“To produce a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme.”
Said Herman Melville.
And it’s true: mighty themes are one of the distinguishing characteristics of timeless art.
What is theme? In literature, theme is the meaning that the events of your story add up to. The events are the plot.
Not all stories necessarily have a theme — and these are the stories that time almost invariably sinks.
Soap operas, for example, which possess plenty of plot, usually have no theme to speak of.
Some of the great books in world literature are great primarily because of their themes. Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra, which does not translate well, is great because of its theme: the human potential which resides within us all.
But there is one other element to durable literature, another reason that some art is timeless, even when the theme is not mighty: That reason is depth of style.
Style is The How. It is presentation.
Here, for example, we can observe drastic stylistic differences in artworks whose theme and subject-matter are essentially identical:
I often cite in literature the Englishman Anthony Burgess, whom I admire, but who never, in my opinion, wrote a great book. Yet his literature, much of it, endures and will endure, for one reason alone: his writing style (at its best — not, incidentally, evidenced in his most famous book) is so sophisticated and so strong.
“This was the day before the night when the knives of disappointment struck.”
Isn’t that gorgeous?
But the greatest example of timelessness in literature is unquestionably Shakespeare, whose themes are so often undistinguished and even trite. Yet the power of his writing style alone — what Nabokov called “the verbal-poetic texture of Shakespeare” — is what makes Shakespeare’s literature last.
“I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows.”
That is a durable style.