Will 21st century authors of fiction produce any classics?
Perhaps we must first consider how a classic becomes a classic. We apply numerous reasons for such a coronation citing artistic quality, universal relevancy, emotional integrity, critical acclaim by the author's contemporaries, literary influence, remarkable insight, imaginative style, effective use of language and a host of high praise that has been passed through time like a railroad car glides over a well-worn track pulled by the power of a locomotive.
The potential for a classic starts out in the author's mind, and is then transposed into the published work. Readers read and react with awesome praise, critics review with ecstatic abandon, academics discover, recommend and insert the book into their curriculums and libraries, bookstores stock the book, and most who discover and study the work exult in its story and style.
At times, this acclaim happens instantly, but often the discovery of a work emerges mysteriously after many years of obscurity.
So it begins, the journey to becoming a classic, influencing other writers, readers, educators and critics generation after generation, taking on heft, powered along the track by the locomotive of authority. Passing through so many agile minds, written about, recommended, interpreted, analyzed and discussed until it becomes part of the literary canon.
In the 21st century, those well-worn tracks to reaching the heights of a classic have lost much of their traction. The locomotive has sputtered and encountered hairpin curves, and faulty signals.
In bygone days, worthy works of the imagination could be discovered in a much smaller literary pool. Literacy was hardly universal.
The serious reading public had finite choices in a world where an elite education in the liberal arts was a necessary preparation for the fulfilled intellectual life. Such a culturally fine-tuned audience was a distinct minority.
There were fewer distractions also. Only the live stage offered a more public literary outlet and the delights of poetry had their small but hardy band of followers. Discoverability by that refined intellectual taste, enhanced by a comprehensive literary education, was the key for a work to become a classic. Word-of-mouth operated in a smaller privileged circle as it engaged with the world created by the novels of Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Hardy, Balzac, Twain, Richardson, Fielding and on and on to build the blocks of the western canon.
In the 21st century, with the rise of technology and literacy and the decline of the civilized glories of a liberal education, those natural candidates for the canon of immortality are drowning in an ocean so populated with offerings that discoverability is practically impossible. This is not to say that the talent is not there. It might even be in far more abundance than in earlier times.
As liberal education declines and occupational education rises, more and more people interested in finding the nuggets of literary output are frustrated by the sheer volume. Categories and subcategories abound.
Oddly, as the number of books of fiction produced each year approaches staggering numbers, and as genres multiply, readers hungry to be tantalized by insight and inspired by wisdom by those who quest to make sense of the human condition in the kind of books that populate the classics bookshelf must, as a consequence, find themselves frustrated in their search for the needle in the proverbial haystack.
Worse, reading literature, which has always been nourished in schools, has been severely cut back in favor of informational texts or material that is more specific to the purpose of employment. It is all part of a downsizing effort to make traditional education more attuned to the job market and less to the building of a mature mind able to cope with the moral, ethical and relationship challenges of modern life.
Out of his hodge podge one wonders whether the classics of the 21st century will come out of the genre fiction of romance, fantasy, graphic novels, mysteries, eroticism, vampire zombie, etc. categories, where books like Fifty Shades of Grey will be raised on the same pedestal as, say, War and Peace and Ulysses.
Nevertheless, I do sense that I have a sea of silent allies out there who know in their gut what makes a classic, and they worship beside me in our very private and increasingly isolated pew in a currently obscure location in the literary community cathedral.
Warren Adler has just released his 33rd book "The Serpent's Bite." Best known for "The War of the Roses," his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the dark comedy box office hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito, Warren Adler quickly became the fountainhead of Hollywood screenplay adaptations, fueling an unprecedented bidding war in a Hollywood commission for his unpublished book "Private Lies." While "The War of the Roses" garnered outstanding box office and critical success with Golden Globe, BAFTA and multiple award nominations internationally, Adler went on to sell movie and film rights for 12 books, all noted for his character driven and masterful storytelling. Produced for PBS' American Playhouse series, Adler's "The Sunset Gang" was adapted into a trilogy starring Uta Hagen, Harold Gould and Jerry Stiller, garnering Doris Roberts an Emmy nomination for 'Best Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series.' "The Serpent's Bite" is now available as an e-book and hardback.
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