Sunday, June 15, 2008

What Makes a Classic a Classic?

I work in a Library. Many times people ask me for one of the classic books. They ask me for books from the Modern Library's top 100 books either fiction or non fiction. I've often pondered the question: What makes a classic a classic?

I've often thought one of the first tests of a classic is it must be unreadable by most of us. The author is either so far above my reading comprehension (or maybe it was just the time I hit the checkout counter with my head has left me addled)that I totally miss his/her point. Please no violence if I say authors that fit this category for me are Willa Cather, Hemingway, Steinbeck and...well you get idea. Most of the authors we were forced to read in school fall into this category.

The second factor that makes a classic is the author must be a first. For example, Hemingway was one of the first authors I read that got away with using the F word in his books. Does this a good story make? I think not.

Another factor is an aura of pomposity or arrogance found in the author's style. You know the exaggerated feeling of self importance.It's found in a lot of classic literature. There were some classics who achieved their status by attacking social ills of the day. Sinclair's The Jungle. Charles Dickens books attacked social conditions of his day. They are memorable.

As you might have guessed, I'm somewhat of a rogue Librarian. In fact, in a somewhat heated book discussion over "Gulliver's Travels",I had a pompous part time creative writing instructor call me a nonintellectual librarian. Maybe I am. I know what I like. Lots of regular folks ask me for recommendations. So I think I'm doing a pretty good job.

What makes a classic a classic? Obviously, my opinion differs from what we learned in school.

According to the experts, this is the correct answer:

What Makes Literature Classic?

1. Timelessness

Is the work of lasting interest? Are the comments the author makes about people, about the pressure, rewards, and problems of life still relevant? Is the theme of the work as pertinent now as it was at the time it was written? Oedipus Rex, for example, was written over two thousand years ago, but we are still awed and moved by its portrayal of the inner conflicts of a proud ambitious man who brings on his own doom.

2. Universality

Does the work, regardless of when and where it was written, have meaning for people throughout the Western world? (I specify "Western" because most of us are not sufficiently familiar with the Asian cultures to judge the impact a piece of literature might have on them.) Huckleberry Finn, for example, although it has been called the first truly American novel, deals with a universal theme, the loss of innocence.

3. Truthfulness

Is the work credible? Does the author make us believe what is being said? Such a standard cannot, of course, be applied literally. We do not believe in the literal truth of Gulliver's Travels or Candide, but we understand that the authors are using fantasy and exaggeration to communicate basic truths about humanity. Moreover, a good novel, story, or drama should give us the feeling that what happened to the characters was inevitable; that, given their temperaments and the situation in which they were placed, the outcome could not have been otherwise. Everything we know about Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman, for instance, makes his suicide inevitable. A different ending would have been disappointing and untrue.

4. Effective language

This is a matter for which it is difficult to set precise standards. The study of such authors as James Joyce, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, and Henry James reveals that writers can use language effectively in a variety of ways. In general, however, we can expect the language in any literary work to be forceful, fresh and not hackneyed, and suitable to the purposes of the work. Thus, the gentle style of Washington Irving would be as unsuitable for Gulliver's Travels as the complex, ornate style of Henry James would be for Huckleberry Finn.

5. Morality

This may seem like a strange requirement, somewhat as if I were saying, "Good stories should have a moral to them." The term morality, however, is intended in the much broader sense of "sense of value." Applied to literature, this standard means that a work of art should say something of value. It should draw attention to human problems, say that some things are worth doing or believing in, condemn or applaud certain ways of living or certain viewpoints; in sum, it should make a statement that is more significant than the "Chocolate cake is the world's best dessert" kind of comment we talked about in an earlier chapter. We cannot, however, require that the statement the author makes be one that we agree with. We cannot, as we can with arguments, challenge a creative artist's a priori assumptions. The work is an author's own creation, and he or she is entitled to personal values. Although we may not, like Voltaire, believe that human beings are basically foolish or selfish, and we may not agree with Dreiser that people are simply victims of circumstance, we must grant any author the right to personal opinion. If our criticism is truly objective, we should judge only the way an author expresses and illustrates that viewpoint. This critical tenet is, needless to say, difficult to observe.

Adapted from A Contemporary Rhetoric by Maxine Hairston 3rd Ed. Dallas: Houghton Mifflin, 1982

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