So who would win?
And what the heck do I mean by that title (not that my titles necessarily mean anything other than that I have suffered a massive overdose of Skittles and Dr. Pepper - a mean combo).
What I mean is, I wonder who will be regarded as THE great English-speaking literary master of our age 500 years from now. English teachers and professors all over the US and England would probably respond that it will be James Joyce, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, Maya Angelou, or William Faulkner, or a host of other folks along those lines.
Me, I think J.K. Rowling and Stephen King are running neck and neck in the race for the crowning title of our era's "Shakespeare."
That sound you hear right now is about a thousand heart attacks all over the US as the "really smart" people out there gurgle and mutter "blasphemy" under their breath and look around for a rock to huck at me.
But hear me out. What is it that creates a classic? It is a literary work or a body of literature that speak through the ages, that are passed from hand to hand, heart to heart, and withstand the test of time.
There's a word for that: popular.
Popular is a dirty word for the literate elite. Not for all of them, but I certainly know more than a few English teachers who think that a piece of writing isn't "valuable literature" unless you need the assistance of a cryptographer to decipher what it "really means."
It's kind of like the priesthood of the Middle Ages, when the common folk were forbidden from reading bibles in a lot of places, because that ensured that the priests would always be important. Our modern version: you don't understand the "important" works of literature? That doesn't mean you're stupid. It means that some English teacher has job security.
So I don't think Joyce has a chance. I only know three people that read him for "fun," and I'm pretty sure two of them did it because they thought it gave them a shot at getting a date with the third. Faulkner? Better, but not someone who has endured as much on his own merit (which I actually think is pretty good) as because we have included him in English text books. And Fitzgerald? Forget it. The Great Gatsby was, for me, The Highly Forgettable Gatsby, and would have been The Never Cared Gatsby if it hadn't been forced upon me by my English teachers.
And now, before you go getting opinions about me, let me tell you something: I had read the complete works of William Shakespeare before I was thirteen... and loved them. Ditto Mary Shelley's classic Frankenstein, and Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Little Women, Little Men (anyting Alcott, in fact), and most of Jane Austen. I'm not someone who just reads things that you can find next to the magazines in the supermarket.
I'm just also someone who thinks that, occasionally, those books next to the magazines are pretty dang good.
So, to return to my thesis (smart word alert!), I think that Rowling and King are probably our two top contenders. They have both managed to create worlds (numerous in King's case) that have become, not merely appreciated, not merely loved, but iconized and internalized in our society. Say Harry Potter to ANYONE, and they know what you're talking about. Say Cujo to a 14-year-old, and he knows you're referring to a crazed rabid dog.
The books written by these authors have actually already passed EVERY test required for a book to be a "classic" except for one... the test of time. Great Expectations is still a great book because it still says things that matter today, to the readers of this era. Les Miserables still teaches - beautifully - lessons that every society must grapple with as it tries to balance justice and mercy. Even Dumas, much more of an "action writer" than many of the others on this list (he's the guy who wrote The Three Musketteers and a bunch of others like that), still put into his writing themes that are relatable and important today.
So, in 500 years will the battle between Voldemort and Harry Potter still matter? I think so. Themes of family, of love, of strife, of bigotry and hatred and those who would fight against it... these will all still be relatable and relevant.
Ditto the questions raised in many of King's books. The Stand, and its themes of what makes good worth following (even though as a rule it tends to be a bit less organized than evil), and what it takes to conquer evil (give you a hint... the scene where the bad guys are blown up isn't when the good guys win... it's the scene when one of the good guys is threatened by Satan... and laughs). Or how about The Shining, and its motifs of love vs. abuse, of substance abuse, of isolation and creativity and a thousand other things that will still matter to people in the year 2510.
I DO have an opinion as to which of the two will be judged as the greater writer of our age, but I'm keeping it to myself, for now. But I believe it WILL be one of them.
What do YOU think?