What Makes a Classic?

I was reading on an agent’s blog today about the fact that there are, as we all know, trends in publishing. Right now, it seems that prologues and adverbs are out. So is reality (for YA, anyway). So are boy books. So is literary fiction, unless it’s really great.

Most of the time, the books that ride the waves of these trends wash up on the literary shore and are taken away by the next tide. We can all name some of those. A few, however, rest like like shells on a beach, picked up by the discerning eye and treasured. We can all name some of those, as well.

What sets these books apart? I happen to be a member of AQ Connect, and there is always dismay when a prizewinning novelist seems to break all the rules. Adverbs abound, there is a 30-page prologue, the author tells instead of showing. Why is it that people who try to follow the rules have such a hard time making it, while people who break them can be stars?

Agents write about how they cannot exactly say why a book has “it,” just that they know it when they see it. Charles Dickens had “it,” as did Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott, L.M. Montgomery, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Harper Lee. Many of their works still enjoy a shelf at the bookstore, although ironically, there is plenty of discussion online as to whether those authors would even be able to get an agent today, let alone get published.

Many agents are not shy to admit that they frequently turn down work that they love, because they don’t know for certain that they could get a publisher to buy it, but in the same breath, they say that you shouldn’t write for the market. I, myself, loosely follow the advice of Madelyn L’Engle: “You have to write the book that wants to be written.” (And worry about getting published later.) I’ll let you know how that goes.

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Filed under Critical Thinking, Miscellaneous, Uncategorized, Writing

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