Ask someone what a “classic” book is and probably they’ll tell you something about how it “stood the test of time”–presumably because of its “universal values.” But it’s somewhat disingenuous to suggest that books survive based solely on their merit. Their are obstacles at every step of a book’s life–and not clearing them all does not mean a book is bad. Similarly, clearing them does not mean a book deserves a classic label.
Publishing the Book
For a book to become a classic, it first has to move from manuscript form to book form. Consider that:
- You must first submit your manuscript to an agent. A college intern will probably weed through submissions before an agent ever sees it. The intern, like all people, has subjective taste that will determine whether your manuscript gets passed on.
- Once the intern passes your manuscript to the agent, he or she will have to determine its value. Not just its literary value, but its market value. Perhaps the time for vampire romances has passed or they’ve just pitched five mermaid books and want something else. Your manuscript may not pass because of factors beyond your control.
- If your manuscript survives, the agent will pitch it to an editor. Editors work for a long time with a book. They’re going to (probably) choose a book they like–so your fate is up to their personal tastes. Or they may publish your book even though they hate it because they know that your werewolf romance is going to sell big despite their conviction that it’s terrible.
- Maybe the editor loves your book, but the company only has resources to publish so many books a year. They may have to pass.
At any stage, a manuscript can be rejected or accepted for what may seem like arbitrary or unfair reasons. A manuscript may even be rejected simply because the author failed to follow directions or otherwise seems difficult to work with. Literary talent often has nothing to do with one’s successes or failures.
Marketing the Book
For a book to survive to be a classic, it also needs some staying power. It’s difficult to be inserted in the canon when no one has heard of your book! Consider:
- The marketing department only has so many resources. Authors may have to do a lot of marketing themselves.
- Authors who work another job or are not being supported financially by someone else may be unable to market as effectively as they would like. They may not have the time or resources.
- A book that manages to get a review in a major publication has advantages other books don’t.
- Your book may get reviews or marketing based on how influential your friends are. (I have no examples of this offhand, but it’s just a fact of life that your work is promoted better when you have a good network.)
A book may never have wide appeal because not enough people heard of it. A great book may fall into obscurity while a sub-par book rockets to the top of the bestseller list.
Teaching the Book
A book often needs to be heard of and presumably taught to be part of the canon. Instructors choose books for various reasons, not necessarily the ones you think.
- The instructor was taught the book in school so they each it to their students.
- A book is short. Someone once suggested to me that Ethan Frome is not Edith Wharton’s best work, but it is easy to squeeze onto a syllabus.
- Someone told the instructors a book is part of the canon. Harold Bloom lists Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson as part of the Western canon. Guess which women writers you’re most likely to read in college.
- The book illustrates some feature the instructor finds worthy of discussing, such as the polysemy in Shakespeare or the complexities of Dante’s Divine Comedy. But tastes change. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Shakespeare’s language wasn’t worshipped the way it is now; adaptions for the stage, where the scenes were shortened and the language simplified, abounded. They did not appreciate complexity in Shakespeare. Books come and go in the canon as different periods appreciate different featues. Shakespeare managed to last. Other authors were not so lucky.
Canon formation often comes down to economic factors, power structures, and personal taste. We revere the canon as the best the Western world has to offer, but we also know that it has traditionally ignored female writers and writers of color. It’s not because only white men write really great books–it’s because historically white male writers have had more resources, have wielded more power, and have written the types of books that critics and instructors have deemed worthwhile. But just because someone writes a different kind of book, that doesn’t mean she’s not writing a great one. A book that perhaps should be given the chance to become a classic, too.