Another day, another blog post to rip up the classics (metaphorically of course, I’m not a monster). Whilst I love reading, classic novels are not really my thing. When I say ‘classic novels’, I’m sure you can already conjure them up in your mind. Books by Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy, Austen, Dostoevsky etc. You know, the ones Literary Gatekeepers tell you that ‘you MUST read’, as well as saying ‘The Hunger Games trilogy isn’t real dystopia’ and ‘sure Plath is good, but have you even heard of Ted Hughes?’
The definition of what makes a classic novel is rather subjective, with some of the loudest voices defining classic novels as books over one hundred years old, that offer commentary on a social subject, or reflect the thoughts of a time period. But to others, a classic novel is one that encapsulates a thought, a feeling, beauty, or is an example of a particular genre. For me, I think WiseGeek hits the definition straight on the head; “classics are novels of literary significance that have withstood the test of time and remained popular years after their publication”. Years after their publication… That doesn’t have to mean a hundred years old! They can be as old as your grandparents, parents, as old as millennials and Gen Zs. They just have to be significant – and that significance is perhaps the most subjective thing of all.
So whilst the idea of classic novels being ‘important’ Victorian texts written by old white men, with storylines that stress you out or make you doze off, might be the one you are taught at schools, classic novels are more than that. I’ve come up with a list of my top ten classic novels. Books that are still revered years after publication, that are culturally and socially important beyond subjectivity, and plays with the stereotype of what a classic novel truly is. Here are my top ten classic novels for people who hate to read classic novels. Let’s go!
The Yellow Wallpaper – Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)
Wait, wait, wait, before you move on! I know I dissed Victorian literature at the beginning of this post but please hear me out. This book is a different kind of Victorian novel. The Yellow Wallpaper is a short story about a woman who suffers a nervous breakdown after the birth of her child and is forced by her husband to stay locked in a room. The room is coated in yellow, printed wallpaper, which slowly comes alive. Then… Well, I’ll leave it there, I don’t want to spoil this short story for you, especially as it’s rarely discussed as a classic novel outside of academic circles. Sure, it ticks the classic novel trope of being Victorian, but it also subverts the idea of a typical classic novel. It’s written by a woman, about a woman and without romance being involved. More disgracefully, the story centres on women’s health (shock!) – actually, women’s mental health (horror!) – actually, women’s post-natal mental health (egads!). In my opinion, it’s a Victorian classic novel done right.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou (1969)
This is the first book in Angelou’s (poet, author, icon) seven-book autobiographical series, and relays her childhood to the reader as she grew up as a black child in the South of 1930s and 40s America. The book deals with experiences of racism, sexual assault, misogyny, and violence, all as a part of her coming of age story. However, this book has been banned left, right, and centre from the get go. The state of Alabama previously banned the book for spreading an anti-white message (nope, Angelou just spoke the realities of racism) and it’s been banned for Angelou’s use of profanity and the fact it mentions the idea of being a lesbian. Also, the book has been banned for its portrayal of molestation. Now this one I can kind of understand, as the honesty Angelou delivers in this book also brings the true, graphic description of what she went through as a child. These sections are horrific and repulsive to read (I had to put the book down and leave it for a few days before coming back) but that is what makes it important. We have to hear the truth in order to change it. Yes, it is a tale that talks about racism, child molestation, and misogyny, but it shows these issues as the evil they truly are. This book is also a story that shows the power literature, education, and art can have to change a person’s world. It is a modern classic that needs to line every library and school, and that you should order immediately from your local bookseller.
The Shining – Stephen King (1977)
The Shining holds a chokehold over contemporary horror culture like nothing else I have ever seen. Yes, I said what I said. Whilst King’s seminal novel might not be making a commentary on life as we would normally associate with a classic novel (well, apart from addressing cyclical violence) it is culturally significant in more ways than one. Firstly, it is a stellar example of the horror genre at it’s finest; thrilling and scary with layers of depth, unafraid to play with both the reader’s and the character’s minds. It doesn’t depend on jump scares or gore for the horror factor, it’s all about the storytelling. Secondly, it spurred a cultural shift in cinema, novels, and further artistic life around the world. Horror novels can’t move for comparisons to The Shining, nor can writers moving into the realm of thriller-horror escape the pedestal of being compared to King. And contemporary culture? Well, we’d be a different world without The Shining. Just think of the yearly Halloween costumes inspired by the book or film, and even architectural and interior design. Come on, we’ve all said ‘ohh that carpet looks a little bit ~The Shining~’, right?
Shooting an Elephant: And Other Essays – George Orwell (Published in 2003, essays first collated in 1968)
Well, this is not the Orwell you usually get on lists about classic novels. Alas, no 1984 or Animal Farm here I’m afraid. Shooting an Elephant: And Other Essays is what it says on the tin; a series of essays by Britain’s favourite dystopian writer, George Orwell. The book itself is published by Penguin Modern Classics, so if the literary overlords deem it, it must be true. Well, perhaps not, but in the case of Orwell’s series of essays… yeah, I’d agree with them. For me, this book fits the bill of a classic book as it perfectly encapsulates a moment in history. Through his experiences and opinions, Orwell condenses down early-mid twentieth century English life. He talks about imperialism, public school, classism, Englishness, and politics, all through his own “Tory-anarchist” lens. It’s so interesting to learn about the world as it was from the voice that created socialist and dystopian novels that changed the world. Whilst many of the ideas and situations would now cause a modern audience, me included, to second-guess and glare at Orwell if we met in the flesh, the book in question is excellent at preserving the ideas of a time and putting a magnifying glass over the thought-processes behind other so-called classic novels.
The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath (1963)
Don’t mind me, I’m just putting a pound in my ‘Rosie Mentions The Bell Jar Jar’. Yes, I am very aware that I talk about this novel a lot on my blog as one of my favourite ever books. But I am looking beyond my favouritism here (or at least trying to) because I do believe it is a classic novel that deserves more love and readership. The Bell Jar follows the life of Esther Greenwood, a young woman on a magazine scholarship, as she struggles with living in the big city, her sexuality, and her declining mental health. The book is of utmost importance as it does something rarely seen by a mid-century novel; it shows the unpleasant, violent, angry reality of living with a mental illness, doubly so as it’s through the lens of a women’s experience. Using Plath’s autobiographical experience within fiction, it shows the audience the realities of expectations that were placed on young women, the pain that was caused by these patriarchal ideologies, and the inhumane treatment women received for mental illness. It shows us not to fall into the same traps that the last century did in so many ways. That is why it is a classic novel.
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
Ahh another modern classic! Never Let Me Go is actually the youngest book on this list, being only in publication for sixteen years. So how on earth has it made it on to a blog post about classics? Well, it has everything a good, classic novel needs; romance, coming of ages, thrills and chills, eugenics… Sorry, what was that last one? Never Let Me Go is a staple of a classic novel in my eyes because it makes you think and address the world around you through storytelling. The book itself deals with the idea of cloning for medicinal purposes, and the ethics surrounding that. That is not a far step away from our world now, and is being talked about by every government across the world. Sixteen years on from publication, and you still get a prickly, eerie feeling when reading Never Let Me Go. A feeling almost like deja vu, like we’ve been here before, or a feeling that this is a path we are going down today. Whilst I would call this a contemporary classic right now, I’m both interested and scared by how we will view this book in fifty years. Will it be a reality or a case of what might have been? Will you be a doner, a carer, or a benefactor?
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley (1818)
There is no denying it – this is one of the books that came into my head when I thought of the stereotype of a classic novel. So why is it on my list of classics for people who hate classic novels? Because Frankenstein and Mary Shelley are badass groundbreakers. With this novel, Mary Shelley invented sci-fi. There would be no Star Wars, no Back to the Future, no Universal Studios without a nineteen year old Mary Shelley defeating her best friends in a game of who can tell the scariest story. I am sure many people hold this book to be a pinnacle of classic literature, perhaps based on the characterisation, the genre, the comments on the duality of man. But in my personal opinion? Frankenstein is a classic novel because it has stood the test of time, changed the world as we know it, and essentially gave us the gem that is Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Always support our goth queen Mary Shelley.
Voyage in the Dark – Jean Rhys (1934)
The Great Gatsby. Ulysses. Heart of Darkness. To the Lighthouse. If you search ‘classic modernist literature’ this is what comes up. *Slams fist on table* Where on Earth is Voyage in the Dark? Rhys’ novel tells of a young woman called Anna who was born into a British family in the Caribbean, and is sent to live in Britain when her father dies. At first, she tries to support herself as a chorus girl but soon moves into the world of escorts and prostitutes. Oh the scandal of it all! You can really imagine this novel turned the heads of every well-to-do lady of the twentieth-century and sent tea-cups dropping towards the floor. Not only does this novel deal with the autonomy of a woman’s body and ownership of her sexuality, but it delves into early-twentieth century ideas around race, abortion and sex work. As a novel, Voyage in the Dark is largely overshadowed by Jean Rhys’ most famous work, Wide Sargasso Sea; a novel that is a prequel to the traditional classic novel, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. To me, this is such a shame! Whilst Wide Sargasso Sea is a great addition to the modernist catalogue and gives another layer to Jane Eyre, Voyage in the Dark is another perfect example of modernist literature and the themes so commonly represented.
The Color Purple – Alice Walker (1982)
This book has crossed over into every artistic threshold known to man. What started out as a Pulitzer Prize winning novel has flowed and evolved into an Oscar nominated film, a Tony award winning musical, and has enough audio adaptations that I can’t even count them all. The longevity and impact this book has had on the artistic world is enough to class it as a classic novel, but The Color Purple goes beyond that. Firstly, Walker was the first black woman to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, thanks to The Color Purple. Furthermore, it’s an exceptional example of epistolary writing, with the story being told through the central character’s, Celie, letters to her sister, Nettie. It is unabashed in the representation of violence and racism against black people in the early twentieth-century, and as such, many a conservative country has tried to ban it. It’s also been banned (mainly in America of course) for profanity and the fact it dares to represent homosexuality as something other than a sin. Nearly forty years on from it’s publication, The Color Purple is still addressing issues that run rife throughout our world, and it’s adaptations take the story and take it to new audiences every day.
To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee (1960)
What do you reckon is the most widely read book in terms of the theme of racial in equality? Whilst there are hundreds of books out there that should be a better answer to this question (and the answer to this question will probably change in twenty years or so), the current answer has to be To Kill a Mockingbird. This novel centres on Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who takes on the case of a black man accused of raping a white woman in 1930s America, and is narrated by Atticus’ daughter. Lee’s book is a classic novel for many reasons, including the fact it is taught in schools and pushed as essential reading across the world. It’s wide reach and constant analysis means the themes of understanding, courage, and racial inequality are told to millions around the world. Yes, through a modern lens, the book does give off white heroism vibes. But in looking at when it was published, the fact it still makes people think and makes them uncomfortable in an important way is testament enough to it’s stance as a classic novel.
So, those are my top ten classics for people who hate classic novels. If you haven’t read these yet, get yourself down to your local library and flash that library card like it’s an Amex Black Card. My advice to all you fellow traditional classic haters? Own it. Books and literature should not be gatekept by anyone else! Read what you want to read. And to those of you who love the traditional classics? Keep doing you, honey.
Let me know in the comments what your favourite not-classic classic novel is, and what you would add to this list!