Why Classics Become Classics

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Classic books can be difficult to read. Have you heard a disappointed reader say this?

If this book were written today, no publisher would touch it.

It’s often used as an argument that the classic should not be popular today or a worthwhile read. As if people today call it a classic because it has always been labeled one–not because of any internal merit. I see it all the time on Amazon reviews of classics. (There is also a brilliant website that chronicles these complaints and more.) Since it’s so common, let’s look into this claim a bit.

 

  1. Changing Times, Changing Tastes

 

Remember acid-wash jeans in the ‘90s? And don’t even get me started on the ‘80s. Stylistic trends, whether in clothes or in books, change with the times. Oliver Goldsmith, perhaps the greatest novelist of the late 18th century, was famous for his lively and brilliant style. This is the first line of his best-known novel, The Vicar of Wakefield:

I was ever of the opinion, that the honest man who married and brought up a large family, did more service than he who continued single, and only talked of population.

Is it a lovely style? Yes. Absolutely. But I have serious doubts that an agent in 21st century America would pick up a novel that began with this sentence. And yet, if one of the best prose stylists of today were writing in the 18th century, say, Cormac McCarthy, guess what? No publisher would have touched him. What we consider the best today would have flabbergasted the most respected harbingers of taste in the 18th century (Samuel Johnson, anyone?), and vice versa. I suggest you make sure that you are legitimately comfortable reading each author’s unique style as well as understanding the conventions of the era before judging it. Otherwise, you’re doing yourself a disservice by judging it through a modern stylistic lens.

A 20th c. edition of The Vicar of Wakefield by Goldsmith, with the stuffy-looking Vicar and his wife of the cover
A 20th c. edition of The Vicar of Wakefield by Goldsmith, with the stuffy-looking Vicar and his wife on the cover in in-laid morocco

 

  1. Different Cultures

Reading The Tale of Genji, called by some the earliest novel and by others the greatest epic of Japan, I was fascinated by the exoticism of a culture so distant and distinct from mine. That said, because of these differences I am painfully aware that I must have been missing many important, beautiful, and deep aspects of the book. Sometimes the most spectacular traits of a book are lost in this cultural (and often linguistic) divide. For example, Japanese poetry from this time, of which Genji is chock full, is distinguished by a heavy use of puns. I relied on the translator’s footnotes even to be aware of that. So if you didn’t get War and Peace, consider that it may not be due to lack of skill and talent on the author’s part, nor because an editor today would chop it (and Genji) in half before even considering to publish them.

The first edition in English of War and Peace
The first edition in English of War and Peace

 

  1. Making a Statement

When James Joyce wrote Finnegan’s Wake, did he expect it to become a best-seller? Did he even expect all the fans of his previous work to like it? I would venture to guess No on both counts. But did Joyce expect it to become a classic? Yes, he did. He famously said that it was the type of book a scholar “should devote [a] lifetime to…like the Koran.” In some ways, this book’s inaccessibility is both what makes it a classic and the type of book no modern publisher would touch. Joyce was pushing language and style to their limits—intentionally. No one has done it like Joyce has, not quite, and because he actually succeeded, he deserves canonical status. Would I begrudge you refusing to read Finnegan’s Wake, myself? No way. But attempting to explain your refusal by saying it couldn’t be published today is missing the point.

Anna Livia Plurabelle, generally called the most beautiful fragment of Finnegan's Wake, in a signed first edition copy
Anna Livia Plurabelle, generally called the most beautiful fragment of Finnegan’s Wake, in a signed first edition copy

 

  1. The Era in Retrospect

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was one of the most rabid bestsellers of 19th century America. It’s also home to some of the most searingly sentimental and outrageously manipulative prose and plot points of 19th century America. I personally believe no one today would publish it (language and racism aside). Yet it’s still read and still acknowledged as a classic. Why? Because it captures the era of ante-bellum America (particularly the side of the victors of the Civil War, the North). If you want to learn about that era (and every self-respecting American should), this novel is valuable in a way that a modern history can’t be. Gatsby is a classic partially because it captures the spirit of a specific side of 1920’s America. Ditto for David Copperfield and Victorian England. Classics are kind of like Pawn Stars: they instruct while they entertain.

The first issue of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
The first issue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

 

5.      Sine Qua Non

Sine qua non: without which, nothing. Some books are classics because of the depth of their influence in the literary world. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a seriously flawed book: it is very likely that no publisher of today would print it just how it was published in 1885–those final chapters would have to be significantly changed or cut altogether. But Hemingway was speaking of Huck when he said,

All modern literature comes from one book by Mark Twain.

If you’ve read and loved Hemingway, note that Hemingway would have been a different writer if not for Twain. So would Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, Jack London, Jack Kerouac…the list goes on. And if you’ve read and loved these authors, I’d argue that an exploration of their influences, their roots, can make your appreciation of them all the deeper.

The first edition of Huckleberry Finn, in the iconic green cloth binding
The first edition of Huckleberry Finn, in the iconic green cloth binding

 

In The End

The Japanese have a saying: Ten People, Ten Colors. In other words, each person has his own preferences. Me, I can’t stand The Catcher in the Rye. I’ve read it twice, and I acknowledge it’s a near perfect short novel, just like The Great Gatsby or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I admire Catcher for the genius of its prose. And I drop-everything-adore Salinger’s other work, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters. But I just don’t like Catcher. Holden Caulfield is not for me. It’s ok to dislike a classic. But for the reasons stated above, the argument that a book isn’t worthwhile because a modern publisher wouldn’t touch it is rather absurd.

The first edition of my favorite Salinger work (not Seymour! Roofbeam.
The first edition of my favorite Salinger work (not Seymour! Roofbeam.)

 

I’d love to hear my readers’ thoughts on this topic, especially because I make some pretty opinionated statements throughout my argument. Do you agree with me? Disagree with me? Or just take issue with me calling Finnegan’s Wake a classic? I want to know. Alternatively, you can just thank me for introducing you to Bad Reviews of Good Books.

Advertisements

23 Comments Add yours

  1. Blowhard, Esq. says:

    Any of these probably WOULDN’T be touched by a publisher today, but seeing as the major publishers are in a death spiral, that’s not terribly relevant. How many of these would attract any readers if they were self-published? Probably not many. Don’t luck and timing play a bigger part in making a classic than we like to admit?

    As for me, “Finnegans Wake” is indisputably a classic and, furthermore, I intend to go my whole life without ever reading it. I mean, Good Lord, the ego of someone to assume I should study his book like a religious text. Life is too short and the opportunity cost is too high.

    1. It not being relevant was indeed the point of my post. It’s a poor excuse for why someone dislikes a classic. If you dislike a classic, that’s fine! Just don’t blame it on the publishing habits of previous generations.

      As for luck and timing–I will agree to that, partially. There are many books that deserve their canonical status completely independent of those factors. However, there are some others that rely on those factors a bit more heavily.

  2. Paul Poling says:

    I believe that you have to look at the works in the period that they were written. A classic will always be a classic, but you have to know the period, the style and the way that it was written.

    1. I agree. Though to show the other side, I’ll quote one of the reviews from the Bad Reviews of Good Books page:

      “Many people will say: ‘you can’t judge a 19th-century book according to our 21th century standards’. Good point, but yes, I can.”

      So…you CAN do it. But as I said, you’re doing yourself a disservice if you choose to ignore the context.

  3. Steve P. says:

    One bad review of Ellison’s Invisible Man:

    “It was okay. I was interesting in reading it because it was the only character from ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’ whom I did not know.”

    ROFL

    Thanks for the link, Ms. Romney, and as always for the insights. Have you considered including the current retail value of the books you reference as part of each blog entry? You could add it parenthetically after the title of each book. I think it would make your blog even more interesting.

    1. I’ll think about it. There are a few problems associated with putting the prices up with the image, though, so I’ll have to work those out if I decide to do it. Thanks for the suggestion.

      1. Steve P. says:

        I imagined there would be, but hopefully you can find a way to do so without disregarding the uniqueness of each book and the fluctuations of the marketplace. I think that including values would increase interest among your readers in finding and preserving rare books.

        Anyway, thanks for your thoughts as always. Keep ’em coming!

  4. Jesse Miller says:

    Your blog is very insightful. I,myself, have wondered why some books are classics and some are not and now you have answered my question. I would like to throw out one additional possibility though. Using Elvis Presley and christmas songs as an example, He still makes alot of money and we never hear new christmas songs, just remakes of the old classics, because they were first. Books are the same way. Certain books remain classics because they were first and people refuse to let go and move on and create newer books, songs, and artists to replace the original.

    1. Nostalgia is a powerful thing. I’m not sure how much I agree with your statement, however. I think that everyone has books they prefer because of nostalgia, but the canon of classics changes to me not based on nostalgia but based on whether it still has something to say to us today.

      But don’t take that as my definitive stance on the subject–it’s just my first gut reaction. Your thought is an interesting one, and I’ll continue to mull it over.

  5. R Towns Blethrow says:

    Espirito Du Tempo or Zeitgeist, however you call the Spirit of the Times has much to do with how palatable a writing will be to the audience at hand.
    Will the writings from the Age of Johnson be embraced as best-sellers of the 21st century? I think not. However, creative compilation or pairing of books like “Glen Beck’s Common Sense paired with Thomas Paine’s Common Sense” may draw the readers’ likelihood to consider the classics more probable.

    1. I am always looking for ideas to make the classics more interesting and worthwhile to a general audience. If you have any others, tell me!

  6. benjaminxjackson says:

    What makes a book a classic is that despite all the things that you mentioned — different times, different cultures, different styles — they still have something to say to us today. Classics contribute something to the conversation about what makes us human and how our universe works.

    I have to disagree with you about ‘Huck Finn’ — why do you call it a ‘seriously flawed’ book?

    I will agree that ‘Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters’ is better than “Catcher”, but “Seymour” needs to be considered in context, including “Nine Stories.”

    1. Huh. I essentially said the same thing answering a comment above about classics still having something to say today! We’re on the same page there.

      Not on Huck, however. I respect your opinion if you disagree with me, but let me just say I am not alone on this. Here’s Hemingway:

      “If you read it you must stop where…Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.”

      Also, from an article called “Mark Twain: Realism and Huckleberry Finn”:

      “De Voto (1932) considered the last eleven chapters fell ‘far below the accomplishment of what had gone before…this extemporized burlesque was a defacement of his purer work.'”

      And finally, Seymour. I read Seymour during a Salinger-binge when I read it with all of Salinger’s other published works. Even in context (or perhaps, especially in context), I hated it. Sorry.

  7. kissacloud says:

    Absolutely. Books should be taken in their historical and cultural context. Even today, for example, some readers might consider another culture’s current literature unworthy just because they don’t exactly understand that culture’s collective spirit. (And I have seen this happen a few times. They claim it’s the particular writers’ fault but in fact everything they read from there seem to have something wrong with the style, etc.)

    1. Yeah. That makes me sad. Especially because for me, books shouldn’t be read if possible in isolation. They are in some ways the nexus of a culture and a time period–They can be a jumping off point to explore the context further, which I love. I feel that people who don’t do this are often missing out.

  8. John Horton says:

    Rebecca,

    Can you please tell me the author of the book that was bought on the 12/5/12 episode that was amazingly illistrated and had bad cover and water damage…It was about Good vs. evil, and Good is capitalized and evil is not for a reason…I appreciate anything you can do to help me get the name of the book and the author.

    Best regards,

    John H.

    1. John, it was the Gustave Dore-illustrated version of Paradise Lost by John Milton.

      1. Steve P. says:

        I noticed that on Pawn Stars, before you give the value of the book presented, you typically give the value of the same edition in pristine or very good condition. Maybe you could do something similar with books you mention here.

      2. SusySlais says:

        Hi Rebecca,
        Speaking of Paradise Lost, you read a quote from that book in the show. Could you please tell me which one was it? Thank you very much!!! 🙂

        1. “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..”

          1. SusySlais says:

            Thank you so much!!! 🙂

  9. Steve P. says:

    You know, with many classics written in a different time or place, it takes some time to acclimate to the style of the writing. It’s kind of like visiting a different area of the country, where the dialect and slang differs from your own. I agree that classics are classics because of the timeless truths they convey or share with the reader. The process of acclimating to a different writing style might even help by stripping away the contemporary preconceptions that we bring from familiar thought patterns.

    I agree that it’s difficult to get started with Shakespeare or Dostoevsky, for example, and until the brain is fully engaged reading can be stilted. That’s one reason that I like to sometimes read classics in batches. Once my brain gets acclimated to the author, the story becomes immersive – another characteristic of a classic written by a master author in my opinion.

    1. Yeah, I’ve been thinking of writing a post on this subject, but I haven’t fully formed my theory yet. I’m thinking you should give a book about 100 pages before putting it down so that you won’t be putting it down because you’re unused to the style.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s