I have yet to meet anyone who’s hiked the Appalachian Trail by accident– you swear, you just stepped outside to get the mail, but 2,000 miles later you looked up and realized you were in Maine.
That kind of hike takes preparation. You wear your most comfortable hiking boots, you check the weather, you bring supplies of food and water, you make sure you’ve got time and energy to invest in the experience. And it is an investment. Everyone I know who’s hiked the trail has spoken lovingly of the experience forever after.
In my the same way, I have yet to meet anybody who’s ever read The Lord of the Rings by accident. Everyone I know who’s finished the book did so knowing exactly what they were dealing with when they went into the experience. And that’s because, as books go, it’s not easy. I know plenty of people who tried to tackle it, but ended up giving up before they reached the end of the first chapter. To stick with the metaphor, they tackled the Appalachian Trail while expecting it to be exactly like a romp through a city park.
Often, classic novels are an endeavor. They use arcane language and styles that we’ve abandoned ages ago, they take forever and a half to get to the point. Plenty of people have complained about Tolkien’s infatuation with the scenery, or Victor Hugo’s love-hate relationship with pacing. While that doesn’t diminish from their beauty, it does make them difficult, especially if you’re more accustomed to modern authors and the conventions they use.
More than a few people would argue that the beauty of the Appalachian trail would be diminished by paved roads or street lights, though they would make it safer and easier to trek, and it would make the Trail more appealing to a lot more people. Of course, the lack of people is part adds to the quiet serenity, the untouched quality of the wilderness.
Of course, when you’re writing with the intent of being published, a lack of readers usually isn’t the end goal. Unless you run with a certain crowd, a book is no more entertaining if nobody else has read it. In fact, it could be argued that several series were greatly improved by the devotion of their fanbase. (Harry Potter is the obvious example.)
The fact of the matter is, we read classics because they’re the books that Everybody Who’s Anybody has read– they’re on school reading lists, they’re the ones that the great authors/filmmakers/visionaries have read. But if you’re a fledgling author, you probably don’t have school reading lists and “100 Greatest Books of All Time” lists to build a fanbase for you*.
When we talk about modern conventions– avoid filtering, use active voice instead of ‘was’ and ‘were’, employ dialogue tags that don’t distract from what’s being said— we’re talking about adding those features that make writing easier and more accessible to a modern audience. After all, unlike hiking trails, writing doesn’t lose its beauty as it becomes more accessible.
*If you do, I’m insanely jealous of your success and deeply flattered that you’re reading my blog!