We at Writeonsisters decided to take on some classics, and attempt to define why they were so revered and have held up so well ever since they were published. It made us think about the definition of art; who exactly defines what a good book is? Sales? Reputation? Does the fact that a book has been universally dictated as required reading for high schoolers have something to do with it?
Kathy’s choice: Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
Back then I thought it was kind of cool, the way Holden Caufield saw life. The cynicism, the questioning of authority, the rebelliousness was something we could all identify with, and therein lies its attractiveness. He captures the sense of angst, the confusion, and the depression that all teens identify with. He speaks of them and directly to them.
As an adult, and a parent, I found it, what…troubling? Annoying? Frustrating? Why is it, then, that this book, so relevant to a teen in 1951, is still considered, for want of a better term, the Great American Novel (some have said it was the best book ever written)? A few reviewers said it had not been written particularly well, and several said is was not worth their time. Perhaps they, like me, are too old for it.
I discovered a few things in reading about the book: that the name Holden is the name of a car, and therefore, the character is supposed to be the vehicle (get it?) for the story. Hunh? And the story is really about World War II. Hunh? Salinger actually wrote it in the middle of World War II while he was in the Army in Europe, so I can see where that idea came from.
But let’s talk about the story. This sixteen year old who has been kicked out of prep school wanders around New York City for a few days. He seems to have unlimited funds, and his parents are nowhere to be found. He is entitled, superior, and opinionated. He is whiny, depressed, and socially inept. But then, Salinger interjects direct pulls of the heartstrings – a little sister Holden adores, a little brother who died of leukemia, and an older brother that sounds a lot like Salinger himself. Holden hires a hooker just to talk to him (how sad is that?). Salinger pushes our buttons at just the right time to keep us from going over the edge.
Here are the hard and fast rules for a novel: a story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. There has to be conflict, an antagonist, a climax, and a denouement.
Somebody call the literary police, because I didn’t find any of those formulaic necessities in this story.
And yet this is supposed to be an American classic. Why? It’s the voice – Salinger has created this character only by his voice. You get very little description of his physical being, if any, now that I think about it. But the voice. It gets you. It really does.
That’s the one thing that I believe sets this book apart from others of its genre. But the big stuff? If it really is about World War II, then I completely missed it – way too subtle for me. I missed the message, too, whatever it was. All I got was a story about a kid who was really unhappy and worried about becoming a phony (read: adult).
I wonder if, in today’s market, it wouldn’t be filed under YA.
Sharon’s Pick: The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
“Like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart.”
I really wanted to re-read this book because I read it decades ago and it scared me then. The notion of making a pact with “the devil” is a common theme in books and movies today. Not so much when Wilde wrote the novel.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is a morality play of sorts. Innocent, unaffected, beautiful young man realizes his physical attributes through the intercession of another and will give ANYTHING to retain that beauty.
The main principles of the story are said beautiful young man, Dorian Gray; Basil Hallward, the artist who amazingly captured that beauty in a portrait, and Lord Henry Wolcott, a jaded, cynical, pedantic who takes on the task of debauching, in a philosophical way, the spirit of Dorian Gray. Dorian succumbs to the realization of his beauty and what the loss will mean so he wishes aloud for the portrait to age while his visage remains the same.
The affect on Dorian when he sees the ravages wrought on the painting not only by aging, but by his sins, is what makes this psychological thriller work today. We are fascinated by Dorian’s devolution, even as he begins to gain pleasure from observing the portrait’s changes.
Wilde knew how to throw in escalating crises to increase tension. And the ending is thoroughly satisfying.
In the re-reading, one of the first things to strike me is how different books are today in terms of expectations. The Picture of Dorian Gray has no beginning hook, the formality of language reflects patterns of the past, and novel conventions we take for granted are “violated”. One sentence early on runs on for nine lines of text. Here is the opening line:
“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”
Lovely, but no editor today would accept as the opener a 40+ word description, even in literary fiction. In other places, the paragraphs can go on for as long as two pages. One paragraph. And that happened more than once.
Another oddity that wouldn’t fly in today’s reading world is the philosophical tone and preachments throughout. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a text I would use if I were teaching a seminar class in philosophy. The arguments one could have! The insights into character revealed by those perspectives and others reactions to the perspectives would make for rich fodder in debating the merits of utilitarianism vs hedonism vs romanticism vs cynicism vs narcissism, and so on. Fascinating. But, for the most part, not in a novel for today’s readers.
Lord Henry, a pivotal plot-point character does most of the philosophizing. He is given to utterances like:
“But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. Intellect is in itself a mode of exaggeration, and destroys the harmony of any face.”
“…that is one of the great secrets of life–to cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul.”
Lord Henry is the only one around Dorian who is not appalled by his lasciviousness and debauchery. Experiencing, indulging oneself, those are virtues Lord Henry encourages and supports.
Does this book hold up? I found myself slogging through turgid prose in many places, but the plot line is universal and engaging. Buckle in, be prepared for extensive exposition, but hang on for the read. There is a reason this book stuck with me for nearly 50 years.