Classic status re-evaluated
Back in August 2012, I signed up for the Classics Club challenge: 50 books to read within five years. It took me a while to come up with my list of books. I went for a mixture of books I had always meant to read but never got around to and titles that came up frequently on recommended reading lists. I also gave thought to filling in gaps in my previous reading – ones that people always seem to talk about but had never been on my radar.
I’ve changed the list around a few times but what I didn’t do in 2012 and haven’t done since is given any thought to what I mean by the ‘classic’. It wasn’t until I came across an essay by Italio Calvino, the Italian author and journalist, that I started to give this any serious thought. And what I’ve realised is that I have books on my list that really don’t fit – they may be old and popular but that doesn’t make them classic.
Calvino’s essay Why Read the Classics starts with a 14 point definition of the term:
- classics are books about which you usually hear people saying “I’m rereading….” never “I’m reading”
- classics are books which constitute a treasured experience for this who have read and loved them, but they remain just as rich an experience who reserve the chance to read them when they are in the best condition to enjoy them
- classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hid in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective consciousness
- a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading
- a classic is a book which even when e reading it for the first time gives the sense of something we have read before
- a classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers
- classics are books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures through which they have passed
- a classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off
- classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them
- a classic is a term given to any book which comes to represent whole universe
- ‘your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define ourself in relation or even in opposition to it
- a classic is a work that comes before other classics, but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works
- a classic is a work which regulates the noise of the present to a background hum which at the same time the classics cannot exist without
- a classic is a work which resists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway
Some of these resonated more with me than others. Re-reability (points 1, 4 and 6) is a key one for me when I think about those ‘classics’ I’ve enjoyed the most. They are usually ones that have withstood multiple readings – my favourite has to be Middlemarch by George Eliot, with Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening – three books that every time I read afresh I find some new aspct I had missed before.
I don’t quite ‘get’ points 13 and 14 so if any of your brighter sparks can shine a light on those it will be helpful.
Point 11 about a book being a personal response also struck a chord. The best reading I’ve experienced is where I feel the text is not simply going in part of the brain and out of another without any thinking in between. I love books which make me think, make me stop and question whether it accords with my views or with which I disagree o which cause me to challenge preconceptions. A perfect example about engaging so strongly with a novel that it was an emotional journey was Petals of Blood by the African author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. There were times it made me despair and other times it made me angry at the way in which politicians and leaders in some of the poor countries ignore the needs of their populations while feathering their own nests, and our western governments condone this by giving them yet more grant aid. Watching tt coverage last week of the UK Prime Minister’s visit to India I got very irritated by seeing displays of the country’s air force put on for her benefit. The money used on fuel would more have been better spent on providing clean drinking water in rural villages.But then this is a country where they are proud they have a space program yet not millions of people without a roof over their head. Yes I know this is a soap box moment but it shows that the best novels – the classics if you like – are ones to which as Calvino says “you cannot remain indifferent”.
Who decides what is a classic and what is not? Sometimes the term is far too quickly applied – it was used for example not long after Harry Potter hit the streets. But it was too early to really apply any critical judgement or to determine if it did stand the test of time. The term was really used just because it was selling fast and had grabbed kids’ imaginations. But popularity alone is not enough to label a text classic – if it was then we’d have Fifty Shades of Grey take that label (heaven forbid).
So it has to be a novel that will stand up to critical re-assessment and evaluation – there has to be quality element and an ability for new layers of meaning to be located (as Calvino indicates in point 8). Feminist and post-colonialism criticism has done a lot in this regard to bring older and forgotten texts back to our attention (The Awakening is a case in point in fact). But sometime I wonder if they are looking for evidence to fit a theory and trying desperately to find something new to say?
There are of course other definitions of ‘classic”. It’s a question that has occupied some of most esteemed literary minds from T.S Eliot to Mark Twain. Alan Bennett, English playwright and author, gave a rather tongue in cheek response when he said that his definition of a classic was
… a book everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have read themselves
Guardian writer Chris Cox commented in 2009 that
that there are actually two kinds of “classic novels”: The first are those we know we should have read, but probably have not. These are generally the books that make us burn with shame when they come up in conversation… The second kind, meanwhile, are those books that we’ve read five times, can quote from on any occasion, and annoyingly push on to other people with the words: “You have to read this. It’s a classic.”
This one from Richard J. Smith’s The “I Ching”: A Biography had the benefit of being short and rather more considered:
First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.
What does all this mean for my Classics Club list? I’ve made changes in the past but a more radical re-think is on the cards. I have already removed:
- A Parisian Affair and other stories by Guy de Maupassant published in 1880s. I will probably find something else by him as a replacement. Recommendations and suggestions welcomed
- The Charioteer by Mary Renault.I will read something by her at one point but I don’t see how it fits the criteria of re-readibility and lending itself to new meanings
- The Invisible Man by H G Wells published in 1897 – maybe it would be a considered one of he best in the genre but it doest seem stack up against the other titles on my list
- Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim published in 1922. I added this only this year after reading other people’s reviews. But on reflection, as good as they made it seem, it doesn’t feel like a classic.
- Removed The Way we Live Now by Anthony Trollope published in 1875 and Dr Thorne from 1858. I think I have these on the list only because I was part through his series. They will go into my Trollope project instead.
I’ll probably take out one of the two Joseph Conrad’s on the list – I already have read his landmark novel Heart of Darkness so the two left probably are not at the same level. I may add a few more yet but will be very choose – just because a book is considered a classic doesn’t mean I will enjoy it. Hearing about Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov and its use of satanic figures and fantasy, I know it will not appeal to me. I would be reading it simply to say as Chris Cox indicates that I have ticked a box. And that doesn’t seem to be a good approach.
I’m likely to therefore leave out titles that other readers consider essential classics. But this is my list so I get to choose….. Having said that if you think there are serious gaps, do let me know. And also tell me what your definition of a classic is….
40 thoughts on “Classic status re-evaluated”
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This is a wonderfully insightful post. The definition of a classic is a forever struggle of mine. There are just so many gray areas and fine lines that I keep coming across. I am working on updating my own list and repeatedly find myself in the same holes. I have almost decided to do my best to stay within a reasonable guideline, but to not be so crazed about getting it right that I ruin my reading experience. I can do that sometimes if I’m not careful.
I think it is Michael Dirda but possibly someone else who said something like a classic is a book that is not done saying what it has to say. I like that definition because it is broad and inclusive. Ultimately though the meaning of classic is up to you, the reader. have fun!
I had to look up Michael Dirda 🙂 I do like that comment though and it very much echoes what some of the older commentators were saying about depth of meaning etc.
Really interesting. This is slightly off the point but it reminds me of the other day when I was asked to take all ‘historical fiction’ out of ‘fiction’ to create a separate section for it. An interesting discussion ensued about what exactly was ‘historical’. People’s opinions varied considerable according to their ages! In the end we settled on 1945. The trouble is that many books nowadays contain a time shift. So there’s a modern bit and there’s a historical bit. So where do you put them? I suppose my point is categories can be a complex matter.
Oh yes thats another thorny question. There’s been a lot of argument about how far back in time fiction needs to go in order to be considered historical fiction.In Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly, his title includes the phrase, ’tis 60 years since’.
So many people proposed 60 years as a convenient cutoff for historical fiction on the basis that for a novel to be considered historical the audience or at least most of them should not have lived through that period.
Historical fiction thus entails a lack of lived familiarity with a novel’s setting and it’s characters.
Others feel differently, suggesting that any novel set in a somewhat unfamiliar past deserves to be conceived as historical fiction.
As always, opinions vary….
Oh yes they do! I use “somewhat” quite a bit! Maybe has something to do with the similar ages of our bones!
Keep using ‘somewhat’ – we need antidotes to the bland language that is pervading everything I read and listen to at the moment. I am so tired of people in UK media using ‘bored of’ and considering that any institution is a plural. So we have to hear “the BBC have ” – I keep thinking of ringing them and asking how many BBCs exist because as far as I know there is just the one.
Oh yes, “the BBC have” is the sort of stuff that is rife here too. Drives me bonkers. It seems no-one understands how to handle this anymore. They seem to think that if the thing the noun represents comprises a lot of people they must use the plural verb form. It’s jarring isn’t it. Husband and I spend a lot of time yelling at the TV.
I enjoyed this post, and was momentarily tempted to join The Classics Club myself, but no, I am resolute, I am not joining any other challenges for the foreseeable future.
I read an awful lot of classics, back in the day when there wasn’t too much argument about what they were: publishers put out sets of ‘classics’ representing Austen, Trollope, Bronte, Dickens et al, and they were my teenage reading (because nobody had invented YA back then). I simply read everything I could find by these authors, on the basis of the one that I’d like it the ‘set’. It kept me busy for many years, and *chuckle* probably contributed to my somewhat old-fashioned prose. (See? ‘somewhat’. LOL Nobody uses ‘somewhat’ any more)
1001 Books You Should Read &c widened my view of classics, but it’s a bit Anglo-centric so now I’m playing around in the European sandpit – so much to read! I have no idea whether my reading constitutes ‘classics’ but I like 2,3,4,5,&6.
I did something similar in my youth except I didnt buy the sets, but just browsed the library shelves and ‘grabbed’ what looked interesting. Oddly many of those were non British texts so I read more French and Russian than I did Dickens. Ive been trying to fill in those gaps since. I did look at the 1001 books list for ideas and picked up one or two but they are very Anclo-centric – very little African, Asian and Australian
Yes, I’m mainly using it to extend my reading of Euro books, I had read very little from Germany and not much from Italy…
ah, that’s always the constant question! I consider Calvino a classic myself! Thanks, I had not read his point on that, quite interesting.
I would not hesitate to consider The Invisible Man as a classic.
As for The Master and Margarita, it’s so much more than fantasy and satanic figures. It is actually a veiled critic of the political situation of the time in Russia. I highly recommend you read it, but use the translation and edition by Diana BURGIN and Katherine TIERNAN O’CONNOR, where you have all the notes. Absolutely necessary to really figure out what it is about at a deeper level. I encourage you to read all the posts by Matt on this book. He also compares translations, and I followed his advice when I read it. His posts can be found here: https://mattviews.wordpress.com/?s=master+and+margarita.
And I think this is definitely a book that needs a couple of reading to perceive the depth, or width, it’s like a huge fresco
thanks for the perspective on Master and Margarita – maybe I need to warm up to it.Translation does seem to be key to so many books though I wouldn’t consider myself equipped to do the comparison that Matt has done
Unfortunately, I don’t know Russian either, so I was glad Matt had done the job for me, and I really appreciated this edition a lot
isn’t it great when someone can use their talents for the greater good
I went through this experience based on the same article by Calvino about a year ago. I am not sure if my Classics Club list has changed for the better or for the worst but it now more truly reflects what I want to read, not what others think I should read.
Well said Anne – I don’t like ‘ should read’ lists either. Reading is very much a personal choice so if your list works for you then whose to say its wrong? At least you have thought about it which is way better than just grabbing someone else’s list and plain tick the box
Great post! I often wrestle with the idea of what is a classic, and whether the books on my classics club list fit. I don’t like anything to be labeled a classic right away, since years of re-reading tells us something about a book’s relevance over time. I also tend to think a classic is one where there is some general critical agreement about its quality. So I might love a book because it resonates with me personally, but there needs to be something more generalizable about it. Those are just two thoughts.
its annoying when something gets labelled an instant classic – any book needs to be around for a while before it can be determined if it has legs or is flash in the pan popularity. Quality will trump sales for me as an indicator of classic status. The critical debate – ignoring my sniffy comments on that point – do contribute because it indicates to me there is something in the book that is worth thinking about whereas with a lot of modern fiction I find rather single dimensional. Good fun to read and entertaining but they don’t stick in my brain much
You have really been thinking about the idea of a classic. Thank you for sharing these thoughts.
I think its partly a realisation that I have way more books than I can possibly read in my lifetime so what do I really want to read…..
Re 13, I think it has something to do with the fact that a classic should be so engaging and meaningful that it puts the world and our current concerns in their place (ie in the background) but that to be able to do this the classic must be relevant to that world/those concerns (ie address universal themes).
I like 4, 5 and 6. I love how he’s expressed 8, and I like 11 too. And if 13 is what I think it is, then that’s a critical part for me.
The question I always have is about “forgotten” classics, because I’ve always included “standing the test of time” in my understanding of what they are, but if they’ve been forgotten can they said to have stood the test of time. Many of those books unearthed by feminists, eg Von Arno fall into this category. They are old but have they proven themselves?
All this said I’m prepared to be relaxed about what I call a classic!
your interpretation of point 13 makes it more digestible – I think I get it now!
Re forgotten classics – good question. I have been thinking about this re Little Women which is the set text for my course and the one we have to do an essay on. It asks can it still be considered a classic – I’m putting my vote for no because, although the feminist critics have re-evalauated it and think it still has meaning, the people reading it today are not the intended audience. They are adults who are re-instituting the nostalgia of their own reading rather than children. Its not a book on any syllabus i have been abel to find in the UK – it appears on some in the US. So it clearly no longer resonates.And if it doesn’t resonate with new generations of readers then how it is a classic?
I hope my interpretation is right re 13!
Now, I’m putting on my devil’s advocate hat re Little Women to help your essay! Does it have to be on syllabi to be defined a classic? I think more telling is whether it keeps being published in new editions because people are still buying (and presumably reading) it? I suspect the answer is yes, but a bibliographic search would discover that.
Also I would argue that it doesn’t matter who the audience is. Louisa May Alcott could not have “intended” to write for anyone alive today because we are so different to the readers of her time. And, not all writers say they have a particular audience in mind, anyhow, they just write because they have to. LMA may very well have had a particular audience in mind, of course, but I’d still argue that what’s important is not who a book is intended for but whether it is being read. I think there are still things that *could* resonate today, to do with character and relationships. (But it’s a long time since I read it).
It doesnt have to be on a syllabi but its one indicator of how much value that it has today. Its still being published but what we don’t know is whether it is adults buying or children….
the audience in this case was quite specific – Alcott was approached directly by a publisher to write a book for girls. There had been many books for boys but little for girls.
That’s good to know, but I’d still ask – does it matter today, who the audience is. If I were debating you I’d argue not, that the fact that it’s being still published and presumably being read is the point and proves its longevity. I’d argue there’s no doubt it satisfies the longevity criterion… Unless you can prove people buy and the majority never read it. Gauntlet thrown back again!
Thank you for this excellent rumination on the classics. Others have answered your queries about numbers 13 and 14 much better than I could have. Rereadability is perhaps my top criteria: if I know that I want to return to that book, I know it has offered me something substantial. I would have kept your Trollope titles on my list.
My first and foremost classic is almost everything by Shakespeare followed by a good deal of poetry. Most poetry offers a different experience than prose. We all have different lists. I would keep Lord Jim and The Secret Agent and would add more poetry. But that is just me. For lists, poetry is a little rough because not all poets have necessarily got their best work anthologized in one collection. And to pick one particular poem does not seem to warrant a space. So I have on my list I think “selected” poems of people like Keats, Frost, Eliot, Browning, Anthony Hecht.
The most recent book that I consider a classic is “White Teeth” by Zadie Smith. I have already reread it three times and it has held up.
Re-readability is definitely one of that I put high on my criteria list. You’ve given me pause for thought about my own list now with your comment on poetry. I do have a little drama in my list – Medea for example.But not a single poetry collection. Hm, Now that makes me think this could be the time to embark on Paradise Lost or Wordsworth’s the Prelude. I think I would fair better with them than a collection. Not ones to embark on lightly though….
Great post that made me think, and also encouraged me, as I think numbers 13 and 14 speak to how our present lives can be “forgotten” when reading classics. So…this week would be a good one in which to immerse myself in one of those “rereads” on my shelves. Thanks!
I don’t want to forget about the present when I read a classic – I want to see how what the author in that old text can say that will resonate with my current world.Can he/she show me ideas that are still relevant. Good luck with your re-reading though Laurel and do share whatever you pick
As someone who has read many of the classics, I would say a classic is a work of fiction that readers can immerse themselves in because it contains the entire world of which the author is writing about. Not that a classic must contain everything like ‘War and Peace’, but also can be very short like a Chekhov story.
Good point about the length – The Awakening is a good example since its a novella but my gosh she packs in a lot of ideas in that short space.
OK, this is an intense, super-thoughtful post, so this comment might seem a bit rambling, but you have given me so much to think about!
“I don’t quite ‘get’ points 13 and 14 so if any of your brighter sparks can shine a light on those it will be helpful.”
I must admit that I don’t really ‘get’ number 13 either, but number 14 …
“A classic is a work which resists as background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway”
… means to me that the book stands the test of time in a particular way — even if present values/ideas/preferences/etc. lean one direction and those of the book itself seem to lean in another direction, the book is still widely read and re-read and criticized and loved, because their is something about its “soul” that speaks to humans regardless.
“So it has to be a novel that will stand up to critical re-assessment and evaluation [….] Feminist and post-colonialism criticism has done a lot in this regard to bring older and forgotten texts back to our attention (‘The Awakening’ is a case in point in fact).”
I hadn’t thought about it this way, but you’re exactly right. Modern sensibilities have actually dredged up some ‘classics’ that were forgotten or never really considered eligible for the label of ‘classic’ in the first place, which is kind of an interesting phenomenon.
“But sometime I wonder if they are looking for evidence to fit a theory and trying desperately to find something new to say?”
Well, yes, I can see that happening too. That’s probably a danger in any academic field, from lit crit to medical research — sometimes scholars simply feel like they have to find something to say/publish, whether or not the subject 100% merits attention — but then, whether that is the case or not seems pretty subjective, and the end result (resurgence of old ideas/texts, for better or worse) is the same.
As for the changes on your list, I wonder if you might consider replacing ‘The Invisible Man’ by H.G. Wells with ‘Invisible Man’ by Ralph Ellison? I only suggest that because it was the book I immediately thought of when I saw the title in this post, and I was confused about the author for a few seconds! It’s one of the few books I distinctly remember reading/reacting to in school. It’s also a good choice if you’re thinking about adding more diversity (both in terms of the author’s race and the book’s content) to your list. (Not saying you should, it’s just something that a lot of book bloggers are talking about lately.)
Anyway, I hope you don’t mind if I use this post as inspiration for my own blog at some point? I obviously don’t want to ‘copy’ you, but it’s such an interesting subject! But please don’t hesitate to tell me if that would be stepping on your toes too much.
Appreciate your sensitive but rest assured looloolooweez that you’re not stepping on my toes in any shape or form – it would be great to see further discussion on this popping up elsewhere so go for it!
The point about academic research – which I find sad – is that so many university appointments now require their academics to justify their existence by publishing x number of papers or presenting at conferences. And if they don’t their department feels the strain when it comes to budget setting time or the academic finds their own post under threat.So they feel compelled to write even if there is nothing particularly fresh to say
Some useful food for thought here. I must admit to being very fast and loose with my definition of a classic for the club. Every book on my list has been around for a while, but most of them aren’t really ‘classics’ in the true sense of the word (certainly if you apply Calvino’s principles). I might play around with it at at some point in the future, but for now I’m using it as a way of prompting myself to read these books.
Academic discourse can give us some pointers but ultimately we each have to decide what the term means to us. The info from Calvino has just made me question on what basis i made my selection and I realised I was all over the place
Yes, bit convoluted Points 13 and 14, but I agree with Kaggsy, that’s my interpretation of it as well. It rises above the background noise (of, say, American election results) and it will always be there for us, when we need it after we’ve had enough of perusing news channels and social media.
Very interesting post. I *think* Calvino is saying in 13 that the classic cannot exist without the modern world, but must eclipse it. And in 14 that despite the noise (figurative, presumably) of the modern world, the classic still persists in holding your attention. Possibly…