Recently, at Salon, Laura Miller wondered what makes a book a classic, and who gets to say which books should be included in the conversation: do booksellers or online book communities like Goodreads get to make the call? Do critics? Should we consider David Foster Wallace’s work among these classics, even though it’s so recent? Does a canon even exist or matter?
Taking all of these questions into consideration, we asked a handful of critics, writers, and publishing industry people for their take on which books should be considered classics — and also which titles they would drop from the so-called canon. Today we present the answers to the latter question, and hope you’ll join the conversation in the comments by letting us know which books you don’t think should still be called classic works of fiction.
So this is awkward because Stoner isn’t exactly in the canon, although not for lack of trying, at least lately. For the past few years Stoner has become the darling of so many in the literary world, who argue that it has been unjustly neglected. Personally, I find the novel wholly unconvincing — not so much in its realism but in the moral message that so many readers seem to attach to it, the sense that the life it depicts is quietly heroic and more than a little tragic. To me, the novel reads like hagiography, an unbalanced attempt to make the eponymous Stoner out to be a noble-souled victim of his neurotic and unstable wife. I have no problem believing that some women really are as bad as the horror show of a person Professor Stoner married — Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet comes to mind — but Jane Austen, unlike Williams, is careful to show us that the blame goes both ways. Mr. Bennet chose poorly and in Austen’s estimation bears a good deal of the blame for what happens in the Bennet household. Williams, in contrast, lionizes Stoner. But let’s be realistic — the man was old enough to know better. A 20-something Ph.D. student in literature, some of it rather deeply concerned with love, he wasn’t an innocent fresh off the farm when he courted his haughty, unappealing wife. His subsequent unwillingness to stand up to her when she was, in his view, tormenting their daughter makes him not a victim but a coward who valued his own domestic peace over what he believed was his daughter’s best interest. Believable yes? Tragic in its way? Sure, I guess. But Stoner’s no hero, unless poor judgment, passivity and an abdication of moral responsibility are your ideas of what constitutes the good.
Adelle Waldman is the author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.