What makes a book a classic? We’ve been revisiting the question recently thanks to a piece by Laura Miller at Salon,which explored what makes a book worthy of inclusion in the canon. Should David Foster Wallace be counted among the greats? Does Slaughterhouse-Five stand alongside Ulysses and the novels of Charles Dickens? Do these questions even really matter?
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. Yesterday we presented our participants’ answers to the latter question; today, we give you their thoughts on which new or underrated books deserve classic status.
The question of what defines a classic is so interesting: lately, when my husband reads aloud to our eight-year-old son, he constantly asks, “Is it a classic? Is it a masterpiece?” He wants to understand what those definitions consist of, and we’re hard pressed sometimes to give him an answer. (Yes, Tom Sawyer is a classic, but Huckleberry Finn is a masterpiece.)
The classic that I think should be more widely read is Queen Victoria, by Lytton Strachey. (I’m not sure it gets lumped into a different category so much as overlooked altogether.) This short biography, published in 1921, provides an acutely observed survey of the 19th century, seen through vivid particulars, and has the sting of close-up retrospection. Strachey was one of the archest of Virginia’s Woolf’s very arch circle, and his restrained prose is still as cutting as ever, even if we don’t care much any more about the lives of the people he chronicled. Among aficionados or practitioners of that hellish neologism, the longread, Strachey should be embraced as a master.
Rebecca Mead is a staff writer at the New Yorker. Her latest book, My Life in Middlemarch, explores her love for another classic.
I’ve not read it in years, but a much quieter, less-lauded book impressed me much more back then, Sounder by William H. Armstrong. Before I’d read that book, African Americans as portrayed in literature seemed one-dimensional. I can’t say whether that book should be recommended (as I said, I’ve not read it in years), but it should be considered.
I’ve long had a theory that readers love Southern literature for its exoticism — it’s different from the more everyday North. That is, it was, until chain stores and malls, and everything took over and leeched the region of its uniqueness.
We now look to the world for that sense of the exotic (and as a professional book club coordinator once told me in an interview) we do it so book club members can prepare the foods from that country, wear the clothes, and feel well-traveled. It’s ersatz urbanity, a performance. We rarely read international literature in order to understand ourselves and how we interact with the world. To that end, I think all Americans need to read Takeshi Kaiko’s Into a Black Sun. It shows the war from a Japanese point of view. It’s not a novel filled with gore, but it still rips at the core of why America went to Vietnam — and why we were destined to lose it. And by extension, why America will lose every other war we go into, if it refuses to take into account other cultures.
Meakin Armstrong is a writer and Senior Editor-Fiction Editor at Guernica.
Like the words “blog” or “hipster,” the notion of “classic” literature is one of those ideas that is too broad, too subjective to be nailed down by any one definition. Still, as a concept, “reading the classics” still means enough that it sticks around. We might argue about what those books are, but we still have some idea what we’re arguing about.
Speaking of words with slippery meanings, let’s talk about “graphic novels.” For most, a graphic novel is a serious comic, one with grown-up themes and literary aspirations. It’s a way to separate Maus and Black Hole from the likes of Peanuts and Batman. In the early ’00s, there was a move among cartoonists to reclaim the word “comic” — the binary idea that comics were serious or not serious was detrimental to the medium — and yet “graphic novel” persists. We can’t shed the phrase because it still means enough: it continues to define a certain type of book and a certain kind of audience.
Will Eisner’s A Contract with God is arguably the first graphic novel. In many ways, it resembles a picture book more than it does a comic with panels, but the strong contrasts imbue God with a harsh, gritty sense of realism as Eisner moves through four tales based on his childhood growing up in a Jewish tenement in New York. It’s an immensely influential work, especially as an autobiographical work, without which there would be no Blankets, Fun Home, or Persepolis.
As for overlooked classics, I’d refer to the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Similarly, Tatsumi worked in “manga,” but when he wanted to write more serious, realistic comics, he coined the phrase “gekiga” to make the distinction to readers. He published darkly comic stories about people in soul-crushing factory jobs, botched plastic surgeries, sexual perversions, and the crippling loneliness imposed by modernizing postwar Japan. The severe lines and heavy inks with which Tatsumi draws Tokyo makes it seem almost dystopian.
Tatsumi never read Eisner (at the time, few comics were not translated overseas), and in fact, most of his work pre-dates A Contract with God. But the fact that both cartoonists were, in parallel, making conscious efforts to create more realistic comics shows that it was as much of a need as it was an innovation in the medium. Eisner himself didn’t think up the phrase “graphic novel,” but God is the book that popularized the term. Perhaps we should give more credit to the underrated work of Tatsumi — only in the past four years translated into English in a number of lovely collections — who was deliberate about defining a literary push forward for the medium.
Certainly we need more books in translation on this list; I turn to places like NYRB Classics and New Directions for guidance, there. Also more story and essay collections. The first name to come to mind, however, is Barry Hannah. Given my middle child’s soft spot for less-discussed, or less-assigned-in-high-school, siblings — Nostromo, not Heart of Darkness; Bleak House, not David Copperfield) — I’ll overlook Hannah’s lauded collection Airships for his short novel, Ray. The music is just thrilling. Here’s a full chapter: “To delight in healing, flying, fucking. Here are the men and women.”
A few more. Before Rebecca Mead’s much-needed, recent revolution, I might have said Middlemarch. But what about, a bit further back, Margaret Cavendish? She basically invented Science Fiction with The Description of a New World, Called The Blazing-World. What about some criticism? I think everyone should read Helen Vendler’s The Odes of John Keats.
John McElwee works in the fiction department at the New Yorker and contributes special projects to The New Inquiry.
I’ve read books that struck me as “instant classics”: Books I’m sure we’ll still be reading in 100 years. I consider Lolita a classic. And John Williams’ Stoner. (The New York Review of Books Classics series has books that really do deserve ‘classic’ status.) Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth and The Love of a Good Woman. George Saunders’ Pastoralia. Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior. All of Lorrie Moore’s story collections. Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Norman Rush’s Mating. Just about anything by James Baldwin. I felt that way about Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, too, a very recent book that is likely to be considered a classic someday.
Elliott Holt is the author of You Are One of Them.
There is a Russian joke: when a host asked his guest: “What would you like, beer or wine?,” the guest replied: “Also vodka on the top!” So I wouldn’t decrease the canon, rather enrich it with dozens of completely unknown names of unknown literatures like a Georgian writer Otar Chiladze with his Avelum and Godori, Uzbek writer Abdulla Qadyri with his Days Bygone and Kalvak Maxzum, Estonian writer Jan Kroos, Bosniyac Mesha Selimovich with his Dervish and Death and many others. It’s not just about peripheries literatures, even the great ones, like Russian, need some revision. Andrey Platonov with a number of his novels is one of the worthiest names. Leonid Dobychin, Andrey Bitov, Fazil Iskander are other contenders to become immortals. But the way to a canon reminds me another Russian joke: someone asked his Russian friend: “Could General’s son become a Field-Marchall?” “No way!” the friend replied. “Why?” asked the first one. “Because the Field-Marchall has got his own children!!”
Uzbek poet and author Hamid Ismailov is the BBC World Service’s writer in residence. His novel The Underground is newly published in English by Restless Books.
Sergei Dovlatov. An underground writer back in Russia who later emigrated to New York, Dovlatov writes with all the warmth, humor and poetic compression of Leonard Michaels and Grace Paley. Joseph Brodsky once said about him: “The decisive thing is his tone, which every member of a democratic society can recognize: the individual who won’t let himself be cast in the role of a victim, who is not obsessed with what makes him different.” My favorite of his books is The Suitcase. He also has a new, posthumous novel coming out this spring, Pushkin Hills.
Molly Antopol is the author of The UnAmericans.
For me, a book approaches that stature of classic when it speaks in a quietly magisterial voice and illuminates a timeless experience in a way that strikes the reader as fresh, novel, profound, and unforgettable. In that sense, I’d propose a few works for elevation. I’m delighted that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart already enjoys the near-universal admiration it deserves. I’d point readers to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s sometimes under-appreciated A Grain of Wheat. It’s, in my view, an extraordinary writer’s most impressive and powerful offering. A Grain is a moving, richly layered narrative of personal and communal struggle, one that deploys history, memory, folklore, the Bible as well as a deeply animist sensibility to forge a dramatic canvas in which men and women are tested by fire, revolutionary ideals contend with traitorous hearts. I can’t think of another novel that more poignantly portrays the masks we wear in order to disguise ourselves, to conceal our terrible shortcomings and sordid ordinariness. There are a few other African texts — Mazisi Kunene’s Emperor Chaka the Great and Sembene Ousmane’s God’s Bits of Wood, say, I’d like more readers to engage.
Okey Ndibe is the author of Foreign Gods, Inc.
Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements only came out in 2012, so it’s a little premature to call it a classic. But I think it will be. It’s also my favorite novel of the past few years. In addition to being very funny and very smart, it’s a marvelously well-crafted book — in terms of sentences, in terms of scenes and in terms of character. Its humor does not stand in place of depth but is the kind of humor that is itself a form of depth, born from the sort of irony that simultaneously exposes and sympathizes with human folly. Too many novels feel like the author rode by one or two ideas and a few good passages, hoping that those, combined with general competence, would be enough to carry the book — and very often they are enough, in the short term. But the kind of deep 360-degree care that Shipstead took to make her comic novel so very, very good on so many levels speaks to true humility before art.
Adelle Waldman is the author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
I bang the drum for Heinrich Böll. He’s not unknown here — he won the Nobel Prize in 1972 and palled around with Solzhenitsyn — but he’s not much discussed, I think. The Clown is my favorite of his. It’s about life after WWII, whether artistic integrity has any meaning in such a changed society, and two pretty hardy types of guilt (German, Catholic). I think the recession of Böll, such as it’s been, owes as much to the peculiar economics of publishing as anything else, which might tell us something about how canons are formed and maintained. Penguin had much of Böll’s work in English translation but then, so far as I can tell, gave up their rights to him, letting it all slide out of print sometime in the last decade, except for one novel that had been made into a movie (its book cover forever to be branded with that bittersweet stigmata: “now a major motion picture”). Fortunately Melville House stepped in a few years ago, commissioned some editions, and is shepherding Boll’s work along. It seems to me like precisely the kind of material that should interest a big publisher — a wedge of prestigious, culturally and historically important work that can be a reliable, if unflashy moneymaker for years. The backlist is the canon’s proving grounds — an endurance sport, for better and worse.
Jacob Silverman is a writer.
Christopher Isherwood’s A Single Man should be on everyone’s list of classics. It is a beautiful, angry, funny book written at the height of its author’s powers, distilling and transforming themes and techniques in the literature that preceded it and deftly, economically capturing the feel of the time and place that inspired it. More importantly, it is a transgressive book. I like Frank Kermode’s suggestion that “literature which achieves permanence is likely to be ‘transgressive’” — crossing a boundary like sex or class. Such boundaries move and change all time, but we will always wish to return to the book that shows just how things were when a boundary lay there uncrossed, perhaps even unrecognized, then how the boundary became clear, magnetic, had to be crossed, was crossed. The resulting change may be sufficiently complete that the atmosphere of the past is lost forever — except in the book. Isherwood gave mainstream readers their first psychologically complete portrait of a gay man, and he offered it as a beautiful, irresistible continuation of the literary achievements of Bloomsbury; at the same time, in 1964, it was completely shocking. In the fifty years since A Single Man was published, North American and European culture has changed so completely that young readers need help to understand just where that boundary lay, and why it was so fraught. Their best bet is to read this classic novel. Nothing else will quite do.
Katherine Bucknell is the author of four novels and the editor of Christopher Isherwood’s diaries.
Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping is of course already quite thoroughly laureled, but it’s one of those truly few books — like, for example, Moby-Dick or Jesus’ Son — whose achievement cannot be overstated. It’s one thing to say, “That’s a good — or even a great — book.” It’s something else to say that this is one of the great books of the 20th century, and of American literature in general, bar none. Which Housekeeping undoubtedly is. I also feel strongly for Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note — about as different a book from Housekeeping (stylistically and ethically) as one could imagine. It’s ludicrous to put the two of them into the same paragraph that I feel stupid as I sit here and do it: Robinson’s breathtaking poetry, theology, intimacy, and nature-writing, alongside Amis’ maniacal and blistering nastiness, rancor, and sleaze (to say nothing of all the -isms you can think to accuse him of–guilty as charged across the board, to be sure). But here we go. Because perfect poison is no less perfect, in the end, than perfect grace. I have wondered if Money is an evil novel. I think it might be. But it’s also a work of genius: fully realized, self-contained, original, alive. Which is what it has in common with Housekeeping. So I’m gonna stop short of saying Money is an “all-time Classic”, but a classic? Sure. And under-acknowledged relative to its merit? Absolutely. Also, and not for nothing, it’s funny as fuck.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi
I remember reading Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter many years ago with a distinct feeling of physical suffocation. It was stirred by memories of emotional paralysis that besets us in the midst of failed relationships and allows us to look at ourselves with unhindered clarity, as our vision, not just our heart becomes drained of sentiment. That music of a soul disintegrating so masterfully played by Ford in the novel is what makes The Sportswriter a lasting work of literature in my opinion.
Musharraf Ali Farooqi is the author of Between Clay and Dust, which was shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize in 2012.
Being the Folio Society, we have a bit of a different view of what ‘classic’ means. What we do is to create classics rather than choose classics to revive (although we do both of course). But our recent favorites are The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood, with its amazing Balbusso illustrations — is a classic in its own right. Finnegans Wake by James Joyce is surely an unsung classic; it’s unlike any other book I’ve read and finally Victor Hugo’s Toilers of The Sea is a great ‘discovery’ classic from the author of Les Miserables.
Toby Hartwell is the Managing Director of The Folio Society.
We rightly praise Steve McQueen for demanding that moviegoers stare into the historical abyss with 12 Years a Slave, yet Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred — one of the most compelling novels on race published in the last fifty years — is regularly ignored by tastemakers who prefer their canon dry and vanilla. This was one of the key books to understand how speculative fiction could be used to reveal that, no matter how hard we stretch the limits of time and space, an evil institutional legacy like slavery will continue to gnaw at us, lapping at our heels even as we claim civilization and enlightenment. While it is true that the book was included during World Book Night — and I was happy to distribute copies to kids, watching their eyes widen as I described the novel’s time travel elements — it remains an unfathomable mystery to me why this isn’t taught alongside Mark Twain or Harper Lee.
A question for a question: What is the “Classics” category? Do you mean “Classics” as defined by Amazon.com (the #1 bestseller of which category, as of 2/18/14 at 22:02 EST, is Charlotte Collins: A Continuation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Jennifer Becton)? Or as defined by Penguin Classics, which just released Morrissey’s autobiography? And, while we’re at it, what about Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin Nature Classics, and Penguin Enriched eBook Classics? Most of the Jewish canon was determined two millennia ago; most of the Christian canon, a millennium and a half ago; yet even with the Gideons giving away copies for free, only 20% of American adults have read the entire Bible (according to the American Bible Society). It’s been a century since the Loeb Classical Library bound its Greek in green and Latin in red, and a Scriptural 70-ish years since the first mass-market paperback. It follows that future curricula will be newer negotiations of familiar concerns: 1.) gratis access, now digital, increases readership, but discourages both thoroughness and rereading; 2.) with technologies allowing cut-n-paste-anthologizing, we’re just entering the Bronze Age of branding…
What I’m going to give you, then, can’t help but be counterproductive and already obsolete: Six Lists of Books That Haven’t Been Repackaged as Classics Yet But Should Be and Should Be Marketed to People Who Read Online Lists of Books.
List One, “The George Saintsbury Collection”: A History of English Prose Rhythm and A History of Criticism and Literary Taste in Europe (Though both are available online: https://archive.org/details/historyofenglis00sainuoft
List Two, “Everything by Ka-Tzetnik 135633″: Everything by Ka-Tzetnik 135633
List Three, “Everything by Max Frisch”: Everything by Max Frisch
List Four, “As-Yet-Not-Into-English-Translated”:
Charles Bovary, Landarzt, and Lefeu Oder Der Abbruch, Jean Améry
Ich, Wolfgang Hilbig
List Five, “The Best Novel Ever Written Under an Unpronounceable Pseudonym About Long Island Community Theater”:An Operetta in Profile, Czeika (AKA Louise E. Furniss)
List Six, “The Best Novel By Yoram Kaniuk Who Was Very Kind to Me and Died Last Year”:The Last Jew, Yoram Kaniuk
Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers is forthcoming from Random House in 2015
Numerous names come to mind when thinking about contemporary authors whose works could form some kind of modern canon. But for me, Kelly Link’s name stands out among them; it’s been over a decade since I first read her collection Stranger Things Happen, and parts of it are still lodged inside my brain, creeping me out in their own way, and causing me to stumble in awe at just how unpredictable they are. Anticipating what readers of tomorrow might seek out from the present day is a thankless task; speaking as someone whose tastes have always run to the esoteric, I also don’t know if I’m in any way qualified to judge what volumes sitting on my bookshelves will still be read by the literary-minded in 50 or 100 years.
I’d wager that Stranger Things Happen will still have an audience then, though. It doesn’t hurt that Link’s fiction is attractive to a wide range of readers, from those drawn to the elements of fantasy and horror in her work to those who are impressed with the more metafictional and experimental elements present in there. (Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a good-sized overlap between these two groups.) Maybe Link’s work will continue to unsettle readers in some future decade, or perhaps her work will be studied to determine just how she captured the irrational anxieties of the here and now. And hopefully “The Specialist’s Hat” will be causing many a sleepless night for years to come.
YA is finally getting recognized as a genre of substance, a genre that has something to offer readers outside its intended demographic. Hopefully that trend will trickle down to kids’ books we cherish, many of which stand the test of time and have made a profound and enduring impact on its now adult readers. There are books we read as kids that are so striking and inspiring that they’ve been encoded into the DNA of multiple generations. I’m talking about books that change the way we behave, like Ferdinand the Bull, I’m talking about Harold and the Purple Crayon because I’m pretty sure my double helix is just a purple scribble. Maybe “classics” are works of serious literature of the kind that only adults will read (or lie about reading), or maybe they’re the foundation upon which the next generation writes its books. But the books we grew up reading and now read to our children also offer an essential foundation, one where we learn to read and begin to appreciate a larger world of literature. Certainly, the “classics” category is a crowded one, but, damn it, I say Make Way for Ducklings.
Lately, the question of “what is a classic?” keeps coming back to me. Classic, I’m convinced, is a book capable of being read twice, in which one meets readers from the past and the future, a book capable of creating a nation. Unlike your average book, readers don’t choose a classic but the other around: it is the classic that selects.
What books would I re-brand as classics? A memorable short novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer called The Slave; Natalia Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues; a self-reflecting novel called Locos: A Comedy of Gestures by a Spanish émigré called Felipe Alfau, it was praised by Mary McCarthy when it came out in 1928 but vanished into oblivion; and the terrific The Man with a Shattered World by Russian psychologist A. R. Luria. I would also include in this list the wonderful 19th-century epic poem The Gaucho Martín Fierro by José Hernández, still begging for an English-language audience.
Ilan Stavans is the publisher of Restless Books.
Adrian Todd Zuniga
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson might be inadmissible because it’s on the Time 100 list, but it’s nowhere to be found on the Modern Library list. Maybe because it was written by a woman? The Modern Library list has a whopping total of eight women writers. Eek. Housekeeping is a very powerful, feminist story that, for the most part, doesn’t include men. Yet, it does in 219 pages what many book can’t do in many more hundreds.
Time takes time. The people who are going to decide what books endure, which stories we’ll be telling for years to come and studying in college classes (or inserting into the capsules that kids will be swallowing, once higher education comes in pill form)? Those people haven’t been born yet.
If I could make a case for the books that I think will endure, I’d give you some of the best examples of what’s dismissively known as popular fiction – the books people read on airplanes, or at the beach, or in hospital waiting rooms; books that give them the possibility of other worlds to visit, or characters and voices so distinctive and alluring that they grab you by the hand and pull you straight into the pages. For world-building, I’d offer Stephen King’s The Stand and his Gunslinger saga; Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Nicholas Christopher’s Veronica and Lev Grossman’s Magician trilogy. For voice and character, everything by Fran Lebowitz and Susan Isaacs and Nora Ephron, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones and Elizabeth Moore’s Arthur Opp. Oh, and Fear of Flying. I think that book is going to have as much to say to young women 40 years from now as it did when I first read it, 40 years ago.
Jennifer Weiner’s novels include Good in Bed, In Her Own Shoes, and The Next Best Thing. Her new book, All Fall Down, will be published in June.