What Is a CLASSIC? Or, Opening a Canonical Can of Worms

Like the saying goes – there is no going back now

Here I go. I’m opening a colossal can of worms, and I know it. It’s time to take on the CLASSICS.

As a good literary grad student in my day, I am well aware of what I’m getting into. I was a willing participant in all the usual tradition-overturning theories: There is no God (thanks mainly to Nietszche), the author is dead (thanks to Barthes and Foucault), individual subjects do not exist (thanks to Marx), language has no inherent meaning (thanks to Derrida), and we should never, ever call a book a “CLASSIC” (thanks to the entire literary academy).

The idea of CLASSIC lit, as we learn in the halls of academia, is simply a construct. It’s a myth that’s been created and perpetuated by those in positions of power. Sorry, Western white men, but that would be you.

Talking about CLASSICS brings up the complicated debate about the literary canon. Even if that’s a term you don’t use every day, you’re all too familiar with the canon itself. Often called the Western Canon with a capital “C,” it’s the collection of works believed to be worth reading, studying, and talking about. It’s the body of literature, philosophy, music, and art that many of us study in school or are told we should study in order to become educated, enlightened citizens of the planet. The canon is the reason that, say, Charlotte Bronte’s works are still widely read, while those of Dollie Radford are not. Who is Dollie Radford? Exactly.

But who makes up the canon? And who decides what is a CLASSIC? The past fifty years have seen an all-out canon war in the academy, where scholars and teachers are working hard to expand the canon well beyond its original Western boundaries. Thanks to their efforts, today’s American lit syllabus might have students reading Charles Johnson’s slave narrative Middle Passage alongside Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn; Erica Jong’s feminist novel Fear of Flying beside Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself; Maxine Hong Kingston’s memoir of her Chinese-American upbringing, The Woman Warrior, along with Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises.

That open-door policy has done the humanities—and humanity in general—a world of good. But it can create angst when you try to call something CLASSIC literature.

While I wouldn’t dare whisper “CLASSIC” near the English department on any college campus, I’m ready to wield it out here in the real world. Simply put, CLASSIC is a useful little word. No other literary label communicates so much in so few letters, functioning as both adjective and noun and conjuring up the whole history of the written word in a single stroke. Indeed, it’s impossible to agree on a definition of a CLASSIC. Maybe it’s a text that has stood the test of time. Or perhaps it’s a book or poem that conveys some universal truth. Some might say that a CLASSIC has to teach something. Or, even better, in the words of Italo Calvino, who wrote one of the best essays on the subject (“Why Read the Classics?” [1986]), a CLASSIC is a CLASSIC because it “does not necessarily teach us anything we did not know before.”

No matter what definition you prefer, it’s important to remember that the CLASSICS label is subject to personal opinion, academic debate, and political power struggles. It’s an ever-changing designation determined by readers, professors, publishers, and booksellers. It is, in short, a canonical can of worms.

Yet you’re going to see CLASSICS crop up more on The Snail in the future. This isn’t meant to be some kind of reading regimen or self-improvement strategy, like adding more fiber to your diet or incorporating weight training into your walking routine. Rather, the CLASSICS are simply an unlimited supply of great reading, there for the taking. Get ready—our CLASSICS can of worms is open for business.

I’d love to know a few of your favorite CLASSICS or some CLASSICS you’ve been wanting to read. Please mention a title or two in the comments below.

The Power of the Red Pen: A Novel That Gives Editors Their Due

The Snail has been quiet as of late. Summer has had something to do with it, as you might expect. On a hot July day, a novel by the pool proves much more tempting than a computer keyboard and a blank screen. Can you blame me? But, since I also work as a freelance editor, The Snail on the Wall sometimes has to take a backseat to editing projects, which come with deadlines and paying clients. So, by way of explaining my seeming neglect for The Snail, today’s post celebrates the eminence of the editor, the power of the proofreader.


The History of the Siege of Lisbon, by literary Nobel Prize winner José Saramago, does more than give editing a face and name; it gives editors authority over the world. If we so dare, with a bit of ink here and a smudge of an eraser there, we can rewrite history, change the course of events, blot out all the world’s problems.

“If proof-readers were given their freedom and did not have their hands and feet tied by a mass of prohibitions more binding than the penal code, they would soon transform the face of world, establish the kingdom of universal happiness, giving drink to the thirsty, food to the famished, peace to those who live in turmoil, joy to the sorrowful, companionship to the solitary, hope to those who have lost it, not to mention the rapid disappearance of poverty and crime, for they would be able to do all these things simply by changing the words . . . this is precisely how the world and man came to be made, with words, some rather than others, . . . Let it be done, said God, and it was done immediately.”

Can I get an “amen” from editors everywhere?

Saramago’s unlikely hero, proofreader Raimundo Silva, helps this novel’s plot unfold with a very simple act: he inserts the word “Not” in a soon-to-be-published manuscript. He’s working on a history text, an account of Portuguese King Alphonso taking back the city of Lisbon from the Moors who have occupied it. When the proofreader gets to the Crusaders’ statement that they “will help the Portuguese to capture Lisbon,” he makes a bold, subversive decision to insert the word “Not”: “the crusaders will Not help the Portuguese to conquer Lisbon.” And, with that one little word, the whole of European history is altered, as is the course of Silva’s own life. He becomes a major player in the political development of his home city, and also a romantic hero in a seductive love story involving his publishing-house boss.

Both playful and serious, The History of the Siege of Lisbon brings into focus all kinds of blurred lines: between past and present, Christians and Muslims, author and character, fact and fiction. And, most important, it fires the imagination of editors like me, who love the idea that the red pen might be mightier than the sword.

Remains of the Year: More Books to Look Forward to in 2014

If you’ve been wondering what to do with the remainder of 2014, here’s your answer, faithfully delivered by The Millions. Their latest “Most Anticipated” list features 84 books you’ll be seeing on shelves in the next few months. Some—such as Edan Lepucki’s California, Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, and Tiphanie Yanique’s Land of Love and Drowning—have already been released since the list came out a few weeks ago. Others—including Hilary Mantel’s The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories, Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda, Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl, and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings—will have to wait in your online pre-order cart for a little while longer. Click below for the full reader’s forecast.


Beach Books for a Great Escape

In the days leading up to a beach trip, instead of getting out suitcases, doing last-minute laundry, and crossing items off my packing list, I spend my time daydreaming about what I’ll read once I hit the sand. This summer is no different. Here are 12 beach-worthy books that have me in the vacation state of mind. The best part is, you don’t have to head to the ocean to take advantage of great beach reads. The nature of a beach book is that it takes you on an escape—whether you end up lounging by the sea, sitting in your backyard, or just hiding out in your bedroom for an afternoon.

The QuickThe Quick, by Lauren Owen (Buy it here.)

Nothing beats the summer heat like an atmospheric novel set in shadowy Victorian London. The less you know about this brand-new debut novel, the better. It’s for readers who love books by . . . well, I shouldn’t say. And it’s for fans of the series . . . I can’t reveal that either. Just read it and keep its secrets to yourself.

The Interestings
The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer (Buy it here.)

Gather your graham crackers and marshmallows; this nostalgic novel about summer camp will have you reliving childhood memories. As you follow these friends from adolescence to adulthood, you’ll empathize with a few of the lessons they learn about responsibility and relationships.

Mr Mercedes
Mr. Mercedes,
Stephen King (Buy it here.)

In book after book, Stephen King gives us perfect beach reads, taking us far from the world we call home. This latest—his first in the detective genre—centers around an unsolved hit-and-run and the battle between a retired cop and an evil killer.

Me before You
Me before You,
Jojo Moyes (Buy it here.)

Wear your swimsuit and pack some tissues, because you might be a wet mess before it’s all over. This is a tear-jerker, though not sappy for sap’s sake. As the two main characters let go of their preconceptions and plans, they may inspire you to, too. Follow it up with One Plus One, coming July 1.

Lost Girls
Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery,
by Robert Kolker (Buy it here.)

Who says beach reads have to be light and fluffy with a happy ending? Dig into something darker with this nonfiction title about the still-unsolved murder of five female escorts on Long Island. It’s for fans of CSI and Law and Order, or anyone craving the human story behind a real-life mystery.

All Fall Down
All Fall Down, by Jennifer Weiner (Buy it here.)

This novel takes readers on an enlightening trip into the territory of drug addiction, and in a place where it’s still surprising yet increasingly common: middle-class suburbia and motherhood.

Grown-up Kind of Pretty
A Grown-up Kind of Pretty,
by Joshilyn Jackson (Buy it here.)

Joshilyn Jackson is known for her sassy southern storytelling, and this tale of three generations of women divided (yet bound) by a backyard secret combines humor and heartfelt emotion. (If you’ll be near Huntsville, AL, this September 25, there’s another reason to read this book, since Jackson is speaking at the library’s annual Vive le Livre; get event details here.)

We Were Liars
We Were Liars,
by E. Lockhart (Buy it here.)

This recent release has the YA world talking, but try not to listen. The novel’s secrets, lies, and dark truths make for a thrilling read if you don’t know much beforehand. One summer, something goes horribly wrong during a family’s annual sojourn on Cape Cod; this narrative is a teen’s attempt to figure it out.

Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me
Jennifer, Gwyneth & Me: The Pursuit of Happiness, One Celebrity at a Time,

by Rachel Bertsche (Buy it here.)

Just saying the name “Gwyneth” conjures up the complicated emotions we regular people feel toward celebrities: fascination and admiration mixed with envy and resentment. Trying to capture the star qualities of her fave celebs, Bertsche’s experiment turns into a quest for perfection and contentment.

Hundred-Year House
The Hundred-Year House,
by Rebecca Makkai (Buy it here.)

You’ll have to wait until July 10 for this gothic novel, which opens with a ghost story and then takes off with family drama, mad characters, and a murder mystery.

Devil in the Grove
Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of America, by Gilbert King (Buy it here.)

A 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner, this paperback recounts events that seem fictional but are all too true. When Thurgood Marshall rode into Florida to represent four black men accused of raping a white woman, he had to fight the “Florida Terror,” which meant taking on the orange industry, law enforcement, and the KKK.

Hyperbole and a Half
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened,
by Allie Brosh (Buy it here.)

If you miss picture books, this essay collection is for you. Peppered with the author’s quirky drawings, it proves that cartoons can deal with serious subjects and make you laugh at the same time.