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.
14 thoughts on “Are Classics Really “Timeless?””
I like that you mention the publication process because I’m attempting this myself right now, and it’s a bit tiresome. I was literally thinking about some of these points as I saw your post. I think I’m 2 years behind the market on my first manuscript. Luckily, I have others. Your post really made me think more about that first manuscript, and how sometimes, these things are out of our control. What about something too old to go through this process? The Iliad is my favorite classic. I have a strange love for that story that sparked my interest in other classics. Considering the age of The Iliad, I would think it would be considered timeless, but I guess that probably depends on who you ask. I’m sure there’s people who can’t stand it. But I think all classics have some type of fandom. There’s people who love Fitzgerald and others who can’t even read a page of his work because of their past experiences with teachers. I see The Iliad on every classic literature list, but it’s the one book that was introduced to me in college that I never see anyone mention, and I know very few people who’ve read or heard of it. They usually say, isn’t that the book the Brad Pitt movie was adapted from, which always bugs me.
To stay in print long enough to be considered a classic, I think even a text like the Iliad would be affected by factors of economics and taste. Someone somewhere had to decide to preserve it, then to transmit, to translate it, to convince a publishing house that it was worth taking a financial risk on publishing a translation of it…. Basically, to be timeless, a book has to have more going for it than its intrinsic value, even though we like to act as if art exists on some higher level where the market can’t touch it. But once something like the Iliad makes it to “classic” status, the label alone can help to preserve it. If it’s a “classic” people are going to keep putting it on lists of must-read books and they’r going to keep teaching it, thus keeping it in print.
We may be entering a bit of a new age where fandoms will have a greater chance to preserve and transmit books the literati ignore, though. But, then of course there are other ways of diminishing the value of a work. Harry Potter, for example, will probably be labelled a “children’s classic” or a “fantasy classic,” both of which are distinct from just a “classic.”
That’s a good point. Harry Potter probably wouldn’t be labeled as just a classic. Do you think a book like Twilight would ever make it onto a list like this, considering some schools have bought the books for students? J.K. Rowling is a legitimate writer, but I would take issue with someone like Stephenie Meyer making it on a list like this when the writing is not up to par. I think one thing most classic writers have in common is their ability to write well. If HP makes it to classic status, do you think select Stephen King novels have the ability to one day be considered classic horror? Other than Dracula, I can’t even think of any horror classics. I’m rambling… I have so many books running through my head.
I live in fear that the popularity of Twilight will catapault it to classic fame. It will probably carry on at least in schools as some some of cultural study or maybe as part of the vampire tradition, though that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will call it a classic.
I also take comfort in knowing that not everything taught in schools will be considered a classic. Things like Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid may be assigned in schools to get children reading, but I think the academy would faint if someone suggested they would be classics one day. 😉
I haven’t read any of King’s work so I can’t really speak to his potential as a classic writer. I do sometimes like to sit and wonder which of our current books will be considered classics, though. Will they be books almost no one has read?
I hope Twilight is omitted from the list. I think that would be a sad day in literary history if it ever reached classic status. I just don’t see it having a place among such talented writers with beautifully written stories. There’s a book called Captain Underpants? That made me laugh. While the name is catchy for an MG reader, I agree with you there. Stephen King is a very talented writer. I enjoy his writing style more than any other author. I’ve been reading his books since I was in middle school. I’m curious about that, too. That’s why I cringed at the thought of Twilight. I can’t think of anything I’ve read lately that I can see withstanding the test of time. There’s so many hype books out there I wonder how long some of them will stay around. I can’t believe we’re still talking about Twilight over ten years later though I think the movies had a lot to do with its lasting presence. This post really has me thinking about books I’ve read. The only story that left an impression on me is The Iliad. No other story has ever resonated with me like the characters in that book. I guess I have an old soul. I love old books. I swear I was supposed to be born in a different era. 😊
Captain Underpants is the series. The actual titles are far more ridiculous. ;b
Writing style may prevent Twilight from becoming a classic, but I still see it being taught as part of the vampire genre since it’s obviously been so influential in turning vampires from evil/demonic figures to good/sex symbols. I’d be surprised, though, if it ever made it into a survey course or was taught in high schools as a classic.
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As always, such a thoughtful post, Krysta! Definitely agree – never thought about this before, but there are probably tonnes of books out there that could be classics, but never had the opportunity to be! ❤ Loved this post so much!
Yes, it’s difficult to say that just because a book wasn’t published, it wasn’t any good.
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I LOVE this post. I absolutely think that “classic” does not equal “timeless” because that would rule out many “classics” that are clearly dated. But just because a book is dated does not make it lose its merit and does not make it irrelevant. Classics can teach us the values and cultures of a different time, so calling classics “timeless” makes no sense to me. Literature is not written in a vacuum. Reading something from 1840 will inevitably be saturated in the values/politics/cultural climate of 1840. As to the question of merit, it’s so arbitrary that it’s a struggle to discuss (and very worth of discussion!). So many things to consider….
I’ve always understood “timeless” to mean that classic possesses some perhaps indefinable quality that allows them to transcend time and continue to speak to readers, even if some of the content seems dated. The implication is that a book becomes a classic based on this indefinable quality when, in fact, things like personal taste, marketability, finances and influence, etc. all play a role in ensuring a book lasts. It’s not all about artistic merit.
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I don’t think publishing process is that relevant to this topic since each time period had its own constraints and we all should recognise that there are unpublished masterpieces out there and publishing industry works by choosing a book that will SELL rather than that which is literary great – female authors published classics in the past too, including Edith Wharton, Daphne du Maurier, etc. I will be direct – I am still to see the power of a story that previously came from such writers as Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky or Balzac – just because they were white men does not mean that their work is not the best – I have read many modern authors and I am still to see their language or content surpassing these so-called “white and privileged white men” – as long as they are not surpassed – and in my opinion – they are not – these books by white men will be forever classics for me. And not all white men had the resources – there were many white men writers in the past who practically died of starvation and their great work was ignored.
I’m not arguing that white men haven’t written good books, but, rather, that, historically, more white men have had more resources to write at all and more white men have had the resources and connections to get their books published in the first place. There are tons of great books out there, but publishers have a limited number of how many they can print. Your book is more likely to make the cut if you have connections inside the industry.
None of this means the books that were published aren’t any good. It simply means there are probably very many books out there that are good, but no one will ever see them.
And, of course, there are and were white men who are less well connected or less privileged. However, if you look at the overall numbers, statistically, your chances of getting published, especially in the past were higher if you were a white man. How many African Americans do you think were likely to get a publishing deal in the 1850s? It’s more difficult when you are being forced to work all the time, you aren’t allowed to learn to read and write, and even if you do learn and you do find the time, you don’t know how to navigate the publishing industry and you have no one to speak for you. Even Frederick Douglass had to do things like have a white man write a foreword to his works so he could gain legitimacy. The reading public wasn’t quite ready to have a Black man speak with authority in print, and publishers knew that. And, as you point out, they want to print what will sell.
So, it’s just a fact that you’re not going to see a lot of classic books from African Americans coming out of the 1800s because it’s kind of hard for people to write at all when they’re being oppressed. That doesn’t mean white people of the 1800s were inherently better writers, though.
None of this means white men can’t write or that some white men don’t face difficulty.
Your argument is not an argument it is a fact. Who would disagree? So? We should not read and praise books by white men who wrote in the 1850s because they are not “representative” or because they were “biased”? Of course not – books DO survive based solely on their merit. My post largely concerned today’s authors – and maybe one’s book is not being published not because one does not have connections to the industry but because that book is not actually any good?
The post is not saying that we should not read books by white men. It’s supposed to make people think about the processes that allow some books to “stand the test of time.” Usually the argument is they are just the “best,” but what external factors go into allowing books to continue to be published and republished?
Certainly there are many books not published that are not very good. But, just as a random example, let’s say a Big Five publisher can publish and market 500 books a year. But they get 10,000 submissions. Does that mean 9,500 submissions were no good? Not necessarily. Personal preference plays a role. Maybe an editor likes “feisty” protagonists, but not bookish ones. So do personal connections. It’s easier to be noticed if someone recommends you to an editor and your work doesn’t end up in a slush pile dug through by a college intern. So do personalities. Maybe a book is good, but the author seems “difficult to work with” so you choose another manuscript that seems just as good, but the author is “more likable.” All these little things play a part. Bad manuscripts get overlooked, but so do good ones, or ones that might be good once an editor worked on them.
It’s kind of like applying to jobs. When companies have too many applicants, they might not hire you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t actually have the skills required to do the job. It might mean Sally got the job because her cousin already works for the company. Or you had a typo in your resume and so it was thrown out as an excuse not to look at it. Or you did the interview and the person just didn’t like you for random personal reasons. Like they’re super extroverted and cheery and like to go out drinking every night, but they looked at you and you seemed quiet and “nerdy” and “boring” so they just decided you don’t “fit company culture.” Studies have shown computers do better at picking the most qualified candidates–which is based on their experience. But still we go on using interviews for that “personal touch”–that touch that means the best person doesn’t always get the job.