Thursday, September 8, 2011

What makes a classic?

In discussing "girls' books" last week, I mentioned that The Diary of Anne Frank is a classic that probably should be read by everyone. But that led me to think about classics, and what they are, and how they get to be that way.

There's a first, easy definition. Classics were once those books that survived the so-called Dark Ages, the works of Greek and Latin writers that managed to come into the light of the Renaissance and the modern era. If one were reading a classic once upon a time, it was Aristotle, or Galen, or Xenophon, or Tacitus. That was it. There were no other options. Chaucer and Dante and the Venerable Bede may have been around a while, but they were not classics. So this, I think, provides us with our first criteria: a classic is a book which has been around a while, possibly even a book from another era or age.

With that in place, we can eliminate all the "instant classics" that blurbs constantly mention. When someone proclaims say, Franzen's Freedom or Stoddard's The Help to be a classic, it should rightly be viewed as nothing but nonsensical hyperbole. I understand, of course, that blurbs are in general nonsense; I understand that even if not just given as a favor or in haste, the use of the word classic is meant to evoke the possibility, more than declare the certainty. Still, the word is thrown around too much for very recent works. What is needed is some age, certainly. To my mind, a classic cannot be thought so until the world has changed enough that people are reading it in a different mindset than when it was written. So at least a generation, I would think. And a full generation, 25 or 30 years. Which means that House of Leaves isn't a classic yet, nor Infinite Jest. Perhaps in time. Perhaps.

Time, then, is the first marker. But it is not the only one. In his day, Winston Churchill was a best selling novelist. He wrote a great number of books roughly a hundred years ago that were very well received and sold truckloads. Or wagonloads, it being the very beginning of automated travel. Yet not a one of them will you find on a book store shelf these days, except if you stumble upon a very old and worn used copy in some dark corner of musty shelving. His fiction though terribly popular has vanished almost without a trace. So age in itself is obviously not enough, when big novels from only a century ago cannot by any stretch be called classics.

What else, then? I think it's important, vital even, to write for the ages. Not that you need to be thinking of the future, and what readers in a century or two will be interested in. But that your stories need to be meaningful not just to whoever is reading them on the second Thursday of May in your current year, but in any year. Stories about real people, doing real things. Of the original classics, the Greeks and Romans, most have faded from memory. They are available, of course, if only in the Loeb Classical Library series, but they don't turn up in class reading lists, and no one has heard of them except specialists. But Euripides and Seutonius and the like are certainly still classics, and Homer is the granddaddy of classic authors. I can only assume it is because they still speak to us, even two or three millennia later, while no one much reads Sextus Empirius or Frontinius.

A simple way to write for the ages is to the be the first at something. This brings us Homer, and Euripides, and Herodotus. But it brings us also Lady Murasaki, and Cervantes, and Aphra Behn. But that's not always the case. Dr. Polidori, who was Byron's lover, wrote probably the first vampire novel. But who remembers it nowadays? No the vampire novel we all recall is Dracula, and that's the classic in the field. Again, it is because Stoker spoke to us in a way that still feels relevant, and Polidori did not, nor any of the handful that came between the two. But one could argue there are other classic vampire novels. Anne Rice is a contender, certainly. Twilight, one assumes, will not make the cut, but only time will make that clear.

So time is needed, and originality is a strong factor. Yet original works of great age have vanished time and again, preserved in the memory of scholars but otherwise ignored. Which brings me to the third and most obscure factor: dumb luck. It all starts with the real classics, and the dumb luck that brought them to us. We assume these were the best books of their time, because it is all we have. Yet there were thousands more, hundreds of thousands, perhaps. Fire and water and age and ignorance and willful hatred destroyed them all. Some were scraped clean to copy out Bibles onto; some were burned for warmth; some were just forgotten in dusty corners until they could no longer be read. Certainly one or two of those would be among the greatest works of the Classical Period, probably more than just one or two. Yet we'll never know what we're missing. Ill chance has taken them away from us.

But there's more than that. There's the fickle taste of the public. Chance will bring one book to the forefront, and another will vanish rapidly. While being a best seller is no measure of quality, few books that failed to sell have made it to be a classic. This is why some authors have only one classic book, or at least, less than their output. But all of Austen, and all of Dickens, even with his massive output, tend to be counted as classics. So there's no way to be sure.

I know that sounds like a copout. What makes a classic, he asks, and then answers himself with, I have no real idea. But it's true. I can point to some factors: time, quality, relevance. But I cannot say that there is a formula. I can tell a classic when I see one, but I cannot tell why it is so. Even adding up the skill of the writing, the reception that managed to let the work move forward at all, the luck and chance that kept it going, I cannot.

What is a classic? It is a book we have read, we are reading, we will read. It is something that tells us who we are, and why we are, and how we are. But it's something more than that which can't be named. It is a wonder and a mystery. I wish I knew, not so that I could write one (though that would be very nice, of course) but so that I could know what I should read. What they will be reading, in fifty years, in a hundred, when I'm dead and gone to dirt. What will the future remember of us, what books will tell them who we all were? I wish I knew that.

People speak of the death of books. It will not happen. They will change, books. But they will live on so long as we wonder at the past, at ourselves, at where we are headed. Classics can tell us that, and little else can.

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