Tuesday, August 15, 2017

What I Learned From the 100 Best Novels - What Makes A Classic

In February 2013, I embarked on a challenge.  I determined to read through Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels. The list was compiled in 1998, so, by now, it is leaving out a good number of years of English writing. Of course, it's not like they picked anything too close to 1998 anyway. It's one of several such lists which were written at the end of the millennium. I chose the Modern Library list in part because it included Ulysses by James Joyce. It's often touted as the best novel ever written, so I wanted to include it. Go read my review of it to see what I thought about that.

Back when I started the challenge, I expected to finish in two years or so. I certainly did not expect it to take four years. Had I done the practical math at the time, I should have known it would take this long or even longer. I've really pushed myself the last year and a half or so to complete this before my 30th birthday (which is Thursday!).

Four and a half years later, I have completed the challenge. It feels amazing to have done something so big. Throughout the experience, I have developed a lot of thoughts and opinions about literature, the challenge, and the purpose of reading. This week, I want to share those thoughts with you. 

I started writing one big long post, but I quickly realized I have more thoughts than anyone wants to read in one sitting. So, I'm breaking by reflections on this challenge into three days. Tomorrow, I'll be I'm discussing diversity in literature. Thursday, I'm picking favorites - and least favorites! - from the list. And, as a bonus, on Friday I'll be looking ahead and considering what challenge to take on next. Make sure you come back every day this week to read the whole series of posts.

Before we dig into specifics, though, I want to look at this challenge through a larger lens. 

What Makes A Classic

I set off on this challenge because I recognized some big gaps in my "classical" literary education. I wanted to rectify that. These days, after having read 100 "classics," I have some thoughts about what even gives a book that classification. Who gets to decide what a classic even is? After reading this list, I have some complaints I'd like to file with the Modern Library board. Granted, they were not specifically defining these books as "classics," but putting something under the heading of 100 Best Novels certainly grants it a similar gravitas.

As I read through the list, I thought a lot about how we define classics. I think many of us classify anything old as a classic; that can't be it, though, as countless books have been lost to the ages or deemed no longer relevant. Or maybe it's the books you had to read in high school; but, we can all point to both gaps in our high school reading assignments and books we were assigned and loathed. Or maybe the books that we generally expect most people to have some cultural awareness of are classics; that would arguably make Gone Girl a classic, though, and I'm not sure we're ready to assign that classification to the thriller. More likely, some indefinable set of characteristics coalesce in a written work and we recognize something. But what are we recognizing?
"'Classic' is not a genre in and of itself. Rather, there are nearly as many types of novels within those we call "classic" as there are in any modern bookstore. We just lump them all together because of age or status. A book's inclusion in the "classic" grouping does not automatically mean I will enjoy it. Still, I push on, knowing that the mere absorption of great writing will help me to be a better writer and a better reader." -from my review of The Adventures of Augie March (Saul Bellow)

I think there are a few things which mark something as a "classic" in our literary zeitgeist:
  • Cultural impact: When a book makes a powerful impression on the world into which it enters, that makes a difference. Books like Portnoy's Complaint and The Rainbow broke major cultural barriers and their shock ways rippled past the boundaries of the literary community. They made such an impact they shifted the culture itself. 
  • Writing Skill: I really did not enjoy the works of James Joyce, but there is no doubt that the deeper you dig into Ulysses, the more you recognize the man's genius. It's literary art. Doesn't mean it's particularly enjoyable to read. Then again, not all visual art is particularly enjoyable to look at. Doesn't make it unimportant.
  • Something New: Some authors do something really new, or, at least, they do the new thing better than anyone else is doing it. They introduce us to a new genre of literature and, consequentially, their work gets pegged as the seminal work therein. Joseph Conrad did that with adventure novels and three of his works landed on this list. Aldous Huxley did it with Brave New World. The Maltese Falcon is considered a pioneer in the detective genre.  
  • Capturing A Moment: It takes skill to capture the feeling of a moment in time. Many of these books do that in regards to the World Wars (see more thoughts on that below). Winesburg, Ohio captures small town life in the Midwest. On the Road explores the beatnik movement. Invisible Man looks at what it means to be black in America, particularly during the mid-twentieth century. 
  • Popularity: Sometimes, a book just captures the imaginations of the general public. Readers are entranced by it for any number of reasons and so we will it into classic classification. This is usually accompanied by an accessible writing style and relatable characters. Think The Great Gatsby or The Grapes of Wrath
Chuck Klosterman wrote a really interesting chapter about this very subject in his book But What If We're Wrong?. Reading that last fall was very timely and helpful in shaping my thoughts on this. He basically argues that the books which will be considered classics of our era are probably completely unknown to us now. He says that classics are made when later generations superimpose their reality onto the old story and characters. Thus, classics must have either a message that transcends time or be unwittingly applicable to a more modern era. 

All that to say... I don't think every book on this list should be considered a classic. I understand which of the above categories above most of them fall into. Still, there were some that I just could not comprehend what in the world they were doing on the list. I recognize that a lot of that comes down to personal preference or even lack of education on my part. I'll be talking about my favorites and least favorites on Thursday, so come back for that conversation.

My biggest complaint in regard to calling these "the best" is that the Modern Library folks left off so so much. Where are books like To Kill A Mockingbird? How it could be left off a list like this is beyond me. It just goes to show how subjective a list like this is. I'm talking tomorrow about the lack of diversity on the list, but suffice it to say for now that I was not pleased with the homogeny of the list.

Really, assembling a list of the 100 best "classics" is an impossible task. You will never be able to include every book that deserves to be on such a list. You will never represent as many voices as you should. You will never make everyone happy. 

So, what makes a classic? I think we should defer back to Justice Potter Stewart who once said "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it." Ok, that was during the Jacobellis v. Ohio case and he was talking about pornography, but I think the sentiment still applies. We often just know classics when we see them. And that definition often applies differently for each of us. 

And who cares?

The beauty of literature is that there is something for everyone. I've talked with readers who beat themselves up for not liking "classics." I always encourage them to just keep reading whatever it is they do like. There's value in reading just about any genre of literature. Books can matter greatly to others and to society even if they are not to your taste. Also, "classics" do not hold a monopoly on literary quality and the status of "mattering." Besides, I'm sure a new, very different list of "Best Novels" will ignite this debate all over again. 

1 comment:

  1. What an accomplishment! I'm looking forward your post about favorites and least-favorites. It is interesting to think about what makes a classic -- and I agree that it's probably impossible for us to say what books from our generation will eventually be considered such!