98 books and nearly 400 blog posts later, I think it’s safe to say I’ve cultivated some measure of expertise when it comes to the classics. The 100 Greatest Books Challenge has, at least, given me that.
There are, of course, many ways to define the classics. Karen of BookerTalk put together a great post on this topic, detailing Italian author Italio Calvino’s 14-point interpretation in “Why Read the Classics.” His points range from the indisputably relevant to the bewilderingly ambiguous. Here’s a random sample:
- The classics are books that exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory.
- A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
- The classics are the books that come down to us bearing upon them the traces of readings previous to ours, and bringing in their wake the traces they themselves have left on the culture or cultures they have passed through.
- A classic is something that tends to relegate the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise, but at the same time this background noise is something we cannot do without.
(Yeah, I don’t know about that last one either.)
But my Challenge has less to do with “classic” status than its even-more-subjective cousin, Greatness. Most of us would agree that The List is full of classics. But I’m certain we’ll disagree on which ones are Great.
Long ago, I identified my own criteria for what qualifies a book for Greatness: Originality + Masterful Craftsmanship = Great, in my less-than-humble opinion. I like this definition because it’s broad yet demanding, and because it gives me license to denounce Lawrence, Hemingway, and Updike as a bunch of sorry hacks.
I also like it because it’s open, at all times, to new members. But as long as I’m throwing open my doors to the latest, Greatest books, I’d like to make a few special requests.
This is my Wish List for Future Classics (and, of course, books in general):
1. More diversity.
Like, a lot more. Almost 90% of the books I read for The Challenge are classifiable as American or Western European, leaving more than three-quarters of the world dramatically underrepresented. I can recall only a few non-white protagonists, and even less who would identify as disabled or LGBTQ. And while many classic defenders invoke “era” to cover all manner of sins, this problem persists today.
2. Less misogyny.
Along those same lines, we need better—more complicated, more realistic, more equal—representation of women. This applies to both authors and characters. Only 14 female authors made it onto The List, and none of them broke the Top 10. (George Eliot is the first to appear with Middlemarch at #12, and she had to publish under a man’s name to be taken seriously.) Only two of the Top 10 protagonists are women, and they are both adulteresses who eventually kill themselves.
…Which brings me to my next point: Can we cool it with the Madonna/whore complex? Classic literature is full of exactly two women: the angelic flower petal/Disney princess, and the morally degenerate hag/hellion. I’m looking at you, Isabel Archer. And Laura Fairlie. And Becky Sharp. And the Marquise de Merteuil.
Oh, and speaking of whores, could we engage a little less often in the casual solicitation of prostitutes? I’m so over fictional brothels, and the human colostomy bags who frequent them.
Once we manage to write and publish and respect female authors/characters on par with their male counterparts, I’m convinced I’ll stop coming across so many literary passages like this one:
When I say woman I mean a sex so weak, so fickle, so variable, so changeable, so imperfect, that Nature — speaking with all due reverence and respect — seems to me, when she made woman, to have strayed from that good sense with which she had created and fashioned all things. I have pondered over it five hundred times yet I can reach no solution except that Nature had more regard for the social delight of man and the perpetuating of the human species than for the perfection of individual womanhood. Certainly Plato does not know into which category to put women: rational animal or irrational beast. (Gargantua & Pantagruel)
And this one:
“Get yourself a housekeeper closer to your own age. And a good lay, too. What’s wrong with that? Or we’ll find you a gorgeous brownskin housekeeper. No more Japs for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. Or maybe what you need is a girl who survived the concentration camps, and would be grateful for a good home. And you and I will lead the life.”
And this one:
When it was over, she wasn’t crying. She didn’t care. He was walking up and down the room sobbing. She got up and straightened her dress.
He came over to her and shook her by the shoulders. “If you ever tell anybody I’ll kill you, you damn little brat.” (U.S.A.)
It will be a great day for literature, and for my mental health.
3. Less bigotry, in general.
Yep, I’m on a roll here. I promise I’ll quit whining when the classics quit offending. Just keep in mind that that may NEVER HAPPEN, because the classics are putrid, decaying outhouses infested with bigotry and other bullshit.
I’m excluding, of course, the classics that actively, deliberately deconstruct prejudice in its many forms—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Native Son, and Faulkner’s novels, to name a few. I’m taking aim, rather, at the many perpetrators of nonchalant intolerance: Robinson Crusoe, Gone With the Wind, U.S.A., and everything Hemingway are all guilty of thoughtless, mindless attacks on Jews, homosexuals, and/or people of African or Asian descent. Stereotyping is rampant up and down The List. Rarely is discrimination called into question.
I’m not saying all of these novels should be stripped of their “classic” status. I’m not saying we should stop reading them, or discussing them, or learning from them. I’m not saying I’m some kind of progressive genius who can fix the world one book at a time, or that my opinion on this subject is even especially valid. I agree with Book Riot’s Amanda Nelson that
we wouldn’t have a canon to speak of if we only read books that lacked racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.
I’m just saying that on my Wish List for future classics, up-and-coming authors would be a little more thoughtful about race, and religion, and sexuality—and a little less inclined toward the careless dehumanization of marginalized people.
4. Improved readability.
If the classics really want to step up their game—and be read, occasionally, outside of class—this may be their best and only strategy. We all want to engage with Great minds and big ideas, but not when they leave us unconscious with boredom. I’d love to see classic authors tidy up their plots a little (yes, you, Thomas Mann), and give their dialogue a fresh coat of paint (please, Dreiser? Please?). And if they can make their point in 300 pages, it’d be polite of them not to use 800. Or 1500.
In other words, it’d be great if—someday—The Challenge were less of a challenge.
This is all my long-winded way of saying not all classics are necessarily Great books, and that Greatness itself is a matter of opinion. I am under no obligation to enjoy every classic, and enjoyment is (for me) separate from Greatness.
But if I had my way, or the canon gave me a vote, I’d tell the classics that they still have work to do. I’d tell them that, as is, they’re not enough—that they could do more to illuminate the limitless facets of the human experience, in all its breadth and detail. Because that, I think, is the role of a classic.
Or, at least, I wish it were.