Best Seller vs. Classic

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As a relatively inexperienced writer, and one who is very much in need of practice and knowledge, the topic of what makes the difference between a good book and a great book is one of great interest to me.

Ask any writer what they think makes a great book and they will have their own personalized list of do’s and do not’s. Sometimes, these pieces of advice are similar or even the same to those of other writers. Start the story off with a hook. Avoid adverbs. Show, don’t tell. Balance tension and release. Use the word “said” in your dialogue for a change (I drove my mentor batty by using almost any other word but “said” following my dialogue).

All good advice, mind you, but what might hook you as the author may or may not hook your reader, and the show-tell/tension-release concepts can be difficult to measure. And in any case, writing is as much personal style as it is rules. So where do you draw the line, and how do you measure the quality of your work?

And then there’s something else that I’ve noticed. There are great books, and then there are great books. What’s the difference? The best way I can think to describe the difference is with the Best Seller vs. Classic concept. And no, I don’t just mean A Tale of Two Cities or Pride & Prejudice.

The fact of the matter is, just because a book is a best seller doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll become a classic. And just because it is a classic, that doesn’t mean it’ll be a best seller. This is why you’ve probably heard of (or maybe even read) C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (published in 1950; not a best seller) but maybe haven’t heard of Daphne du Maurier’s The Parasites (also published in 1950; was a best seller that year).

One was a momentary fad; the other has withstood the test of time.

So what’s the difference? Why is it that a book popular in its moment can be so easily forgotten, while another can be seemingly obscure yet be remembered decades, or even centuries, after its publication?

A quick search for “Characteristics of a classic story” lead to a variety of basic descriptors. There’s longevity (duh); language (they coin new expressions or phrases that stick); originality and freshness (but there are plenty of best sellers that could fit that bill). The two things that stood out to me the most, however, are these: classic stories (a) focus on something that is essential to being human and (b) are so reflecting of the culture in which they are written that they become a beacon of that culture as time goes on.

Think of the classics that you are familiar with. Maybe it’s Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, which explores not only the culture of the era but also the concepts of human pride and superficial judgement of others. Maybe it’s Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which at once covers the brutality of the French Revolution and the concept of human redemption. There are also Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (revolutionary France and the consequences of revenge), Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (showing the brutal reality of slavery in America and exploring human value and what it truly means to be a moral individual), and Dante’s Inferno (reflecting both classic literature and religious thought in his time while also exploring the concept of sin).

Even some of the more modern stories (including movies) could be considered classics (although many might argue otherwise). The Lion King is a story that brings the wilds of Africa to life while simultaneously touching on the concept of leadership and justice. Mulan is remembered both for its portrayal of 5th/6th century China along with its promotion of equality and friendship. Gone with the Wind portrays the events of the American Civil War while also exploring themes such as the cost of war, the reality of change, and the positives and negatives of personal strength and self-reliance.

Though a bit different from what are known as true “Classics,” both old and modern stories that are well-beloved are remembered for more than just the action and excitement. They delve deep into the human mind and bring to light both social and psychological issues present not just in their time but throughout human history.

The website asked of their readers: “What makes a book worth reading?”

Here are some of my favorite responses:

I search for the content. Something that makes me learn something.

A good book is a treasure trove of humanity so that no matter how often you open a page and start reading, there is still something new to be discovered.

A great book is not only going to have a good story, but it is going to be written well. But sometimes a good book has to do more with what the reader needs at that given time in his or her life. The books I read while going through my divorce may not fall into the normal classification of a “good” book, but it was what I needed at that time in my life and I may therefore classify it as a good book.

The moral of the story (at least from my perspective)? Good writing is great. Catching the reader’s interest is mandatory. But touching the reader’s soul? That is what makes a Classic.


2 thoughts on “Best Seller vs. Classic

  1. I couldn’t agree more. Especially that last bit. “Good writing is great. Catching the reader’s interest is mandatory. But touching the reader’s soul? That is what makes a Classic.” Very well said. It’s not always easy to touch a reader’s soul, but when you do, your work lasts a lifetime.

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