When I was twelve and playing Authors with my friends, Victor Hugo was a major literary figure, but so too were Stevenson and Longfellow. After many years in the study of literature, Hugo (and Stevenson and Longfell0w) were moved to a lesser rung and received that academic curse that relegates them to the wire rack down and the drugstore .. popular writers. Many people rebel against this somewhat subjective (but hardly permanent) designation: there are good reasons why Stephen King is not dominating the Freshman syllabus in the English Department at the University. Unfortunately too many readers blame the academics for not recognizing the wealth of literary excellence to be found in Harry Potter. I’m certain I could find a dozen readers who would insist that Fifty Shades of Gray be taught in an honors seminary at the university (in the English Department, not Health Sciences). Fifty or a hundred years from now if Anne Rice is still remembered, her works just might be read, studied, and overanalyzed by academics … but a safer bet would be that no one will remember Anne Rice.
It is a typically American condition to have a part-time grocery clerk know more about literature (or anything else) than the experts in the field. I know the brain surgeon in this area always calls me up for advice just before a tricky operation.
The opposite is also true: there are many works of fiction that are receiving a great deal of academic attention today that may fade and sink fast (ask the estate of Thomas Wolfe).
What current authors will withstand the test of time and have their works become true classics? I’ll start a list of authors but I’m guessing they won’t all survive:
- Don DeLillo
- Stephen Boyd
- Philip Roth
- Beryl Bainbridge
- Elizabeth Taylor
- Saul Bellow
- John Barth
- Raymond Federman
- Thomas Pynchon
- J. D. Salinger
- Anne Rice
- William T. Vollmann
- Steven King
- Jean Auel
- John Updike
- Stephen Dixon
- T. C. Boyle
- Joyce Carol Oates
I could go on and on and everyone has their own authors to add to the list. Which of today’s authors do you think will still be read in 2112? Which will be forgotten?
So I nominate Victor Hugo as being a popular writer of fiction which still thrills readers to this day. Unfortunately, like so many other authors of that time period, Hugo’s works are big fat books and require some dedication to read them. They also require patience with the prose styles of 19th century romanticism. One last point: for the most part the works of Victor Hugo depict lives that seldom were filled with sunshine and giggles.
When I was a senior in High School one of the girls in the English class gave an oral book report on Les Misérables and everyone listening to the harrowing story of Jean Valjean was not too cheery. I must say that it sounded worse than The Vicar of Wakefield which has always been my most depressing novel. So what did I get for Christmas this year?
There is a connection: on Christmas Day the Ladies of the Cul-de-Sac and I all went to the movies and saw the newest rendition of Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Misérables in technicolor and surround sound. The cinematography was finest-kind and the movie was only a little boring (unless you’re getting tired of all the CGI), but the ladies all got to see oodles of Hugh Jackman so they loved it. The trick in this movie was not only did all the actors sing their own parts but the singing was also done in real-time and not dubbed in afterwards. The women in the movie—Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, and Samantha Barks—were all quite good and showed some color in their singing that was at times tender, poignant, or stirring. But I still haven’t decided if two and a half hours of Russell Crow “singing” in a near monotone was worth enduring. Add to that an almost equally tedious Hugh Jackman and I was hurting. And then I found that the modern movie theater seats are demonically designed to make it impossible to get out of your seat and head to the crying room for a few fast games of Angry Birds. What if I had had to go to the men’s room?
I don’t often go to the movies and I seldom find a film I really want to see that I can’t wait for on Netflix or cable, but I thought this one was interesting because it was from a book I never was able to finish. Should I give it another try or maybe one of those other Hugo novels on the shelf or on the iPad. I’d read it in French but I would assuredly be dead before I ever finished it. Maybe some day when I’m feeling bubbly I’ll let old Jean Valjean destroy my good mood with his pathos.
Can you imagine in today’s world a group of insurgents throwing up a barricade on Times Square and threatening the overthrow of the government with a dozen Bushmaster .223 assault rifles? Don’t kid yourself; they’re out there.