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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, pour so much sriracha on language, I can't tell whether language is still under there.
Coming up in today's show: big heavy books. Weighing down my shelves. And my conscience.
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Let’s get right to it.
The term ‘classic’ turned up in English around the start of the 17th century, when it meant ‘of the highest class’ - same meaning as the Latin ‘classicus’ from which it came. It swiftly became the label for ancient Greek and Latin literature, and by the mid-19th century, that sense had been extended to any works with that sort of quality - though when it comes to the classics of English literature, I’m vague about what that quality is. “Written by dead white men”, going by the selection of classic literature that I had to read at school and university. “Big books that make me feel guilty and stupid for not having read them?” “Source material for TV dramatisations involving bonnets?” Seriously, what does ‘classic’ mean now?
JONATHAN MAIN: That’s a difficult question, because you’ve got traditional classics, books that have been classed as classics for as long as I’ve been a bookseller - Thomas Hardy, or Dickens.
HZ: This is Jonathan Main, proprietor of Bookseller Crow, my local independent bookshop, because I live in the 1930s. No! In the suburb of London called Crystal Palace, where McDonald’s and Pizza Hut shut down, but independent businesses hang on. I am disproportionately proud of this.
JM: Then you’ve got modern classics, something like John Updike. Then you’ve got contemporary classics: Life of Pi, say.
HZ: How do these things get to be classic, both Dickens and Life of Pi? What is it about them?
JM: I think in the case of Life of Pi, the sheer force of the number of sales is one thing.
HZ: Fifty Shades of Grey sold a lot of copies.
JM: Obviously there’s a word of mouth that goes along with that. That in itself creates some kind of community for the book, that then exists outside of the normal parameters of publishing or bookselling. For example Catch-22 - that becomes a philosophical concept almost.
HZ: Catch-22, like Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, created phrases that crossed over into the common lexicon. Marketing!
JM: And also you can probably find ways of finding out what those books involve without actually reading them, because parts of them become abstracted and are quoted in advertising, or other people’s books, or journalism or whatever. So it’s fairly easy for somebody to know what Animal Farm is about without having read it.
HZ: But if you DO read them...
KEVIN SMOKLER: The quality they all seem to have in common is they’re a bit prism-like: they all refract light differently depending on which way you turn them. When you read them in your life, what state of mind or place you’re in, your own development as a person - they feel differently during those times. They haven’t changed at all, they’re just sitting there.
HZ: Wherever you are in time, it feels like it has something to say about that time, even if it had no intention of doing that.
KS: Yeah. It’s of its time and for all time. At some point a classic graduates from being about a specific time to being all of our time.
HZ: Kevin Smokler is the author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. Aged 39, he returned to books that he’d read - often grudgingly - in his teens, and it was quite the experience.
KS: It was mostly, wow, look how much time has passed, look how different I am, look at all these trapdoors and sliding panels in these books that I wasn’t aware of, and what a treat it is finding those.
And we often get off on the wrong foot with them, being force-fed them in high school. The Great Gatsby - I picked it up and really felt that someone had slipped me a false version in high school. “This isn’t the book I read when I was 14!” At 14, you read a book about time marching on and leaving you behind and you’re like, “No it hasn’t, I’m 14! Are you kidding? I’ve got my whole life in front of me!” When you’re 39 reading that book, you think, “Maybe...”
HZ: A lot of books don’t age well. And there might be certain elements that, to modern sensibilities, aren’t going to fly.
KS: There’s an element of stubbornness to classics. Sometimes a book just sticks around, and it’s either so enormously popular, the culture can’t shut up about it - I hate to say it, but The Valley of the Dolls is a classic at this point. Why? Because Valley of the Dolls barged into the room and refused to leave.
HZ: That is a great book! Everyone I’ve given it to thinks it’s a great book.
KS: It’s enormous fun, and I think we have to acknowledge that to barge into the room, and stay, and be that much part of the culture, and that much fun, to that many people, is an accomplishment in itself, of its own kind.
We do have to contend with the embarrassment of something sounding dated or racist or misogynistic, something being very out of step with our contemporary sensibilities. And does that violate that ‘for all time’ premise I set forward? If time has moved on, do we hold that against a classic? I don’t know the answer to that.
HZ: So works might be considered classic at some times, and not others. But who’s deciding this? It feels like there’s a mysterious committee.
KS: And like they meet in a spooky castle. I think it is a combination of this thing we call the media, the public; and time. Schools, educators, and time. People know how to consciously steer themselves towards being a classic now. You have to start from somewhere. The only way someone achieves no renown and becomes a classic later is by dying and being rediscovered later on.
JM: There have been a few of those. Stoner is a very good example from recent times. It seemed to hit a nerve.
HZ: Stoner, the novel by American author John Williams, sold fewer than 2,000 copies when it was first published in 1965. Then after a couple of 21st century reprints, around 2012, 2013, it became a hit. It has now sold several hundred thousand copies, and there’s a film in the works.
JM: Maybe, in the case of Stoner in particular, it wasn’t the kind of book that was popular at the time, but maybe the books that were popular at the time have faded more, and the kind of resonances in Stoner are actually more relevant as time passes. Rather like a bit of music that gets rediscovered.
HZ: So authors have to wait around for their time - unfortunately, before his arrived, John Williams had died aged 71. As in many corners of the arts, a writer’s status can be cemented by dying - especially if they were young when they did so. Sylvia Plath, or John Keats, or George Orwell, or Anton Chekhov - their complete works are smaller than you might want, rather than outstaying their welcome; and, being callous but realistic, marketing tools don’t come much more compelling than the tinge of tragedy.
KS: We have to create some sort of narrative about them. Anthony Trollope’s work wasn’t considered classic for a very long time, for two not fair reasons:
1. He was a very happy postmaster for most of his life, so not a glamorous romantic tragic figure.
2. He had this incredible workmanlike discipline, where he would write for a few hours every morning for 40-odd years, and produced this enormous outlay of books; and people took the way Anthony Trollope created those books, and said, “That is effectively the measure of their literary quality. Therefore he is a diligent writer, not a good writer.”
We have reevaluated this in recent times, and with that is the acceptance that the initial judgement we made on Anthony Trollope isn’t based on the four dozen books. He didn’t die young, he didn’t have a drinking problem, he had a boring job, and he approached his writing the way someone would approach weeding their garden.
HZ: Poet Philip Larkin remained a librarian throughout his adult life; Franz Kafka was a partner in an asbestos factory; and as for Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women -
KS: She wrote what she called ‘blood and thunder’ books, and she was really into what we would consider pulp novels now - novels that were the printed version of garbage TV. She was into violence and sex, that was the kind of stuff she liked to read and the kind of stuff she liked to write. Unfortunately, her father was terrible with money, and she was the sibling with the marketable talent, so she went off and wrote Little Women for the money.
HZ: How interesting! Because for a lot of people, they’d be writing the saucy stuff for the money, and the literary one would be the pet project. For her, the other way.
KS: I like to believe Louisa May Alcott was a very astute businessperson and was able to spot the market before the market knew itself.
HZ: And the market wanted Little Women and Good Wives more than it wanted A Long Fatal Love Chase or Pauline's Passion and Punishment. Whatever, market.
I’m glad to tear up my mental picture of the authors of the classics being as monumental and elevated as their books. It’s not only doing a disservice to the people, but their books as well, which I’m put off reading by my own prejudice that they’ll be stodgy and impenetrable, or because being force-fed them at school ruined them for me, or because everyone tells me that they’re great therefore there’s no room for me to form my own opinion, so why even bother. But often, the classics are rattling good reads. Many were the blockbusting entertainment in their day. They’re far from obligation-reading. Yet at some point in my life I’ve been infected by the notion that if a book is fun, it’s not permitted to be worthwhile also.
KS: If only one, I’d rather it be enjoyable - enjoyable and forgettable, rather than nutritious but you have to choke it down. Enjoyable and forgettable is being honest about what it is; being nutritious and unpleasant is telling a lie, because what it’s saying is if the book is good, it can’t be enjoyable, which is wrong.
HZ: And I think genres and forms which skew towards enjoyable - like science fiction, fantasy, comics - have often tended to be snubbed by the mysterious Classics Committee. There’s a lot of abiding snobbery about classic literature.
HZ: Do they sell better if there’s a film still on the cover?
JM: No… Not in a bookshop like this. The refrain would be, “Have you got the one without the film cover?”
HZ: “Quick, hide it in this razzmag, I don’t want to be caught reading something popular!”
Question for you, listeners: do you count yourself as having read the book if you’ve only seen the film or tv adaptation? OK, and what about if you’ve seen the high school reboot? There’s no shame in it - I’ve got a lot more out of watching Clueless than reading Jane Austen’s Emma on which it is based, a book which makes me feel like I’m being sucked into a vortex of existential nihilism. I have read it a few times, searching for whatever it is everyone else likes about it; but with death being inevitable and my time finite, that’s not a book I plan to read again. But Kevin has convinced me to return to many others.
HZ: Glad you did it?
KS: Really glad. So much fun. The idea at the centre of this: we’re never past our time to learn, to derive pleasure from something culturally. It’s not like milk, it doesn’t sit there and spoil. Classics endure; we can experience them in youth and middle age and old. We’ll grow up, they won’t. They’re sort of like friends who will never die. They’ll always be there for us, and I find that incredibly reassuring, in a world that is often not.
Kevin Smokler is the author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School. It’s a much more diverse selection than that recognised by the educational establishments I attended: excellent as hefty novels by white Victorians often are, there’s plenty stellar reading matter elsewhere. I’ve added about twenty more books to my list of things to buy from Bookseller Crow. Thanks to Jonathan, the book fort to which I’m going to retire is coming along nicely.
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This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. Music is by Martin Austwick. The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia from PRX, a collection of the greatest podcasts you can pipe into your ears. Like Mortified, the podcast version of their long-running stage show in which people read diaries and poems and stuff they wrote as kids. You heard from them talking about diaries on the Spill Your Guts episode of this show. Mortified is really funny, but the recent ‘Don’t Mess with a Texas Momma’ episode left me with a lump in my throat. Listen to their show, and all the Radiotopians, at radiotopia.fm.
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frowst, noun: a warm stuffy atmosphere in a room. Verb: lounge about in such an atmosphere.
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You can find me at facebook.com/allusionistshow and twitter.com/allusionistshow. Let me know what your top 3 classics are. Fairly recently I read The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and that’s like if Henry James and Jane Austen combined forces to write their best ever book. Can’t wait for the high school film adaptation.