereading anymore of my old favorites...until this summer.

After visiting the world of Alex Adams' White Horse, a novel of the end of life as we know it, I was reminded of a book I read in the late 50s: On the Beach by Nevil Shute. This novel is the ultimate downer, but I've never forgotten this tale of what many feared would happen to the earth very soon. We still worry it will happen.

At the library, I discovered the classics in their own section, so I perused the shelves a little longer, adding The Razor's Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, another of my old favorites, to my stack.

Now that I've finished reading On the Beach, I'm again bummed about my writer's training. I was jerked out of the story over and over by wandering points of view. One chapter might start with one of the main characters, he meets up with another character, they separate, and suddenly we're following the second character to see what she does next. There are often multiple point of view shifts within a chapter. The transitions are pretty good, but it felt odd. I was never sure who I wanted to identify with the most. It's one more thing we've been taught not to do while writing today's novels.

I remember when I read The Scarlet Letter and On the Beach for the first time. My mind wasn't cluttered with "rules" and self-editing techniques. I read for enjoyment, or I read to analyze story, theme, and meaning for a class. Has writing ruined my ability to enjoy old favorites? I'm almost afraid to begin The Razor's Edge.

Have you reread any of your old favorites from the classics lately? What did you find?


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I rarely read a book twice, but I imagine I'd see all sorts of things wrong where once I didn't.

Arlee Bird said...

I guess the only thing I usually reread is the Bible and there is always something new to be found, but for writing technique it doesn't fit with typical fiction styles. Like Alex I rarely read a book twice--I still have so many books I want to read for the first time.

Never read the book, but I love the movie version of On The Beach. Sure it's depressing, but I guess I just like those types of movies sometimes.

Wrote By Rote

Patricia Stoltey said...

Alex, there are only a few books I consider worth reading a second time, but now I'm having second thoughts about doing that. Maybe I'll just focus on new books for a while.

Lee, your mention of movies makes me think of the Bill Murray remake of The Razor's Edge. The original starred Tyrone Power, who played the part as a serious, brooding seeker of truth and the meaning of life. It came out in 1946, but I saw it for the first time later on late night television. I know Bill Murray did his best, and I love him to death, but his "brooding" came off as "smirking" in way too many scenes. And neither version did the book justice...

Pat transplanted to MN said...

Every year I try to read a couple classics...This summer I decided to take off my shelf, "The Old Curiosity Shop" by Charles Dickens in honor of the 200th year of his birth. At first I grumbled to myself, but I fell into it soon is an adult fairy tale ala novel of the times, where good triumphs and evil is done in. The characters were well developed and I did have to remember the era for which it was written. I have several Dickens on my shelves but I did not recall reading The Old Curiosity Shop, and as I first browsed the pages spotting characters I believe I may have read selections, but never the entire book. A quick scan of the book is a technique we used in school in reading classics, it was to quickly familiarize ourselves with characters or places or other names prior to delving into the reading. I still use that tactic today to read classics or very large books.

On my book review blog I commented a lot about this and how today we don"t really study nor enjoy literature in our e-reader age of nooks, kindles and ever proliferating new books. There is much to the classics and I will continue to re-read a couple every year. I do doubt that that style of writing would make it today to the "best sellers>" But good even excellent writing is sometimes personal taste as well as ever changing rules.

My Dicken's review is on my book blog

Angela Brown said...

I have not revisited the classics. I often find that we've romanticized them in ways that don't apply in today's writing world. Not that they aren't still classically great. But that is the point. They are 'classicaly' great.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Hi Pat -- I'll check out your Dickens review. It helps to see how others view their old favorites.

Angela, you're right. Many times we remember what we want to remember.