Monday, July 14, 2008

Classics and New Classics

Andi, over at AndiLit has just tagged me with a meme about reading the "classics" which in addition to being an interesting meme, dovetails with some things I've been thinking about lately in terms of canon formation, list-making, and book reading (as opposed to, umm, blog reading).

Anyway, Andi's meme goes like this:
1. What is the best classic you were “forced” to read in school (and why)?
2. What was the worst classic you were forced to endure (and why)?
3. Which classic should every student be required to read (and why)?
4. Which classic should be put to rest immediately (and why)?
5. **Bonus** Why do you think certain books become classics?

Of course, this meme is a trap, where no answer won't get me in some sort of indefensible territory, if for no other reason than it relies on the word "classic." But more on that below. In the meantime, I'll try to take this at face value, and just do the meme.

Best Classic: By "best," I think we're going with some sense of an eye-opening read, something that has both personal appeal and that ineffable quality, "literary merit." I'm going to go with T.S. Eliot's anthologized poetry if I can be that broad, and if, not, then "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." In generally, these poems hit me where it counts. I think I respond in particular to the call for difficulty that Eliot makes for modernist poetry, the idea that a poem might be like some sort of origami puzzle, or perhaps an unknot, one that comes to perfection by unfolding, or unraveling rather than folding or tying. "Prufrock" specifically also works on a level that I feel in a vaguely familiar way: that kind of isolation in a crowd that is a hallmark of modern angst resonated with the teenaged me in a way that nerdy teens often feel. That is not what I meant at all. That is not it at all. Apologies to: Hamlet, Mrs. Dalloway, Godot, Tristam Shandy, Cloud 9, Invisible Man, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Trojan Women, Anne Sexton's Transformations, Angela Carter, Midnight's Children.

Worst Classic: Andi called Middlemarch her "best" and I'd be tempted to put it here, but mostly because on an affective level, I'd be tempted to put many many Victorian novels, particularly the big romances, in this slot. I find many of them to be the literary equivalent of drinking sand. I know not all Victorian lit follows this way, and much of it has to do with how it was taught to me, but still, Great Expectations, Bleak House, Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, could all go here for me. And although I really really want to break convention and go a different direction with this choice, it's another Victorian novel that gets the "worst" designation" from me: Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. I still feel terrible about this, because I recognize that there's really interesting stuff going on in these novels, stuff with gender and class and morality. The two Dickens novels particularly fall into that "teeming with Life" sort of novel that I adore in contemporary fiction. But alas, you'd have to ply me with a lot of, what? chocolate, good cheese, bread, wine, maybe even cash, to get me to re-read the Gaskell book assigned by my Brit Lit II professor. And as someone who now teaches a lot of Brit Lit II, I can assure my students that I will not make them read Gaskell. Other nominees: Pamela, Women in Love, George Bernard Shaw,

Mandatory Classic: How can I not say Hamlet? Although I don't feel it in my gut the same way I do, say, "Prufrock," the combination of poetry, introspection, madness, playfulness, theatricality, and Yorick's skull add up to something pretty effin' awesome. And if not for the merit of the play alone, how else could I teach the Rushdie story "Yorick" or Stoppard's R&G, or even Heiner Muller's Hamletmachine? The point is, this is maybe a mandatory text because of its combination of actual quality, and cultural capital.

Put it to rest: Well, I find it hard to justify D.H. Lawrence anymore (sorry to the particular reader who I know does a lot with Lawrence). And I'm not sure what benefit comes from reading Alexander Pope, either. But in general, as someone who does cultural studies of texts as artifacts of culture, rather than as the pinnacle of culture, I'm not one for excluding texts, even those I really despise reading myself.

On why: Listen, we all know that canon formation has as much to do with politics as it does with aesthetics. To claim that I like modernist texts because they're difficult is virtually tantamount to professing fascism. And even I notice the preponderance of white guys on this meme, which suggests for this reader the persistence of canonicity despite the successful break-in of many heretofore marginal subjectivities in syllabi around the academy. And let's not kid ourselves about the role of sales here. One may note that William Blake sold hardly a copy in his day, but he sure sells like hotcakes today. What makes a classic? There's no easy answer, except that it can be only be explained by a careful calculus of politics, commerce, history, culture, and literary technique, itself a category that can't be separated from the other notions.

This all gets me to something else that's been sticking in my craw for a couple of weeks. I may have mentioned that despite all of my pretensions, I read nothing so faithfully as Entertainment Weekly. (I know!) Anyway, a few weeks ago, for their 1000th issue, they released an issue of lists of "New Classics" from the past 25 years. Now I'm sure this generated loads of letters, and it probably sold some copies, because really, who doesn't love subjective ranking lists? But I got my knickers in a particular twist by their books list, mostly because I couldn't possible figure out what the criteria would have been. Sales? Popularity? Name recognition in the US? "Quality?" Let's just look at the top ten for clues:
1. The Road , Cormac McCarthy (2006)
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000)
3. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
4. The Liars' Club, Mary Karr (1995)
5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)
6. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane (2001)
7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)
8. Selected Stories, Alice Munro (1996)
9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997)

OK, so what we see here are some perhaps obvious choices from a scholarly standpoint Toni Morrison, Philip Roth and Art Spiegelman are all solid choices, hard to argue with. Cormac McCarthy may also be pretty hard to argue with as being on the list, though I suspect that the position at the top has more to do with cultural currency than anything. In 20 years would it be near the top? who can say?

But then other choices suggest a kind of nod toward other elements: Mystic River is widely regarded as a sublime example of a certain kind of genre fiction, and indeed, it may merely be marketing that has kept it off of academic reading lists (we are blinkered in our own ways). I don't know, though: I haven't read it. While I cringe at the inclusion of Cold Mountain, it seems to be here as a nod toward the massive best seller, and they can't really put The Da Vinci Code this high (as it is, it's in the 90s). The Murakami is a hip choice, international and edgy at once. The Potter choice speaks to all kinds of things, including audience appeal, and sales, though why they'd simply choose one book (when they list Pullman's superior His Dark Materials together) is baffling. Willow assures me that The Liar's Club is all kinds of influential, and really initiated the big memoir push, though I have never heard of it. Give me Didion or Eggers or Lauren Slater or W.G. Sebald any day. The Munro collection is a brave choice, and a welcome one I think: short fiction is under-discussed generally, and Munroe is about as good as it gets. The list attends nicely to short fiction, too, with George Saunders, Raymond Carver, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Lorrie Moore all appearing.

I am more surprised by what's missing on the list. Besides Indian-American Lahiri, there are no Indian novelists on the list, which means that none of the literary output of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Anita Desai, or Bharati Mukherjee is stronger than, say, Jon Stewart's American: The Book, Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic, or that Dan Brown book, let alone Cold Mountain or The Lovely Bones (#34).

There's also, as far as I can tell, nothing from Africa at all. Forget Ben Okri's Booker-prize winning The Famished Road, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Purple Hibiscus, or Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, but even the ahem, less-threatening (cough White cough) J.M. Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer aren't here.

Nor is Like Water for Chocolate, or anything by Orhan Pamuk, or Jeanette Winterson, or Julian Barnes, or Paul Auster, or... or... or...

And let's not even talk about genre. Because by books, we mean, generally, prose. Novels, Short stories, memoir, and to a lesser degree other kinds of non-fiction. No poetry counts. And let's not even begin to talk about the wretched theatre list. I can't even be bothered.

Sigh. So anyway, a new meme: Best books of prose narrative of the last 25 years--that I've read. Which means that many exclusions can be chalked up to the fact that I haven't read them yet. We'll see if anyone picks it up.

Anyway, the rules:
1. Read the Entertainment Weekly List of New Classics:
2. Make a list of 10 or 20 or 25 of the best books of prose narrative (which excludes things like Fast Food Nation, which EW includes) you've read written since 1983.
3. Put it on your blog.
4. Boldface the authors not appearing on EW's top 100. Italicize the authors who appear with a different book.
5. Tag people if you want.

Around 50 recent books I've read that are better than Cold Mountain, in no particular order
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Zadie Smith: White Teeth
  • Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things
  • J. M. Coetzee: Disgrace, Foe
  • Jeanette Winterson: Written on the Body, Sexing the Cherry, The Passion
  • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale, The Blind Assassin
  • E.L. Doctorow: City of God
  • George Saunders: Pastoralia
  • Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus, Wise Children, Burning your Boats (which is cheating since this story collection includes The Bloody Chamber which is older than 25 years)
  • Michael Cunningham: The Hours
  • Dave Eggers : A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • Toni Morrison: Beloved
  • Art Spiegelman: Maus
  • Phillip Pullman: His Dark Materials
  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible
  • Salman Rushdie: Shame, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
  • Don Delillo: White Noise, Mao II
  • Laura Esquivel: Like Water for Chocolate
  • David Markson: This is Not a Novel
  • WG Sebald: Austerlitz
  • Maxine Hong Kingston: The Woman Warrior
  • Tim OBrien: The Things They Carried
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies
  • Julia Alvarez: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
  • Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
  • Michael Chabon: Kavalier and Clay
  • Neil Gaiman: American Gods
  • Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
  • Harry Crews: Body
  • Andrew Holleran: Dancer from the Dance
  • David Lodge: Small World
  • Suzan-Lori Parks: Getting Mother's Body
  • Arthur Phillips: Prague
  • JK Rowling: The Harry Potter Series
  • Lorrie Moore: Birds of America
  • AS Byatt: The Biographer's Tale
  • Umberto Eco: The Island of the Day Before
  • Nick Hornby: How to Be Good
  • Jamaica Kincaid: Annie John
  • PD James: The Children of Men
  • Alan Kurzweil: The Case of Curiosities, The Grand Complication
  • Gregory Maguire: Wicked
  • Howard Norman: The Museum Guard
  • Ruth Ozeki: My Year of Meats
  • Sarah Pritchard: Lately
  • Kurt Vonnegut : Hocus Pocus

A final note: In that issue is a short graphic memoir piece by Alison Bechdel (who appears on the list) whose narrative of her own reading life suggests that the best way to keep people from reading "the classics" is to put them on the list. She apparently preferred Harriet the Spy.


Anonymous said...

Funny, thought of that Bechdel strip as I was reading this post.

Which, incidentally, could be retitled, "Things That Make Me Want to Hug Horace."

But I'll have to disagree with you about The Hours. Mlllechh. About other things, too, but Cunningham's the only one I take real issue with.

And Why The Passion and not Oranges? I love the former, dearly dearly, but the latter is the better novel. Non?

And you mention Pamuk as non-included by EW, but he doesn't appear on your own list. Why not?

Also, I'd like to hear your case for the Potter series. I've read and enjoyed the books, but the only reason they'd make such a list for me is as a body of work that has gotten kids who would otherwise be non-readers very into reading. (Former bookstore kids' section manager here, hi. How many times have I heard, "Okay so I finished Harry Potter and now I don't know what to do...?" and thrust Pullman or Ann Rinaldi or some such into a very eager pair of hands? Delight.)

Horace said...

OK, so why no Pamuk? simply, I haven't read more than an excerpt, but I have read enough about Pamuk to have a sense that his work is perhaps more complex and subtle than, say, Practical Magic. Same with the Adichie, Okri and Achebe (though I'd really quite like to read the Okri soon). Same with Oranges, though I'll defend The Passion on its own merits any day.

As for The Hours, First I quite like Cunningham's prose: elegant and controlled. And while it's not exactly as nuanced as the novel that inspired it, I find it to quite thoughtfully invoke a kind of quiet despair that runs through all three of its narratives, and that binds it to its source. That and I have a soft spot for re-tellings, generally (though I didn't include Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone, but I might have).

As for the Potter? well, I have recently posted on my disappointment with the last book, a disappointment that has generally covered the last three books. I'm sure I do not buy it as a literary masterpiece the way the fans want to claim, and like fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes claims, there's a lot more consistently interesting stuff. BUT I have found the narrative as a whole to be both archetypal in a satisfying way, and imaginative in an even more delightful way. And here I find "delightful" to be a key word. So while this is not at the top of my list, it's still a better read than Cold Mountain, which I'm now ragging on more than is perhaps warranted, but it's a nice target.

Sisyphus said...

Ooh, both the original meme and this one look fun to play!

And, ps ... I like modernist texts because they're difficult. Heil!

heh heh.

(oh, and I feel so out of it on the "middlebrow-to-bestseller" category that I have no clue whether X or Y is better than Cold Mountain or The Hours. Hmm. Guess I gotta get reading?)