How to Pick a Classic; Or, Canons and Anti-Canons

contemporary classicsThis month The Classics Club asked us to consider which books, published since the year 2000, we think will become classics in the future.

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.

QueenVictoria

I think we all know what Queen Victoria’s reaction would be. (Image Source; edited by me)

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.

OliverTwist

Please Sir, I want some more… Literature. (Image Source; edited by me)

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.

bookwindow

Everyone’s a critic. (Image Source)

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.

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5 thoughts on “How to Pick a Classic; Or, Canons and Anti-Canons

  1. So elegantly stated, Sara! I admire the thought you put into this and agree with you…it truly is impossible to “know,” though I think it is sometimes fun to guess! :) I’m curious though, has none of the 21st Century books impressed you as possible future classics?

    • Thanks, Lynn!

      There have definitely been books that I’ve loved; the work of both Orhan Pamuk and Tim Winton impresses me immensely. The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht, is another great book I’ve read recently. I don’t know whether these will become classics, even though I certainly hope they will! :)

  2. I agree with so much of what you say here. My only concern about the loss of the canon is the loss of shared reading/shared knowledge. By having a set of books that the majority of the population read/are exposed to (especially in school), we have cultural knowledge. Without a canon – in the truest sense of “without” – each individual school may pick from an endless list of books and students will not have that shared high school reading list when they go to college. Even outside of school, the canon gives people, readers, a list of books they want to tackle – and hence, a shared knowledge with other readers.

    As a college professor, I appreciate being able to use examples from literature (and film) that I can reasonably expect all of my students to be familiar with. Unfortunately, even in the ten years I have been teaching, I have seen a serious decline in cultural knowledge of this nature.

    There may be a way around this, but other than having a new (and maybe improved) canon (that is more diverse), I can’t think of one.

    Thanks for visiting my blog! I’m definitely a new follower of yours now. :)

    • Personally, I agree with the idea of “shared cultural knowledge,” if for no other reason than my own personal desire to read many books considered “classics” so I can better understand and relate to references made to these works. However, I also realize there is a great diversity and variation of what individual readers consider to be “classics.”

    • Thank you so much, Trisha! It’s really interesting to hear an educator’s perspective on this issue. I definitely agree that it’s difficult to teach without some common cultural background to draw from. When I first graduated high school and moved to university, I was all for the existence of a canon, because our literature program had been woefully inadequate, and I felt like I had missed so many of the great works of English literature; I definitely felt like my knowledge was inadequate, and that I had been disadvantaged. I found that I was forced to fill the gaps in my reading on my own, and I definitely used the canon for guidance (and still do, if I’m honest!).

      Having gone through several years of university I feel like I appreciate the need for a canon while at the same time being profoundly uncomfortable with how narrow it can be at times. I think that’s why I at least hope the future will see us embracing more of the diverse range of voices that make up our modern world, as well as uncovering those that may have been silenced in the past for various reasons. I think you may be right that as far as education goes, we do have a need for a common set of texts which are felt to be significant by a wide range of people. :)

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