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)
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!