3 Literary Qualities (Largely) Lost to Time

Classic literature did it better.

Okay, not always, but there is a lot to be said for classic literature that can’t (often) be said for modern literature, and I think that modern authors–even modern Christian authors–have lost sight of a lot of the values that can be found in classic literature and the lives of classic authors. Today I want to look at some of the qualities of classic writing that I see more rarely in modern writing, and encourage us to consider whether we’re striving for these qualities in our own work.

*Links marked with an asterisk are affiliate links, meaning I earn a commission off of purchases made through them at no extra cost to you.

Classic authors knew what they believed

Classic authors had strong convictions, they studied and tested the things that they believed, and they drew clear lines between their beliefs and the beliefs of the culture (where those differed). They knew what they believed, they paid attention to the culture around them and knew what the culture believed (in practice if not in word), and they didn’t get the two muddled. Tolkien was conscious of the fact that his writing reflected conservationism, which wasn’t an especially popular thought at the time. On the secular side, Oscar Wilde was conscious of the fact that Dorian Gray’s lifestyle (and his own) went against the grain of polite society.

It is important to note that these authors did not shun those who disagreed with them, nor did they isolate themselves from society. In fact, they were very involved in the society around them and I believe that the challenging of their beliefs was likely one of the factors toward the strength of their convictions. They knew what they believed because they’d be pushed over by anything if they didn’t. Nowadays we can shelter ourselves in online echo-chambers and avoid much of the debate that classic authors engaged in, and I think that has actually left us vulnerable. We take our beliefs for granted and there’s much less need to stretch our thinking into areas we might not automatically consider–or think on much of anything beyond a surface-level judgment based on our existing (often shallow) presuppositions.

Of course, not everyone today is guilty of this–certainly not to the extreme I’ve presented. There are those who seek out knowledge and philosophize for the joy of it. There are those who enjoy (or at least value) the challenging of their own beliefs and therefore seek out reasonable debate. There are those (hopefully many!) who don’t just read their Bibles but study it deeply and are ready to give a defense to any who ask the reason for their hope–or conviction.

But too often we can be lazy in shaping our worldview, letting the culture seep in the cracks and/or holding to what’s been passed down without question. (Not that tradition or the teaching of wise elders is inherently wrong–if I thought that, I wouldn’t hold to 99% of my convictions and I wouldn’t be writing this post!–but we ought to “test all things; hold fast to what is good.” When we do so, I think we’ll end up holding to a lot of what those wise elders have passed down to us.)

Are we conscious of our worldview? Do we know where our convictions end and the culture’s values begin? Are our beliefs built on truth? Does that truth influence all areas of our thinking and challenge us to build not only a sturdy worldview but a comprehensive one?

Our books don’t have to preach (and often shouldn’t), but they shouldn’t sound just like any secular book on the shelf, either.

Classic authors explored themes with intention and nuance

To step into the realm of storytelling itself, worldview is going to naturally appear in your story’s themes. (It’ll show up everywhere, actually, but it will be most obvious in your themes.)

One of the skills fostered by classic authors was that of exploring a theme with great intention without losing reasonable nuance. Classic authors were able to decide on clear themes for their work, explore those themes in great depth, and reveal great nuance within their portrayals of those themes. They were thoughtful without being wishy-washy, and they took a stance without being preachy. The principle Brandon Sanderson articulated when he said, The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon,” is a principle that classic authors understood and put into practice with much greater consistency than modern authors–falling prey neither to telling their readers how to think nor to a failure to give intentional questions to think upon.

Of course, there are exceptions on both sides. Some classics seem pointless, some could be viewed as preachy; meanwhile, some modern books accomplish nuanced themes and balance this principle very well! But it is a skill that not all authors prioritize, and we ought to value it more highly as a whole. Blunt is not always better, nor is being wishy-washy desirable. It is undeniably a difficult skill to be firm but nuanced and thoughtful, but it is a skill we should be striving to strengthen!

Classic authors made rich use of language

By and large, modern writing is much simpler than classic writing. This is not all bad–simple writing has its place and serves a function–but it’s become easy to lose sight of how rich and powerful our language is. We have whole dictionaries open to us, and we barely scratch the surface of the words we use to convey ideas. I’m not saying we should go raid our dictionaries for the most obscure words possible–it defeats the purpose of communication if we’re talking so far over everyone’s heads that we can’t be understood–but we would do well to stretch our vocabularies and challenge our readers just a little bit (or, for that matter, assume they have broader vocabularies, themselves).

So much can be conveyed in the perfect word choice: precision, emotion, foreshadowing, voice, etc. As Mark Twain said,

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

I recently experienced this in reading Brandon Sanderson’s Hero of Ages, in which a single word operated as a highly effective foreshadowing tool!

Words are the primary tool of our trade. Let’s stretch our skill with them! Collect vivid words; follow word nerds on Twitter (@elzakinde and @arealmofwonder are two peddlers of great words); peruse your dictionary every so often; play Balderdash*; practice poetry.

We’ve been given a task, to tell quality stories that reflect the creativity of The Storyteller and the truth of His Story. Let us steward that task well, and build on the shoulders of the storytellers who went before us to even greater effect and greater reflection of God’s glory.

Which of these qualities are you most excited to strengthen in your own work? Which is the most daunting? Where have you seen these qualities reflected in more recent work? Comment your thoughts below!

If you’re interested in more encouragement for writers, or recommendations for quality reading, join my mailing list to have blog posts and similar content delivered straight to your inbox!

One thought on “3 Literary Qualities (Largely) Lost to Time

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *