Have you ever found yourself reading a book and suddenly the characters are referencing a “classic” text you haven’t read? Or, alternatively, stumbled upon a book in which the characters discuss works you are familiar with, letting you experience their references fully? This is the result of “base texts,” or “basics” or “classics” being utilized in much of Western education and being taught across wide portions of academia. These classics and base texts are utilized in literary theory, philosophical theory, historical theory, and other foundational studies in humanities, making them texts that many people in Western countries have read.
Books that are written around base texts often have parallel story structures, or motifs that resonate with the original text. These aren’t quite adaptations as they don’t retell the same story, but utilizing classic literature for its iconic imagery and notable plot beats does help draw more readers in. Of course, not all readers will have read the base text(s), but it’s generally not a necessity to understand and enjoy the story. Having read the base text(s) is more of a bonus.
An excellent example of this use of base texts is the novel Beastly by Alex Flinn. In the novel, several motifs from classical Gothic and romantic literature are utilized to tell the story. Of course, anyone who enjoys a good Beauty and the Beast retelling will still understand and enjoy Beastly. But a major plot point of the novel is that Linda–the “beauty”–is an avid reader and the “beast” becomes one himself before officially meeting her. First, he is taught literature by his tutor who introduces him to a variety of Gothic classics, then he begins to read the books that Linda reads in order to keep up with her. As a result, the motifs of several of these novels–most notably The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Jane Eyre–are incorporated into the story and commented on by the characters. Having an understanding of these novels is not required to follow those plot points, but having read them does enrich your understanding of the imagery being employed–such as Linda crying out for help and being heard in the same way that Jane and Rochester are reunited in Jane Eyre.
Have you read any books that have base texts featured? What book was it, and what was the base text? Let me know in the comments! And if you enjoy my content, consider commissioning me on Ko-Fi or just leaving a tip!
3 replies on “Discussion: Classical “Base Texts” and their role in Contemporary Novels”
This! So I’m from India and we don’t read a lot of the “school texts” that most others do especially in Western countries. When books reference it or take heavy inspiration from the base texts, I don’t get them. This is alright sometimes but very bad in others.
For example, when I read If We Were Villains which is very heavily taking inspiration from all of Shakespeare’s works. I was able to enjoy it without knowing the works, even though I’d definitely understand it more if I knew.
On the other hand, my reading of Legendborn wasn’t good. It’s a great fantasy novel with diverse representation that goes into institutional and generational racism. It shows how Black people are excluded from all traditions. But the reason I couldn’t enjoy it was because it is inspired by the tales of King Arthur. I only know of King Arthur due to another book that I read years back (which was a romance), and I actually assumed that it’s a real story. So in Legendborn when they said “wait, King Arthur was real???”, I was like “it’s NOT real??” That completely shifted my perspective and I had to reread the beginning to fully understand the story. While base texts make for an enriching experience, I do think that there should be some explanation so that readers who have NO idea can also enjoy it properly. Otherwise the books are targeted only at the people who have read the base texts, which is often readers in Western countries.
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It’s definitely important for authors to make their writing more accessible! It’s absolutely fine to be inspired by a classic and want to include the motifs of that book in your text, but if you’re making explicit references they need enough exposition that anyone could understand the joke or get why the reference is important. Dropping mentions to things just to say “oh look how smart and well read I am” is just as bad as “oh look i made a pop culture reference that means my book is cool!”
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