Saturday, 29 September 2012

Classic Literature

What makes a work of art a classic?

In case you're under the impression that this is going to be a thoughtful, well-constructed, analytical argument about the value of art in today's 'disposable culture', allow me to let you down gently before we begin. This notion popped into my head the other day, and I entertained it because it was a much nicer idea than all those proper, structured arguments about the value of classic literature and what constitutes it.

What if a classic is just something that you assume everyone has consumed? This came to me after I was chatting with a friend about books, and brought up The Post Birthday World as something that I had read recently: "it's by Lionel Shriver, you know, who wrote We Need to Talk About Kevin?" At which point my friend revealed that he had never read We Need to Talk About Kevin, and I was genuinely shocked. I had just assumed that he would have read it, and thus that we had a framework within which to discuss The Post Birthday World, and other books by other people and about other things. "But how could you not have? It's a classic", I told him.

So what made me think that? A few ideas spring to mind. Kevin was huge when it was released; it was all anyone talked about for weeks; its subject matter was dark and unusual and had shock value; it provoked discussions of morality. I mean, it's my privilege to move in groups of people where reading is normal and highly valued. I imagine not every social group passed around We Need to Talk About Kevin until the pages were literally falling out, until someone passed it to someone who passed it to someone else and somehow it got lost so that, when I wanted to re-read it a few weeks ago, I had to find a new copy. But I'm sure it wasn't just me. There were newspaper editorials, there were tv programmes, there were school projects. I remember learning some formative facts about my relatives and friends from how they reacted to that book, things that still stick in my head today. "Well, she was just evil, wasn't she? The mother. Didn't you just want to smack her?" I hadn't wanted to smack her, and I was fascinated by people's differing interpretations. To this day I like finding out what people think of that book.

And so, back to the idea of classics. It's medium-specific, I think. Although in some ways classics transcend their media, meaning that even people who don't, for example, like/watch films have seen Star Wars, there is perhaps a line to be drawn between the two types of classic. So when I talk to this particular friend about dystopian fiction, which we both love, and he reveals that he hasn't read any Margaret Atwood, I am surprised, as I class Margaret Atwood's work as classic dystopian fiction. Speaking to a non-reading friend, I wouldn't be at all surprised that they haven't read Atwood, because despite her massive industry fame, she's not the kind of writer who transcends literary culture into the worlds of people who aren't huge readers. She's not, for example, Steven King, James Paterson, Dan Brown, EL James, JK Rowling, Stephanie Meyer or Suzanne Collins: all recent examples of authors who overcome their specific media to reach a wide audience, including people who don't normally read. Oddly, I haven't read all of those authors. And it's often those authors that people ask me about, if they're people who don't read who know that I do read. But I digress.

We often talk of classics in very narrow terms. When someone asks if you like the classics, they mean Dickens, Austen, Tolstoy, Melville. Sometimes recent books get called "modern classics", which can mean anything from "this is a really good book" to "this is impenetrable; it must be clever". But for myself, although those usages are far from inappropriate, I most often use "classic" to refer to something that has hit a zeitgeist in some way - something that taps into a current concern and makes connections between people, objects, issues, events. Something that spreads like wildfire and causes conversations. So Moby Dick might be a classic, but I'm not surprised when somebody hasn't read it, whether they are big readers or not. I am much more surprised when a reader hasn't read Harry Potter, despite the fact that Moby Dick is, probably, the 'better' book. I wonder if the notion of the 'classic' novel - as we understand it - is just a stubborn hangover. Will we call The Hunger Games a classic in 100 years? It's surely doubtful, but I have no problem calling it a classic now, since for me, it means that something is noteworthy, of its time, thought-provoking and stimulating. I could ask a stranger on the tube what they thought of The Hunger Games, and probably 3 out of 5 times have a conversation about it. I doubt I would get the same odds with Moby Dick or, god forbid, Bleak House.

I imagine this might offend some people, who would prefer that the term "classic" be attached only to 'good' works of art, but frankly I think my definition is better and far, far easier to manage. We can argue all night (and some of us have) about what is 'good' art and what is not, but it's far harder to disagree with the claim that "everyone has read Fifty Shades of Gray" than it is to disagree with "Fifty Shades of Gray is really good". A much less bitter pill to swallow.

I'm as much of a culture snob as the next blogger, but I'm all about conversation. I'm all about - if it's not too much of a cliché - the exchange of ideas. I love Moby Dick, and I love Harry Potter, and I know which one I'm more likely to chat about at work. That's my idea of a classic.

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