8 Literary Classics That Wouldn't Sell Today

When it comes to classics, there typically are two reactions. You’ll get groans of agony or screams of delight. They are loved or hated. Why? Well, like many books of today, they have people in both camps screaming away. But I got to thinking. These so loved, or hated, books...How would the public react today if they were published by the large publishing houses and marketed as Harry Potter or Twilight were? My guess is that they would flop or at least not be huge successes as we see them as now.


Which classics do you see as ones that could appear on this list? I’ve decided to list eight below that I firmly believe would be rejected in today’s world.

#1 Moby Dick

Seriously, who has read this book? Very few have though we all know what the story is about. a man wants revenge against a big white whale and will risk anything to get it. I have to confess that I haven’t read it either, but I will one day just to say I have.

Why would it not sell today? Because it is hard to read with a dry style that is overly descriptive. Read this and argue against it:


Circumambulate the city of a dreamy Sabbath afternoon. Go from Corlears Hook to Coenties Slip, and from thence, by Whitehall, northward. What do you see?--Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands upon thousands of mortal men fixed in ocean reveries. Some leaning against the spiles; some seated upon the pier-heads; some looking over the bulwarks of ships from China; some high aloft in the rigging, as if striving to get a still better seaward peep. But these are all landsmen; of week days pent up in lath and plaster--tied to
counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Are the green fields gone? What do they here?


The fact is that it is an old story written for a different time. The messages within could be applied to today, but the writing style would not draw people in to read it.

#2 The Count of Monte Cristo

Before we go further here, let me tell you that I love this story. It is amazing. Tried reading it. I wanted to hang myself. The writing was laborious. Here is a sample:

Having acquitted themselves of their errand, and exchanged a hearty shake of the hand with Edmond, Danglars and Caderousse took their places beside Fernand and old Dantes,
-- the latter of whom attracted universal notice. The old man was attired in a suit of glistening watered silk, trimmed with steel buttons, beautifully cut and polished. His thin but wiry legs were arrayed in a pair of richly embroidered clocked stockings, evidently of English manufacture, while from his three-cornered hat depended a long streaming knot of white and blue ribbons. Thus he came along, supporting himself on a curiously carved stick, his aged countenance lit up with happiness, looking for all the world like one of the aged dandies of 1796, parading the newly opened gardens of the Tuileries and Luxembourg. Beside him glided Caderousse, whose desire to partake of the good things provided for the wedding-party had induced him to become reconciled to the Dantes, father and son, although there still lingered in his mind a faint and unperfect recollection of the events of the preceding night; just as the brain retains on waking in the morning the dim and misty outline of a dream.

It’s much of the same problem as it is with Moby Dick, the style is so far removed from today’s world that most readers cannot read it past the first few pages. It is a style of years gone by that few can relate to today.

#3 Crime and Punishment

My joke with this book is that it was a crime to write it and a punishment to read it. But I will tell you that after I read it, I wanted to read it again despite the fact that I about killed myself in the first 80% of the book, but then I got into it at the end and realized what the first part was doing. Still, it is one that maybe the title today would help it sell, but reception might not be so good.


But as soon as she went out, he got up, latched the door, undid the parcel which Razumihin had brought in that evening and had tied up again and began dressing. Strange to say, he seemed immediately to have become perfectly calm; not a trace of his recent delirium nor of the panic fear that had haunted him of late. It was the first moment of a strange sudden calm. His movements were precise and definite; a firm purpose was evident in them. "To-day, to-day," he muttered to himself. He understood that he was still weak, but his intense spiritual concentration gave him strength and self-confidence. He hoped, moreover, that he would not fall down in the street. When he had dressed in entirely new clothes, he looked at the money lying on the table, and after a moment's thought put it in his pocket. It was twenty-five roubles. He took also all the copper change from the ten roubles spent by Razumihin on the clothes. Then he softly unlatched the door, went out, slipped downstairs and glanced in at the open kitchen door. Nastasya was standing with her back to him, blowing up the landlady's samovar. She heard nothing. Who would have dreamed of his going out, indeed? A minute later he was in the street.


This passage isn’t too bad, but think of a whole book like this. Again, the writing style is so different, but it is one book that you when you are done reading it, you see the value in it, but how many will not classify it a DNF?

#4 Great Expectations

I’ve read this book twice and I will read it again as an adult to see what I missed as a kit, but even reading this passage, I almost fall asleep.

It came to my knowledge, through what passed between Mrs. Pocket and Drummle while I was attentive to my knife and fork, spoon, glasses, and other instruments of self-destruction, that Drummle, whose Christian name was Bentley, was actually the next heir but one to a baronetcy. It further appeared that the book I had seen Mrs. Pocket reading in the garden was all about titles, and that she knew the exact date at which her grandpapa would have come into the book, if he ever had come at all. Drummle didn't say much, but in his limited way (he struck me as a sulky kind of fellow) he spoke as one of the elect, and recognized Mrs. Pocket as a woman and a sister. No one but themselves and Mrs. Coiler the toady neighbor showed any interest in this part of the conversation, and it appeared to me that it was painful to Herbert; but it promised to last a long time, when the page came in with the announcement of a domestic affliction. It was, in effect, that the cook had mislaid the beef. To my unutterable amazement, I now, for the first time, saw Mr. Pocket relieve his mind by going through a performance that struck me as very extraordinary, but which made no impression on anybody else, and with which I soon became as familiar as the rest. He laid down the carving-knife and fork,--being engaged in carving, at the moment,--put his two hands into his disturbed hair, and appeared to make an extraordinary effort to lift himself up by it. When he had done this, and had not lifted himself up at all, he quietly went on with what he was about.

How much an editor mark this up? I see in my mind red marks everywhere. Verbose is one way to describe this passage. Today’s readers want to cut to the chase with some fluff here and there but not to this extreme.

#5 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

My head spun as I read this book at the extremely long sentences. They seemed to go on and on. Today reviewers would say it needed heavily editing and proofreading. What do you think?

After awhile, finding that nothing more happened, she decided on going into the garden at once; but, alas for poor Alice! When she got to the door, she found she had forgotten the little golden key, and when she went back to the table for it, she found she could not possibly reach it: she could see it quite plainly through the glass and she tried her best to climb up one of the legs of the table, but it was too slippery, and when she had tired herself out with trying, the poor little thing sat down and cried.

#6 The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

As a teen reading this, I wanted to just beg the teacher to end my life. While Mr. Franklin contributed a lot to our lives and he was a very intelligent man, he was also very arrogant and long-winded.

In our house there lodg'd a young woman, a milliner, who, I think, had a shop in the Cloisters. She had been genteelly bred, was sensible and lively, and of most pleasing conversation. Ralph read plays to her in the evenings, they grew intimate, she took another lodging, and he
followed her. They liv'd together some time; but, he being still out of business, and her income not sufficient to maintain them with her child, he took a resolution of going from London, to try for a country school, which he thought himself well qualified to undertake, as he wrote an excellent hand, and was a master of arithmetic and accounts. This, however, he deemed a business below him, and confident of future better fortune, when he should be unwilling to have it known that he once was so meanly employed, he changed his name, and did me the honour to assume mine; for I soon after had a letter from him, acquainting me that he was settled in a small village (in Berkshire, I think it was, where he taught reading and writing to ten or a dozen boys, at sixpence each per week), recommending Mrs. T---- to my care, and desiring me to write to him, directing for Mr. Franklin, schoolmaster, at such a place.

#7 The Scarlet Letter

I do like this story, but the style of writing is one that would not be too well received by the masses today. Too many words used that could be more concise.

The young pastor's voice was tremulously sweet, rich, deep, and broken. The feeling that it so evidently manifested, rather than the direct purport of the words, caused it to vibrate within all hearts, and brought the listeners into one accord of sympathy. Even the poor baby at Hester's bosom was affected by the same influence, for it directed its hitherto vacant gaze towards Mr. Dimmesdale, and held up its little arms with a half-pleased, half-plaintive murmur. So powerful seemed the minister's appeal that the people could not believe but that Hester Prynne would speak out the guilty name, or else that the guilty one himself in whatever high or lowly place he stood, would be drawn forth by an inward and inevitable necessity, and compelled to ascend the scaffold.

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The Last of the Mohicans

Another great story that is extremely descriptive and long-winded.

The repast, which was greatly aided by the addition of a few delicacies that Heyward had the precaution to bring with him when they left their horses, was exceedingly refreshing to the weary party. Uncas acted as attendant to the females, performing all the little offices within his power, with a mixture of dignity and anxious grace, that served to amuse Heyward, who well knew that it was an utter innovation on the Indian customs, which forbid their warriors to descend to any menial employment, especially in favor of their women. As the rights of hospitality were, however, considered sacred among them, this little departure from the dignity of manhood excited no audible comment. Had there been one there sufficiently disengaged to become a close observer, he might have fancied that the services of the young chief were not entirely impartial. That while he tendered to Alice the gourd of sweet water, and the venison in a trencher, neatly carved from the knot of the pepperidge, with sufficient courtesy, in performing the same offices to her sister, his dark eye lingered on her rich, speaking countenance. Once or twice he was compelled to speak, to command her attention of those he served. In such cases he made use of English, broken and imperfect, but sufficiently intelligible, and which he rendered so mild and musical, by his deep, guttural voice, that it never failed to cause both ladies to look up in admiration and astonishment. In the course of these civilities, a few sentences were exchanged, that served to establish the appearance of an amicable intercourse between the parties.




Keep in mind that I’m not saying these are not good stories or that they shouldn’t be read. But admit it. If an author wrote them today and published them, the reading public wouldn’t be too receptive. I doubt we’d find them on the bestsellers list.


What other ones can you think of?

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3 comments

WeeCatCreations1 profile image

WeeCatCreations1 2 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

When I tell people that I was an English major, they jump to the conclusion that I've read many classics (or read them exclusively); however, I have to agree with you that it is difficult to get through the language of many of these books and that they can alienate a modern audience.


AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 2 years ago from California

I hated Great Expectations and love the Scarlet Letter--not sure what that says about me!


justthemessenger profile image

justthemessenger 2 years ago from The Great Midwest

I read and immensely enjoyed four of the classics listed, numbers 1,6,7 and8. The beauty of this literature is the lyrical and visual quality of the writing. I love these classics for that reason and this is what makes these literary gems beloved by many. They stand the test of time, unique and beautiful.

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