Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Difference Between Classic and Cliche

I  was sitting at my computer, drafting a blog post, and trying to explain to my readers that I was taking a break from blogging. It was really so traumatic that I instead decided to spend the time drafting my posts for the next two weeks, which I am spending on vacation and at a writer's conference.

That was much easier.

One of the questions I have often had in my reading is this: how do I tell the difference between classic and cliche books? On the surface, it doesn't seem like a big deal. But when you dig a little farther, it's the difference between TV dinners and homemade cooking. It's a matter of what's healthy, and what's processed. Believe it or not, some of the literary offerings today are so processed that I'm surprised they don't say "contains methyclorisothiazolinine" on the back. I've probably been guilty of reading some of them (haven't we all eaten Ding Dongs from time to time?) But in today's post, I hope to include some helpful pointers for discerning between the two, so that, if you do choose to indulge, you'll do so with your eyes open.

Let's start with the cliche:

A cliché is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has been overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel -Wikipedia

This is cliche:

(Oh, how I wish I could find Volumes II and III!)

Cliche is trite sentiment--the couple swearing undying love and then having a marriage crisis in the next book. The beautiful young lady who has a stereotypical prejudice against the handsome young man, before he saves her life. (Not talking Pride and Prejudice here, more like The Exiles.) The pauper who becomes a prince because he saves the life of the king. The half-human half-angel who must save her colony on Mars.

This editorial review expresses it perfectly. (Note: all identifying names have been removed, but the original source is here.)

 Here, with his coauthor and daughter, the Christy Award winner once again dashes off exactly the type of formula fiction that is the bane of the literary crowd and the joy of his devoted readership... The protagonist of this first volume, [ female name removed], encounters catastrophes that unfold relentlessly: neglect by a gambling, adulterous father; the accidental death of her mother; the supposed death of a sibling; a dashing but unworthy suitor who loves her for her money; an indifferent stepmother; a shoot-out in the bayou; and, of course, romance with a boy-next-door type. Along the way, [she] discovers that Catholicism does not offer her the hope of her [boyfriend's]Protestantism, and she predictably converts. The years pass quickly (approximately 20 years in less than 300 pages), which makes for sketchy character development. Like cotton candy, this novel's substance is thin, the plot line is treacly and the dialogue is sometimes stiff. Yet all the elements of successful light adventure romance for evangelical Christian readers are here, and M's faithful following will likely devour this new series. --Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
They said it perfectly. Cliche is the cotton candy of modern fiction. And historical works, for that matter. The King's Blue Ribband is over a century old, and horrifically shallow.

But hang on a minute, here. Before we start looking with guilt at all our old favorites, let's talk about classics. It's easy to mix the two up, and we don't want to be throwing out the homegrown organics  in our search for excellence.


The word classic means something that is a perfect example of a particular style, something of lasting worth or with a timeless quality. --Wikipedia

The prince saving the king can be a shining example of classic literature. A couple's struggling marriage isn't all that cheesy when you're in the midst of it yourself. A battle won, a savior to his people, the love between a man and a woman--these can all be very classic things indeed.

Kidnapped is a classic, because it shows the struggle of oppression against tyranny. Pride and Prejudice is a classic, because it shows a man and woman overcoming prejudices about each other. The Hobbit is a classic because it's a lovable adventure with a bunch of relatable characters.

So How Do We Tell Between The Two?

1. Cliche is politically correct. Classic is timeless principles.
The whole point of cliche is that it doesn't stand the test of time. Classic principles are found in Scripture, and can be used time and time and time again without wearing thin. Cliche principles are trite and shallow, and don't really stick when the going gets tough.

2. Cliche is selfish. Classics are selfless.
 Cliche is all about satisfying each of the characters. Classic is about leaving some unfinished threads, some disappointed expectations, some endings that are not completely happy.

3. Cliche is Hollywood. Classics are real.
Cliche romances get to marry the movie star and live in the Bahamas. Classic romances get the real husband, who will be true "until death do us part." Cliche gets the big house, the fancy car, the beautiful girl, the life of his dreams. Classic has his dreams shaped and refined as the Lord moves him to a deeper understanding of His purpose for him. In classic, some dreams have to die. In cliche, every wildest dream is fulfilled.

4. Cliche is entertainment. Classics are tools.
 Cliche is there to make the big bucks. There's a reason why they're touted as beach reads, ones you can polish off in an afternoon. Cliche will give you the satisfying moment with the processed aftertaste about an hour later. Classic will move you, will impact your life, will change you for the better, and inspire you to advance the Kingdom of Christ whether or not the author is a Christian.

5. Sometimes Cliche is Classic and Classic is Cliche.
Some books blur the lines. Otherwise I wouldn't have reviewed a Davis Bunn last week. Some books are definitely cliche, but their impact is classic. Some books are definitely classic, but their impact is cliche. There is no hard and fast rule to hold up a book too. In the end, God will show you personally what's worthwhile--classic-- for you to keep re-reading. I read a few cliche books that are really classics in my life.

Are Cliche Books Bad?

Will processed cheese kill us?

Cotton candy is fun to eat once in a while, and cliche books can be quite entertaining upon occasion. It's not a sin to read cliche books. The whole point of cliche is that it was originally--original. It's been overused a time or two, but that doesn't make it inherently bad.

Just don't get your healthy physical protein from processed cheese, and your healthy mental protein from processed books. Save them for special occasions (they're great to read when you're sick, or on holiday) and don't feel guilty for enjoying them once in a while. Relaxation has benefits of it's own, and is certainly not a waste of time, when used properly.

I would be interested to hear your thoughts on classic and cliche--are you a "classic only" or a mixture of the two?

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Dear Lady B,
    Well, I had to look at the cartoon again before I got it. It was funny.
    You brought up some good points. I read a cliche book once.For me, the plot seemed muddled. They also killed someone I liked!!! For me, the plot seemed muddled. Oh well.... :D :D :D
    I like hearty reads...But cliche are nice too.
    Enjoying our vacation...
    Love, Sister

  2. Oh, please, where are those cartoons from? I laughed my head off!

    I'd add something to the second of your (excellent points)--"Cliche is selfish. Classics are selfless."--Cliche is also self-indulgent as far as both the author and the reader are concerned. One great example of an author who wrote both is Stanley J Weyman. His "Count Hannibal" was an unbelievably awful guilty pleasure :(. That books was almost entirely self-indulgent. On the other hand, his "A Gentleman of France" was...actually a decent historial novel.

    That said, I've spent some of my happiest...and least productive...reading hours drinking in cliche, usually of the old-fashioned variety. Authors who are good for this include Rafael Sabatini, Mary Johnstone, and Florence L Barclay...

  3. Oh, I did too. :D Believe it or not, they're on Wikipedia's "Cliche" page, which you can find here (there are a few more, actually; mine was a shortened version):


    Ah, yes, I love guilty pleasures. :) Hard to admit on the blog, but it is so. I love Mary Johnstone's "To Have and to Hold" ("Audrey" was absolutely horrendous; don't put yourself through the tragedy.) And I got both "The Rosary" and "The Mistress of Shenstone" but never got around to them before I had to return them to the library. I was reminded of them by your review, and would like to look them up again. I did start them, and really enjoyed what I have seen of them so far. Jane Dalmain was a lot of fun.

    I guess cliche books are like eating ice-cream--self indulgence that can be excused once in a while.

    (I was going to say that old-fashioned cliche was much better than modern, which can be true in some cases, but after "The King's Blue Riband" by Beth Ellis I really couldn't say it anymore...almost lost eight dollars on that book, but fortunately the shop took it back.)

  4. Volumes II and III


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