1. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Stories that last

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by Steerpike, Aug 13, 2011.

    When I'm reading a book that has been around for some time - 50 years, 100 years, 150 years, more - I always start thinking about what it is about the work that makes it last.

    Various explanations are offered, ranging from tackling universal and timeless themes, to the simple fact that teacher and professors keep them alive by assigning them to successive generations of students.

    I don't think either of these are the case. The latter disregards any value of the work itself, and the former doesn't account for all of the works that have faded into the haze of time despite taking on some of these same themes.

    It is clear to me that the quality of the works themselves - the skill of the writer as artist - is important, and I think the creation of fascinating characters that hold the attention of people over time is also essential.

    But even with the above, there seems to be some other intangible element. You can look at classics like Jane Eyre and Moby Dick, or read the works of Faulkner, Hemingway, Nabokov, and many others that could be listed here, and I believe you can see a certain level of brilliance in the writing that makes one nod one's head and say "Sure, I see why that book is still read."

    In other circumstances, such as in Fantasy for example, you can find writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard whose popularity now dwarfs anything they had achieved in their lifetimes. The same can be said for Tolkien.

    Lovecraft and Howard were pulp writers, however, and there have been many of them over the years, some as gifted or more gifted in terms of sheer skill as writers. You can find much in the actual writing of these two that doesn't sit well with modern sensibilities, or may even come across as amateurish. And yet the ongoing success of their creations is impossible to deny.

    So what do you all think makes a book last. I reject out of hand any explanation that relies on luck - that is too easy and all together too unlikely, in my view. But what is it, then? And is it possible to identify it at the time a work is written?

    Could Conrad have known people would still be reading his works one hundred years later. Could Dostoevsky have known? What about Shelley and Stoker? And, finally, if you can predict these things ahead of time, what do you see out there now that you believe will still be read by more than two or three big-nosed academics in one hundred years?
     
  2. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    With Lovecraft I find really hard to give you an answer. He was a talented writer, but his actual writing leaves a lot to be desired. He used the same basic plot over and over again, and his writing was as purple as you can get. It seems that it's his concepts that are popular because they are interesting, and also vague enough for you to invent your own stories around them. Innsmouth is the perfect example.

    Stoker is mostly popular through his subject, and because Dracula is so easily made into a film. Remember any of his other books? No. Me neither.

    Mary Shelley: ditto with The Modern Prometheus.

    Jane Eyre - this was written really well, I consider it to be a superior version of Pride and Prejudice though this might be a bad comparison. Besides. Jane Eyre had elements of horror, romance and adventure and parts of it are rather funny. It's a good all rounder if nothing else.


    Honestly though, comparing Dracula and The Modern Prometheus might be one of the only good reasons the latter is still remembered. It's main theme was explored more skillfully and intelligently in Paradise Lost (why do you think it is quoted in the book) and it's narrator is such an unbelievable burk I can't believe he could do anything by himself, never mind create anything.
     
  3. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Stoker - Lair of the White Worm. No, I haven't read it, but I did remember the name :)

    Other people wrote stories in the mythos Lovecraft came up with, often in similar style. August Derleth. Robert Bloch (who Lovecraft mentored and who wrote Psycho). Clark Ashton Smith. None of these achieved the fame Lovecraft now enjoys, however.
     
  4. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Because have you read some of those stories? Especially by August Derleth?

    If I was being nice I would of had him imprisoned for crimes against quality as soon as Arkham House stopped releasing just Lovecraft. He and Donold Wandrai did a great thing preserving Lovecraft's works, but my GOD Derleth couldn't write.
     
  5. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I had a book of Derleth's short stories a long time ago. Couldn't get past the first couple. As you said, the writing wasn't very good at all.

    One of those writer's whose best contributions to the field were not his own writing, but making the writing of others available. I feel similarly about Lester Del Rey. I tried to read one of his books and thought it was terrible, but he was certainly a large figure in science fiction and fantasy.
     
  6. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    The best Lovecraft Mythos short stories, outside of Lovecraft's own, are in my opinion The Black Stone by Robert E. Howard and My Boat by Joanna Russ. The latter one is my favorite because it uses the Dream Cycle in a really unique and interesting way.

    I've never heard of Lester Del Rey. I'm not much of a Science Fiction fan.
     
  7. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Have you heard of Del Rey Books?

    I haven't read the work you mentioned by Joanna Russ. Not sure who she is, but I'll look for it :)
     
  8. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Del Rey Books? Yeah. I've heard of them. I don't know much about them though.

    The Joanna Russ story can be found in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos published by Ballantine Books. It can easily be found on Amazon. I had to have my copy shipped from the US, but it was worth it. It's not a bad collection, and there are even a few jems inside.
     
  9. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    Funny that it's through Ballantine. Del Rey is now part of Ballantine :) Lester Del Rey started the company in the 70s and they published Fantasy and Science Fiction. A lot of work that might not have found a home at the time otherwise. But man, Del Rey was not a good writer himself :)

    I'll check out that book. Thanks for the recommendation!
     
  10. Lemex
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    Lemex That's Lord Lemex to you. Contributor

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    Ah. That might be why Del Ray is vaguely familiar then. :p

    And it's not a problem. :) It is a pretty good book.
     
  11. WriterDude
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    As for Lovecraft, you do know he was friends with Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch (who wrote Psycho, among other stories) and a Robert E. Howard? Lovecraft and Howard helped each other quite a bit, and Smith was part of the Arkham House publishing company. I don't think it's a coincidence all of them became famous. Once one got some success, he could help the others. ;)

    As for what makes a writer timeless, I think it has about being a great writer, write stories people enjoy and pushing boundaries. We can laugh at Dracula and Frankenstein as horror stories now, but back then they were both pushing boundaries quite a bit and told stories no one had heard before. Even today, I still haven't seen a single story inspired by Frankenstein in the same way we have the whoe vampire genre. Sure we have undead, zombies and all that, but not many people created in the same way Frankenstein created life. I wonder why not, though. (sure we have Frankenstein rip-offs, Frankenstein sequels and all that, but not "only inspired by Frankenstein" with a different setting, different story, different characters and all that. The closest I've seen is Re-Animator by Lovecraft, but even that is mostly just a zombie-story.)
     
  12. Quezacotl
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    Quezacotl Contributing Member

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    People do not enjoy work that forces them to think, but rather draws out an emotion.
    Innovation or pushing boundaries merely makes a work stand out. In the literary world you cannot escape Virginia Woolf, a writer who refused to make fantastical tales and adventures, sticking to the idea that everyday life has as much potential for stories as any fictional story.
     

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