Timeless or Literary?

May 20, 2007Archive

I have good friends. One such amazing friend is D’Ann who loves me well, dares to speak the truth to me, and shoulders my burdens in prayer.

Recently I asked a group about including a literary track at a conference. Later, I realized this word, literary, is a divisive word, and can sound elitist. D’Ann helped me unpack literary and helped me see it really wasn’t the word I was after.

The thesaurus says:

Literary: bookish, literate, scholarly, erudite, cerebral, formal, artistic, stuffy

“Timelessness,” D’Ann said. “You want to write something that becomes a classic.”

I resonated with her words. I thought back over the books that had become classics over the past century. While some would definitely be placed in the literary genre, many were popular books, well written, that spoke deeply to the human condition.

There is a universal quality about timeless books–something in the storytelling that resonates with a broad spectrum of people. Consider the synonyms of timeless and classic:

Timeless: eternal, never ending, everlasting, ageless, perpetual, immortal, undying

Classic: excellent, model, exemplary, extraordinary, vintage, standard, prototype

I used to say I wrote Southern Literary Drama. Now I’m not so sure. It would be stuck-up to say, “Um, well, yeah. I write classics–timeless books, you know.” How presumptuous! But internally, this is something I’m aiming for. I believe many novelists aim for this. Who doesn’t want a story that is ageless and extraordinary? Who doesn’t want to write characters that startle the reader enough to stay with her the rest of her life?

Scout and Jem play in the sweaty South in my mind. Huckleberry Finn’s in there too, paddling. Stephen Dedalus haunts me still. Pip, Lennie Small, Anne with an E, Jo. They’re classics. They’re timeless.

But how do we do that? How does Scout enliven a page as she did? Because she lived in the mind of Harper Lee, a woman who took the craft so seriously, she couldn’t bring herself to write again, for fear of not measuring up to Scout’s reputation. We hold the characters in our minds, but they live through our fingers. And they breathe through our stories. Weaving it all together in a beautiful prose tapestry takes time.

Maybe that’s the kicker. Time. To write words that become timeless, we need to stop, breathe, wrestle, and take our words slowly. I’m writing a novel right now, and although I’m having the time of my life, every time I go back through yesterday’s words, I shudder. Because there’s so much to do. So many nuances to invoke. So much characterization needed to do to morph my characters from simple to complex, from out-on-their-sleeves to subtle and nuanced.

Maybe our discussions should form more around what makes good literature timeless. Maybe the word literary is too pithy and stuck up. Maybe it divides. And maybe it’s not what we’re after anyway.