I’m going to try and be a little bit provocative here (or maybe just plain annoying, take your pick), and say that I honestly don’t know which books will become classics fifty or one hundred years from now. And I’ll go even further and say that it’s probably pointless to try and speculate today what people in the future will value, enjoy, and celebrate. Because let’s face it – it’s impossible to tell. If you’d told our straight-laced Victorian forbears (or, well, your straight-laced Victorian forbears, if you happen to be English) that in one hundred and thirty years everybody would be reading a book about kinky sex (50 Shades of Grey), or that one of ‘the’ modernist novels is about a self-obsessed Hungarian-Jewish-Irishman who masturbates in public and thinks about food a lot (Ulysses), they probably would have quivered from their toes all the way to their big black hats.
Who knows what the societies of the future will look like? Perhaps they’ll be even more conservative than the top-hatted Victorians. Maybe they’ll be so explicit that their writing will make The Story of O look like Cinderella, and they’ll all be reading E.L. James and laughing at how delightfully prudish she is.
The issues and themes which appeal to a society change. We read Austen today in a very different way from the way her original readers did. For them, it was social commentary, satire; during the first and second World Wars she was a reminder of ‘good old England’, of what the soldiers in the trenches were fighting for; and for us today, sadly, Austen is often read as nothing more than a nostalgic writer of romantic stories. Of course, what individuals value in books doesn’t always line up with what society as a whole values, which adds a level of complexity.
Some books, of course, mean different things to different people depending on when and where you are. Perhaps the sign of a ‘classic’ is that it can be read in a myriad of different ways, that it reveals different things depending on how you read it. I’m reluctant to use the words ‘universal’ or ‘human condition’, because let’s face it, there are very few things that are truly ‘universal’ – but perhaps those books that deal with issues that remain a concern across human societies – issues like death, purpose in life, human relationships – are the ones that we will keep reading into the future. And certainly, there are many contemporary authors who are dealing with those very questions. But people also turn to the canon to understand history, to understand the particular concerns and debates which shaped the way we are today. And again, of course, all of this is filtered through the individual reader’s experiences, expectations, understandings. That’s why some people hate The Great Gatsby, even though it tells us a lot about the interwar period in America, or Oliver Twist, despite its depiction of the kinds of conditions that children in the Victorian period experienced. What you take is what you get.
Here’s what I hope will happen in the future: there won’t be a canon.
I know, I know, it’s probably a vain hope. Because for whatever reason, since humans first put pen to paper, we’ve always relied on other people to tell us what’s good. In some ways, that’s necessary, particularly in today’s world, where we’re surrounded by thousands of titles all vying for our attention. On the other, it means that we’re often invited to judge books based on a very narrow range of criteria made up by a bunch of English professors sometime in the last century. And again, some of those criteria make sense. But they often fail to take into account personal tastes and values. Telling someone that The Canterbury Tales is a classic and that it’s Important doesn’t necessarily mean that they will have relevance for a certain individual in the same way that it does for another. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the first reader won’t get anything out of it, and that they shouldn’t read it – but it means that The Canterbury Tales will never mean as much to them as, say, Nineteen Eighty-Four or A Tale of Two Cities, or even The Hunger Games. Feeling that one should read a book leads to the feeling that one is being forced into reading, and a person who feels compelled to read – and to finish – something will not necessarily get anything out of it.
So I’m not scared of the idea of a world in which ‘the canon’ doesn’t exist – however impossible it sounds. But failing that, I would hope that the canon at the very least embraces the full diversity of voices and experiences of contemporary society. That there are canons, anti-canons, anything that challenges people to read widely and adventurously. That any list of the ‘great novels of the twenty-first century’ includes novels by a diverse range of authors – racially, culturally, religiously, gender-wise – authors who deal with the central preoccupations of our complicated and still-to-be-revealed century, and whose work still resonates with the societies of the future. There are lots of authors who are doing this right now, today, while I’m sitting here writing a rant about contemporary literature which has turned into an attack on the idea of a literary canon (I’m still not entirely sure how that happened).
Our century is very young, and there are still several decades’ worth of books to be written. I’m very excited and eager to see what is produced over the course of my lifetime. I’m curious – and, indeed, apprehensive – to find out what issues and debates will come to define the period of time we’re living in. What will happen after ‘postmodernism’? Will we even still be calling it that in the post-postmodernist age? What if ‘classic’ novels or books are removed from the canon? What if the Brontës, or Dickens, or even Shakespeare fall out of favour? It’s hard to imagine, I know, but then we have no idea what the priorities of future generations will be.
And of course I have ideas about which books I hope will become classics, but I think there’s a difference (sadly) between the books that I want to become classics and the ones that actually will. Because of course, ultimately, it’s about the needs and desires of future generations. We may decide which books are important to us today, and fifty years from now, but there’s no guarantee that they will be the same one hundred or two hundred years from now. We may lay the ground work, but after we’re gone someone else will become The Decider. Assuming we’re not just having stories beamed into our brains in a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the year 2100, the kids of the future will be deciding which books are meaningful and Important to them many decades from now. And personally, I’d love to know what they decide.