Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Pairing Contemporary and Classic Novels

Every time a reviewer exclaims that Popular Modern Writer is the new Popular Classic Writer, you can almost feel the earth wobbling on its axis from all the cringing. Sure, such analogies are basically a lazy way to describe a writer's work (both the contemporary and the classic), and they usually only work on the most cursory level...but I dig 'em! Such comparisons are fun to think about, aren't they?

To me, they work in the same vein as "If you like X, then you'll probably like Y." And since recommendations are the backbone of the bookish social community, what's wrong with thinking about the modern in terms of the classic?

What's more, and now to the heart of the matter, such comparisons can demystify the classics to readers who may have been terrified that they're stuffy and boring. So, if you have a classics-averse reader in your recommendations purview, here are a few suggestions for modern--->classics comparisons.

If you're a Richard Russo fan, Charles Dickens is your man — The fact that Russo is a big Dickens fan makes this comparison a lot easier. But in terms of content, both novelists write tales dissecting the life of the lower crust of society. And they're both awesome.

If you're a Twihard, check out Jane Austen — Tawdry love triangles, anyone? Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice is often cited as the best literary love triangle story of all time, but her Mansfield Park includes a doozy as well.

If you like Nathan Englander, you'll probably enjoy Saul Bellow Maybe a bit of deep cut for the casual reader here, but I get the sense that many younger readers are afraid of Bellow. I'm not sure why that is. So, my advice is to try Nathan Englander first (especially his latest collection titled What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank), and if you like him, you'll also like Bellow. (And here's a tip: They're both freakin' awesome!)

If you loved The Hunger Games, then you're remiss if you haven't yet read Margaret Atwood — Atwood isn't exactly "classic literature," like these others, but she will be in time, I'd bet. The strong female characters navigating Orwellian dystopias tie these two writers together. Atwood is smooth and easy to read, and so YA readers will have no problem digesting her frightening tales of the future, like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood.

If The Help made you feel ALL THE FEELINGS, so will Toni Morrison —  The Help's treatment of race relations is fascinating, but it doesn't plumb the same depths as much of Morrison's work, so this is by no means meant to be an accurate comparison. But if The Help was intriguing to you, Ms. Morrison's work will blow you away. Beloved is, simply put, one of the best novels of the 20th century. And if you've never read Morrison, now's a great time to check out her back titles (as our Book Riot MC Rebecca is doing) because she has a new novel coming out May 8. And we'll be celebrating.

What would be on your contemporary to classics comparison list?

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot last week.)


  1. Good job Greg, great recommendation.

    If you like Ian Fleming I'd recommend Robert Ludlum and Philip Kerr.


    1. Good ones - or even Ken Follett, right?

    2. I've never read Ken Follett (had his books on my nook for years) but I'll take your word for it.

  2. Very nice pairings and very helpful to those readers looking to refresh their reading palates on either end of the spectrum of contemporary vs. classic. As you pointed out, Margaret Atwood is more contemporary, but I think though she may not yet be considered classic, she's poised to be so one day.

    1. Agreed on Atwood - and the case may even be made that The Handmaid's Tale actually is a classic, even if her newer dystopian novels aren't quite yet.

  3. Love all the pairings, but especially The Hunger Games and Atwood. The Handmaid's Tale is such an awesome book.

  4. I liked The Help -> Morrison suggestion, as I feel a lot of the discussions around that book would have been made better by a background in Beloved (the only Morrison I've read but Wow what a novel).

  5. I work in a bookstore and am often asked to make similar types of recommendations. My favorite is still, "What's the next Hunger Games?"

    Because, well... there's a ton of dystopian lit out there (especially for Y.A.), but the next Hunger Games won't be like The Hunger Games. Just like the next Harry Potter\Twilight\Whatever wasn't Harry Potter\Twilight\Whatever.