I was recently at a chain bookseller and came across what they term their “classics” collection. The usual offerings with their arty covers peeked out: Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Lolita, The Great Gatsby, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . . . all those classroom staples that have also usually done some time on the challenged book list as well. (Side note: it is always fascinating to me what books set people off. Usually it’s the ones that actually have some real point to make, one that society isn’t ready to face.)
My creative writing students probably want to punch me in the face as I constantly harp on the necessity of reading these classic books to give them a foundation in the trappings of the novel. More than once I’ve had a student tell me this great idea for a story to which I end up saying, “You mean like in 1984?” I find this especially true with genre writers–they want to write about aliens, zombies, or vampires without having done much reading in those areas. The question the discussion of classics begs, however, is what defines a classic? Longevity? Notoriety? Imitation? Do all so-called classics deserve the title bestowed upon them?
To the latter, I would say that some titles are questionable. The prime example that comes to mind is James Joyce’s Ulysses. Often topping lists of best novels ever written, Joyce’s tome is the prime example of modernism with stream of conscious narration, Greek influence, game play, and humor. It is the bridge between the modern and postmodern period. It is also nearly impossible for most readers to get past the first 100 pages. I will admit that while I have read the work, it has been in bits and fragments over a series of years. Which brings me back to the question for today’s post: what makes a classic?
Ulysses is considered Joyce’s most important work. It contributes to the structure and history of the novel, providing influence and breaking ground for a new view of what it means to construct narrative. Despite these weighty accomplishments, it’s difficult to read and lacks the accessibility of say, The Dubliners, a collection of stories that to me are much more deserving of the classic label. This is not to dismiss the value of Ulysses; it is to question if a classic must appeal to the non-literati to maintain that title.
Another question is how does a book become a classic? Will there come a point when Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex will find its way to that list? John Gardner’s Grendel? Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood?
This week I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five again. To me the deserved title of classic is evident in Vonnegut’s complex themes, structure, and style:
“There are no characters in this story and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”
I turn the question to you, readers. What makes a classic? What has the title that shouldn’t? What books will or should become classics?