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


Like the saying goes – there is no going back now

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

I am well aware of what I’m getting into. As a grad student of literature, 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 taught in the halls of academia, is simply a construct, a myth that’s been created and perpetuated by those in positions of power. (Western white men, that would be you.)

Talking about CLASSICS raises the complicated debate about the literary canon. Even if that’s a term the average reader doesn’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.

16 Comments

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  1. 3
    Susan

    I love to listen to classics on audiobook, especially the ones that seem really hard or intimidating. It was in this way that I was finally able to finish Moby Dick.

  2. 5
    Jenny @ Reading the End

    I always feel so pleased and proud of myself when I truly, truly love a CLASSIC. Of CLASSICS I myself have loved, I think — Lolita, The Color Purple, and The Chosen. But I only really feel sure that Lolita is an agreed-upon classic; the other two seem to be on the edges.

  3. 13
    Diane Bratvold

    I like all of the suggestions so far. Out of the recently-written books, I nominate Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It’s always hard to predict what will become a “classic,” but this book seems to have all of the elements.

  4. 15
    Leigh W. Smith

    Oh, to throw out just a few (I’m not that well read with literature of the last 1-40 years) . . . Those I’ve read: The Awakening (Kate Chopin), The Sound and the Fury, Hamlet, Waiting for Godot, Animal Farm, Clan of the Cave Bear (probably not in the canon yet). Those I want to read: The Handmaid’s Tale, Lolita (tried twice, failed twice), Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Flight (Sherman Alexie), et al. It seems like when I was in high school, lo those many years ago, the English-language canon was just beginning to open itself up — or being pried open, thank goodness — by writers outside the white, male, European circle of influence. Great post, Lady!

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