What is a classic: Guest post at DesertBookChick

Those who read this blog may have come across DesertBookChick (DBC) before. She’s the one who doesn’t like Jane Austen! In fact, she admits that, despite being a PhD, she’s a bit anxious about classics in general. However, not one to shy away from a challenge, she has declared August Classics Month on her blog. She is running a range of activities for this, including guest posts. Today the guest blogger is me. Do go check out her blog. And, if you’ve come here from there, you are most welcome to check me out!

Anyhow, writing that post – and reading some of the comments already made on DBC’s blog this month – has made me think more on this whole classics business. And here is what I think…

They must speak to some universal truth

That is, what they say about human nature has to ring as true today as when they were written. There is a fascinating little paradox here though, because classics can come and go. Clearly there is something more going on – something, perhaps, commercial or political or academic, which brings me to …

They must stand the test of time (and place)

Little Black Dress

Little Black Dress, says Clker.com (Courtesy: Chika87 at Clker.com)

To know they ring as true today as when they were written, some time must have elapsed. Think classic fashion. A classic LBD (aka little black dress) is one which looks as smart (note, not trendy, not funky, but smart) today as it did 30 years ago. It may show its age around the edges – perhaps an older style fabric, or a slightly different length – but it still works beautifully.

The way I test this for literature is not by defining an arbitrary amount of time but by a more pragmatic rule-of-thumb. And that is multiple reprintings – not in the first flush of publication, but some years down the track. The more years down the track and the more reprintings, the more classic perhaps? Or, at least, the closer it gets to the pantheon of classics, like, say, Shakespeare and Jane Austen!

But it is not always quite this simple

Some books die and then are revived. Sometimes this is to do with “fashion” in academia as writers fall in and out of favour (but I’m not going to explore this one now). Sometimes though there is something more, shall we say, political going on. And here I’m referring to minorities, such as, oh, women! In the 1970s, with the revival of feminism, there appeared a number of publishers who fossicked out works by women that had been lost (the works that is, not the women!). Virago Press and The Women’s Press are two biggies, but there were (and still are) many others. They (re)introduced us (or me at least!) to writers like Elizabeth von Arnim. These presses revealed that, while the meaning of “classic” as expressing something universal may be a commonly agreed thing, what we get to read is a highly constructed thing.

I’d love to know what you think. What do you mean by classic (excluding the Greeks for the time being!)? Do you purposefully choose or not choose to read classics, or is the notion of making such a distinction irrelevant to you? What are your favourite classics?

And, if you are interested in what some others are saying on this, do pop over to DesertBookChick. While there, you could always help me in my project of changing her mind about Jane Austen!

17 thoughts on “What is a classic: Guest post at DesertBookChick

  1. Dear Sue, how wonderful to read this AND your guest post – on which I will also comment – You know, our own Amanda did an interview with me on the classics that I think she may be saving for sometime in August. We talked about her issues around Jane Austen too ;)! I LOVE her – both Amanda and Jane that is…..And I love your definitions of classics. I am working my way through the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo – and I just wish there were more time in my life to read since I did not read real books (a huge regret) for the longest time after high school…thank you for honoring and paying tribute to our treasure of classics!!!

    • Thanks Farnoosh. I’m looking forward to the interview Amanda did with you – she told me what fun it was. We shouldn’t beat ourselves up about what we didn’t do.I’m sure you did all sorts of other things after high school that make you the person you are now. Treasure that and don’t regret. Life is not a race!!

  2. Very interesting – I visited your guest post as well.

    I suppose a classic is defined partly by its “peer review” status. MANY people, over a long period of time, have to agree that its worthy of the description. But for me, its the quality of the writing that matters – there has to be a sort of timelessness about a classic so that it speaks today as clearly as it did in the time it was written.

    • Thanks Tom, I agree that the peer review is probably part of it -the fact the a goodly number of people like what a work has to say. And I agree that the writing is part of it – that two books can say similar things but it’s the one that expresses it the best that is likely to become the classic.

  3. Re. What do you mean by classic

    Off the top of my head, if I referred to a book as “a classic,” I think I would mean something like this: “A book that can no longer be approached directly, it can only be approached through its accretions.” A book can be as old as you like and as well-written as you like, but if it doesn’t have a reputation then it is not a classic. The creation of a classic is not the business of the author, it is a collaborative social event, carried out over time.

    • Well said, DKS — it is a “collaborative social event over time” but this is also, really, how some things get lost. That is, when the balance of the composition of the collaborators changes, what is defined as a classic can shift a little too, can’t it. Such as the revival of feminism resulted in more diverse voices being added to the fray.

      • Yes. As Amanda says below, we have that “predispositioning filter” — the sort of conditioning that comes on us softly, firmly, regularly, naturally, like waves wearing at a cliff; the sort of thing that Virginia Woolf was pointing out when she wrote, “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop — everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists,” in A Room of One’s Own. It comes in different shapes, it changes with time, and different eras and -isms will find different things to commend or suppress in different books.* So Radclyffe Hall can enter the canon in a small way, as the author of a work of “classic lesbian literature.” So Jane Austen rises and Walter Scott falls. So books written by Americans penetrate the English-speaking world with more force than books written by South Africans or New Zealanders. In the recent Literary Review there’s an example of the way that a government can select the details it wants people to ‘see’ — cultural filtering imposed not organically, but despotically and deliberately from above.

        “On 2 May 2008 tropical cyclone Nargis struck Burma with such force that even today nobody knows how many people were killed, although the ruling military junta reported exactly how many chickens died.”


        * I’ve been rereading Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Dickens, and one of the things he mentions, when he tries to work out for us why so many members of Dickens’ audience wept at the death of Little Nell while audiences today are unmoved by it, is this — he was writing for a civilisation that often saw its children die. “[I]n 1839, for example, almost half of the funerals in London were conducted for children under the age of ten.” Then there were other reasons: industrialism, societal change, things that no longer pertain.

  4. As part of my classics exploration this month II don’t do anything by half!) I’m listening to two different lecture series on classics. I’ll admit, I’m doing a bit of a crash course in literature -Lit 101- an unexpected side effect.

    I can’t help but pick up on what Whispering has said above: “…Clearly there is something more going on – something, perhaps, commercial or political or academic.” and reflect on this as an anthropologist and in the context of what I’ve been learning.

    There’s that pesky thing called culture that we’re all immersed in. That’s so subtle we don’t even know we’re ‘inside’ of it (how often have you heard anglo-Australians say that we don’t have a culture?).

    One theory about how culture works is that it orients us towards certain things. It allows us to ‘see’ certain things and not others.

    It’s a kind of predispositioning filter, which has been called ‘habitus’ by French anthropologist, Pierre Bourdieu. (Personally, I prefer Anthony Gidden’s idea of ‘structurisation’ but I digress!).

    So, what this means is that we’re culturally predisposed to identify certain kinds of things as classics or literature and not others. (I won’t write about this on my blog, as it’s not what I generally write about).

    I then encountered an idea this morning (listening to these lectures) that texts represent the (hidden) relationships of social power.

    Yep. Foucault. Whislt I am someone who tries NOT to find Foucault under every bed and in every nook and cranny (unlike many anthropologists who work in Aboriginal Australia!), I think that in this context, there are connects between social power and the books that become ‘classics’.

    Things like trends in academia, in publishing, market forces, the feminist movement, generational change all contribute to empowering or disempowering, selecting or not selecting what goes into the canon.

    I also have a confession and a recommendation to make.

    As well as reading Lolita this week, I’ve been reading The Well-Educated Mind by Susan Wise Bauer.

    This book is a must for anyone who’s even thinking about reading a classic and I can’t praise it highly enough.

    Thanks for the shout out, Sue and your guest post is getting lots of hits, so I hope you’re getting a few new visitors here as well.

    And now, I’m off to Pump!

    • Thanks Amanda … you’ve hit the nail on the head I think with the cultural aspect of the definition of “classic”. To my mind it doesn’t necessarily negate what we currently define as
      “classic” but it does remind us that these aren’t the “be all and end all” of the classics, that there is a lot of other “stuff” out there that would meet our “criteria” under different cultural/historical circumstances.

  5. I see Classics in terms of the various Penguin series of books published in the 1960s & 70s – the Black Classics, the English Classics, Modern Classics etc. I read a great many of them back then and still occasionally reread them. I’m contemplating rereading George sometime in the near future, though at the moment I’m reading trashy, though quite well written, space opera for fun on my daily commute.

    • LOL Glad you explained the George. Must admit, I thought about the Penguins – particularly their lovely Modern Classics range – when I wrote this. They do some lovely ranges don’t they. Space opera? Now that’s a genre I don’t know.

  6. I have a weakness for Space Opera – Science Fiction of course. The best writer of Space Opera was Cordwainer Smith. His books (mostly short stories) are exquisitely written,visions of a far future universe. The titles of his stories say it all – The Lady Who Sailed the Soul, Golden The Ship Was – Oh Oh Oh, The Dead Lady of Clown Town, The Game of Rat and Dragon, to name a few. He also featured Australia as a planet named Norstrilia, a fabulously wealthy planet, owing to its control of an immortality drug called stroon, harvested from mutated sheep.

    Wondrous stuff!

    • Thanks Anne. I guessed it was Science Fiction. Norstrilia! That makes me laugh. I’d probably enjoy that I reckon BUT so many books, so little time. (BTW Just tried to comment on your blog but there, as with a number of blogger blogs lately, I got an error message. It says to click on it but it takes me to nothing useful.)

  7. DKS: Thanks for that wonderful response using A room of one’s own. Must read that again. I loved her discussion of food for the women versus the men students. A trivial thing in one sense but so telling. And thanks for the link to the Literary Review. I actually have Larkin’s earlier book on Orwell and Burma in my TBR but just haven’t got to it yet. Love the “unhappen” word.

    And yes, the definition of classic is nowhere as simple as it looks on the surface…

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