Saturday, November 12, 2011

On Book Reviews

I know, I know, you think much of this has been done before.  The problem with most readers (and reviewers) of classics is that they have all these preconceived notions, and are likely to give high marks to a book just because it's a "classic".  Gimme a break.  Some of these are silly, the plots are preposterous, and the coincidences - my God, the coincidences! - are just completely over the top.

So my reviews are with a modern eye, not through the cloudy veil of romance and repeating the words of others through a century or more.  I often get pounced for my reviews because I defame the idols and don't follow the crowd like a freakin' sheep.  But I hate seeing all these 5-star reviews on places like Amazon and goodreads that don't mean anything.  And people will babble on about the insight and meaning and depth of characters and yada yada.

I'm going to tell you a secret about many of the classics of times past - a secret so terrifying that it has been suppressed by several totalitarian governments.  The writers of most 18th, 19th, and early 20th century classics were actually writing (*gasp*) genre fiction.

In the darkening gloom of winter, the people watched as the last glimmer of sunlight faded from a gray sky that brought the promise of cold and misery as their idols vanished into the long night of forgotten memories, and hope melted away as the beauty of youth fades into the age of time, never to return.  The words hung like a cold and unforgiving vapor, filling their senses, blinding them, and choking them with the new, harsh reality.  And they knew it was true.  The writers of classics were actually writing genre fiction.

So how does this revelation come about?  Because what we see in such works as Jane Eyre are the seeds of modern fiction wrapped in the cloak of contemporary thought and understanding.  They were writing as products of their time - that slow pace and leisured story - because that's just how writing was done back in them good ol' days.  It was flowery and descriptive, with no need to hook the reader and hold them against the competition of Netflix and XBox and ESPN.  Our modern lives are so incredibly hectic that we have to schedule time to read.  That thought is foreign to our ancestors.

But at the heart of their writing was a bit of action, a bit of adventure, a bit of what they called romance.  Look at the incredible story-lines, the strange and fantastic plots, and the so-called quirky characters.  I mean, a mad woman locked in the attic?  An escaped convict hiding on the moors? (Dickens, not Doyle)  These are fun romps and people loved them.  Honestly, do you think readers 150 years ago craved obscure literature that took time to understand and must be reread a few times to thoroughly carve out its inner meanings?  No!  They wanted the same thing we want today.  Entertainment.

Today's readers of modern romance with Fabio on the cover would have been reading Austen and the Bronte sisters back in the day.  Why?  Because essentially it offers the same thing.  That's how they got their fix.

When we come to understand this, all that's left is to understand contemporary thinking in order to fit the story into the times.  After that, it all makes sense, and most classics, from Dickens to Twain, can be enjoyed by modern readers not as a boring class assignment, but as a typical good story that can stand up to anything written today.

Ever notice that when a reviewer doesn't give high marks for a so-called classic, that reviewer is then given low marks?  Of course.  People are sheep.  They want all classics to receive nothing but praise, and burn all dissenters!  Most of the time it's because people don't understand what's being said, or even what they've read (if they read the book at all). Idols are idols, no matter what form, and you can't tear down idols!  I mean, everybody knows that!

Many people believe that older works - so called classics - are what we consider literary fiction.  That is not true.  The distinction between literary and genre fiction is a modern notion.  It is difficult to find that distinction before the mid 20th century.  In fact, most readers today don't understand the difference.  I will write about that some other time, but not here.  My point is simply that there's no need to give undue praise to an older book simply because it's older.  Great modern fiction isn't great because it's written like older fiction.  Great books will always be products of their time, not imitations of a different time.  And great modern fiction isn't great because it's considered literary fiction, just like great older fiction isn't great because we consider it to be literary fiction.

So, moving forward, here is a flexible and fluid list of eras I plan to review.

   * I will start with 19th century classics.

   * Then I will work on gothic romances of the late 18th and early 19th century.

   * After that I will review early 20th century classics.

   * Finally, I will move on to modern classics.

   * Interspersed within these will be the occasional genre fiction or other book that just struck my fancy.

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