I hear a lot people these days bag against the writers of what are considered the classics as a bunch of dead, white men. I’m sick and tired of that. Not everything considered classic is written by a man or a white person. But I’m no dummy, a majority are. So does that mean there’s something wrong with them? When I hear someone wail on the classics as dead white men’s work, I reply with a quote by (I think) Twain, who said, “Given the choice between Proust and the Pau-Paus, I’ll read Proust.”
Why would Twain not read anything written by the Pau-Paus? Simply put, they have not produced a writer on the par of these dead white men, like Proust, for example. Any culture or society could have developed a great writer. Most leading civilizations in the world have had a Golden Age at some time in their past. But have all of them developed a culture that accentuated storytelling and laid such an emphasis on language? Very few, in fact, mostly none.
The First Classics
One ancient society not only developed a storytelling culture but excelled in it. They influenced cultures and nations for centuries to come. These are the Greeks. The highlights of thinking and writing were picked up by the Romans, so much that many speak of the Greek and Roman times as the development of Classical culture. Europe fell into a millennium of ignorance called the Dark Ages. There were some writers, but they were all Classically educated. The end of the Dark Ages saw a flourish of writing known as the Romances, which were popular in the thirteenth through fifteenth centuries. Examinations of different manuscripts lead to comparative reading of literature and the Renaissance and the Enlightenment fell out from that. It began and ended with reading and emulating the Greeks and the Romans.
This lead to a whelm of literature to come out of Europe, the best of which are considered cannon for great writing, the much maligned classics. Any culture had the same chance to create great writers. The fact that they hadn’t is not the fault of the champions of great literature to come out of Europe. So when I write, I carry with me the weight of everything I’ve read, and I personally like well-written books. No teenaged wizards or shiny vampires in my stacks. I read the classics and I think the classics will shape my writing. I know you cannot write better than what you read. So if all a person reads is pop-lit, they should not expect to write like Faulkner.
While I like a lot, my favorites are Russian and Modern American literature. The best of these, dudes like Chekhov and Hemingway, write with a style known as Minimalism. That doesn’t mean the writing is bare, but that only those details necessary for the story are used. Extra details just get in the way. I like that and I think I write that way, and to the degree I do not, I’d like to develop that quality.
I want to be clear – there are plenty of greats who are neither white nor male. I never want it to sound as if I am defending dead white men, but the idea that the canon should be ignored because it supposedly is only dead white men is piffle. Flannery O’Conner is one of my all-time favorites and Catherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools is one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I like the Harlem Renaissance and the more recent African-Americans such as Walker, Angelou, and Morrison. Additionally, Marquez is awesome. I totally love his Love in the Time of Cholera. I would consider all of these classics as much as Proust, Beotheus, or Virgil.