WHAT IS CLASSIC REMARKS?
Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.
HOW CAN I PARTICIPATE?
Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!
(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)
THIS WEEK’S PROMPT:
Do you think genre books receive the respect they deserve, even if they are considered classics?
Even though many classic books are what one would consider genre fiction (for example, Sherlock Holmes mysteries or the Hornblower naval adventures), I would argue that many of these books do not receive as much respect as one might think they would, considering their “classic” status. After all, when one thinks of the classic books typically taught in high schools and even in colleges, genre fiction does not often make the cut. Rather, books like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, and Of Mice and Men continue to define the American educational experience, even as the teaching of classics in schools has been placed under increasing scrutiny. It is far less common to see a book like The Hobbit or And Then There Were None regularly placed on a school reading list. And, since high school is the one place many Americans will have their first (and perhaps last) taste of the classics, these reading experiences define for many what a classic book is.
Aside from the issue of school reading lists, we must also consider the canon. Of course, many people vehemently dislike and disagree with the canon, but its legacy carries on, and people do still tend to use it as a way to measure the value of a book. Readers often conflate the canon and the classics, but the two are actually separate categories or lists. The canon (supposedly) exists on a higher plane. It is the body of works that is believed to have been influential in shaping Western culture (if there is such a thing). In other words, these books are understood to have had large-scale effects on the culture and they are the works that other influential authors would have drawn upon in creating their own work. There is actually no official list of the canon, but generally accepted authors include Socrates, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Joyce. Female writers have traditionally included only a few names such as Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Charlotte Brontë. Genre fiction writers are not as likely to be included in lists of the canon.
Classics are, in a way, considered a step below the canon. They are believed to be important and “timeless” and worth reading as a depiction of the “universal human experience.” But they are not seen as influential as something like Shakespeare. I would argue, however, that genre fiction classics are still considered a step below even the classics. The mere fact that one usually has to add a descriptor to talk about genre fiction classics suggests that they are not held in as high regard. The Red Badge of Courage might be a classic. And The Catcher in the Rye might be a classic. But something like The Lord of the Rings might often be referred to as a “fantasy classic.” It is seen as influential and important in its own genre, but is not accorded quite the same status a regular old “classic.”
Perhaps most telling, however, is the fact that many readers of classic genre fiction do not even realize they are reading classics at all. It is not uncommon to see someone say that they “hate the classics” and that “classics are too difficult” and “school made them hate classics.” And yet, many of these classic-hating individuals have actually read and enjoyed classics! Books such Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Jane Eyre, The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn, and The Scarlet Pimpernel are beloved by many readers who are convinced they would never pick up or like a classic book. The way classics are taught in school has apparently left scores of readers with the idea that 1) children’s and genre fiction cannot be classics and 2) that anything they find enjoyable cannot be a classic, either!
Of course, many people hate the very idea of the canon and of classics in general. These labels are usually very exclusionary and they do not adequately reflect the many amazing writings by women and people of color. The idea of the canon and the classics persists, however, affecting the way people continue to talk and think about books, and their relative merits. And, right now, these labels, along with the way they are taught in high schools, serve to suggest that classics of genre fiction are not quite at the same level as the other classics.