As 2022 was winding down, I found myself in a plight shared by many readers. It’s a bookish version of the ‘tyranny of the immediate.’ Namely I found myself reading almost exclusively new or recent releases. This is the problem with being present in the bookish world. Seeking out reviews, blogs, podcasts, and social media skews almost exclusively towards brand new titles. And so since October or so, I’ve been making a concerted effort to read more backlist titles, and particularly ‘classics’. This has gotten me thinking more about the idea of ‘classics’ itself.
The idea of the literary classic and the capital-C-W-L ‘Canon of Western Literature’ is inherently problematic, as so many folk far smarter than me have already pointed out over the past few decades. Specifically, it privileges what was valued in the past. And since the publishers, critics, taste-makers, and authors were for a long time almost exclusively White men, the stories of White men have historically dominated the ‘Western Canon.’ Thankfully, because of the hard work of those ‘folk far smarter than me’ over the past generation or two, the Western Canon is not nearly as exclusively White and male as it used to be. People like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, and Ursual Leguin (and so many more) are unquestionably in the Canon now — and deservedly so. But it remains that there’s an exclusivist (patriarchal, colonial, and classist) legacy within the Canon that will continue to impact it for a long time.
Beyond the inherent difficulty with the idea of classics or the Canon, I have a difficult personal history with such books. At a couple points in my past, before I understood who I was as a reader, I defaulted to classics, found myself bored and disappointed, and concluded that I just didn’t like reading as much as I thought I did. After all, if I didn’t like what was held up as the best literature had to offer, I must just not be into it. But of course, I’ve long since found my reading stride and so am now in a place where I can read and even appreciate classics for what they are, rather than as what I thought they should be.
In this process, I’ve found it helpful to think about the concept not in terms of a ‘yes or no’ — “Should this be a classic or not?” — but in terms of a ‘why and how’ — Why did this book resonate with audiences such that it has become a classic?
What should have been obvious to me, but which has been helpful for me to tease out, is that books can be ‘classic’ and part of the Canon in different ways and for different reasons. Some books are classics because they are genuinely good — few people would argue that Shakespeare’s plays or the works of Austen and the Brontes don’t belong in the Canon, for example. But other works are considered classics because they were groundbreaking, and therefore important in literary history. Irrespective of quality (and I haven’t read enough to have an opinion on that) the works of James Joyce fit into this category: They changed what literature could and could not talk about. But what was groundbreaking in the 1920s is no longer so in the 2020s. Should something remain in the Canon forever because it did something first, irrespective of how well it does it? This came up for me recently when I read John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, a historically important work because it is widely regarded as the first spy novel. Unfortunately, it isn’t a very good spy novel. It’s basically just its hero running across moors, spilling state secrets to anyone who looks posh enough to be trustworthy. Important does not necessary mean good. But, it still deserves to be recognized for its innovation.
Other books are regarded as classics because they spoke to a particular moment in history and culture. But again, what spoke to the moment fifty or a hundred years ago will almost certainly not speak to our own. I find this about almost all of the mid-century classics that almost singe-handedly turned me off of reading in my mid-twenties. Orwell, Kerouac, Camus, Salinger, Vonnegut, and their like — These are incisive commentaries on their moment in time, but outside that moment, I wonder what they really have to offer. I’m generally left thinking, “Yes, and? So what?” And I assume many books speaking our present moment will seem similarly quaint or obvious in twenty or thirty years’ time. There should be a place for them in the Canon, but perhaps closer to its periphery than its centre.
I write all of this simply to say that my intention of reading classics has shifted my attitude towards them, making me both more suspicious of them and more open to them at the same time. I’m more suspicious because it’s reinforced my previous experience that a lot of the Canon isn’t very enjoyable or insightful. But also more open because it’s given me better questions to ask: If this is a classic and it’s not self-evidently ‘good’, then what was it about it that made it so well-regarded? It’s also given me these helpful categories — good, groundbreaking, or timely — through which to understand their place in the Canon.
As a side benefit, these categories are also helpful in thinking about newer releases. Here too there are books that are noteworthy because they do innovative things with content or style (Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Noopiming comes to mind), books that speak powerfully to a present moment (such as Elizabeth Strout’s, Lucy by the Sea, which offers an almost suffocatingly vivid psychological portrayal of the experience of 2020 in the United States), and books that are, simply, good. This last category is likely one that will require the judgment of history to discern. But it’s definitely good food for thought.
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