When one hears the titles “A Farewell to Arms” or “Jane Eyre,” it is common to think of a literature course. However, these classics have another thing in common–they were both instant bestsellers when they were first released. A friend of mine sent me an email which raised the question, how does a novel go from the bestseller list to the reading list of the classics?
There is no question that Bronte’s classic bildungsroman (coming of age) story and Hemingway’s perfect, crisp prose are works of art. Only a true work of art would inspire the literally throw-the-book-across-the-room rage I felt upon finishing a Farewell to Arms. I can and have written essays on both the content and literary merits of both these novels. However, the question lingers when looking at today’s “popular” fiction. Bronte and Hemingway topped the charts in their respective days, but what about the bestselling books now? Will Twilight and The Hunger Games hit the college classrooms in the future?
This brings up the interesting dichotomy that has sprung up between commercial (think Stephen King, James Patterson) and literary fiction (Ian McEwan, Celeste Ng). Our bestseller lists now are topped with mostly books from the commercial fiction category. Sometimes a literary fiction title will cross over–for example, The Lovely Bones–but usually we are looking at quick reads. As an author and a lover of literature and words, I would be saddened to think that future generations will be studying the literary intricacies of The Hunger Games. I’ll be the first to admit I am a big fan of this series of books and the films, but do I see them as literary art–no.
However, there are valuable popular books that absolutely should end up being studied by posterity. For example, anything by J.K. Rowling is masterful in both her deceptively simple use of the language and her plot development. As an author myself, I try to incorporate a slightly elevated use of the English language into my decidedly commercial fiction novels. There’s no reason to dumb work down–I’m not producing novels for the sole purpose of the sale, the movie deal, the get rich quick dream that many strive for.
I can’t say what the future of literary education and the classics will entail, but one thing I know for certain–future students will almost certainly have a cinematic version of their material to view. Movie day in class is always fun, right?