Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Are We Writing Classics? - Gregoire

This spring I have decided to read through some classic works that I have never actually perused. I thought I'd start with C.S. Lewis. I've read all the Narnia books about 8 times, with at least 4 of those times being out loud, but I haven't actually read his other ones, with the exception of A Grief Observed, which I used in my book How Big Is Your Umbrella.

So I started with Surprised by Joy. Boy was I surprised. Not by the fact that it was good, mind you; simply by how profound it was and yet how simultaneously beautifully it was written. Reading it was like staring at a Claude Monet painting, though I tend to read in a bubble bath with chocolate, an environment which is a little more difficult to achieve in an art gallery.

Anyway, it started me thinking: if these were the classics from fifty years ago, which still speak so loudly to us today, what classics are we writing? And can what we write even be classified in the same category?

I am not trying to criticize today's writers. The way that we use language has simply changed. Surprised by Joy, for instance, was written for a general audience, and yet I am not sure that a general audience today would be able to decipher it. I do not mean to disparage writers in this; I think the way that we have used language has changed so significantly in the last few decades that writing beautiful works like that is now much more difficult. We don't have as many words at our disposal, for people do not understand as many. And because our level of conversation has been reduced to soundbites, it is even difficult for wordsmiths, who make their living with words, to use them in the same way that Lewis, who had much more practice with making succinct yet insightful arguments, had.

So I wonder, have we lost something important, or are we just transforming language into something different, but equally capable of touching people's hearts? I'm not sure. I think I'm an agnostic on that question.

I wonder if part of the problem is that people don't like the written word anymore. When I speak, it seems that people would much rather buy audio books of my books than the paper copies that I sell, which reminds me that I really must get around to recording them. But people are turning away from long treatises in favour of short reads off the internet.

That means that we have to adjust, to find ways to get our words to reach people at a far different level, because people do not have the patience to wade through Surprised by Joy anymore. That is our challenge, and I believe we will rise to it. But I still worry that we have sacrificed some beauty and even majesty in the process. And perhaps even a little bit of joy.

Sheila is the author of four books, including To Love, Honor and Vacuum: When you feel more like a maid than a wife and a mother. You can find her here, or read her blog To Love, Honor and Vacuum here.

1 comment:

Bonnie Grove said...

Just to clarify about Lewis' audience, Lewis never wrote for "the masses" or "the average man". He always wrote to the intellectuals, academics, and educators. He freely admitted he was an intellectual snob who could no more envision writing for the common man than he could fly to the moon.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Lewis very much. I think Mere Christianity and God in the Docks are two essential books. Surprised by Joy was a good offering, and his searching for answers is clear. He wasn’t a Christian when he wrote it, rather, he was a Theist. I love the title of the book because, much later in his life, he met and married Joy – much to the surprise of just about everyone.
Just some thoughts to stir your well taken point. It is definitely worth thinking long and hard about the sort of stuff we are putting out there. At the moment there is a great discussion about this very sort of thing happening at my blog: Join in!

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