There are lots of classics. The Scarlet Letter? Classic. Robinson Crusoe? Classic. The Brothers Karamazov? Classic. Mile High Escapades of the Stewardess with the Mustache? Class-...wait. How’d that get on the list?
Let’s try again.
There are lots of classics. After all, the novel’s been around for...what? A few hundred years? So even if we arbitrarily call Don Quixote (1605) the first great novel and then say even more arbitrarily that other great novels have only come along once every decade, that still gives us 1,732 “classics”! (An admission: My math can be very, very arbitrary.)
But you know what? Classics might be a dime a dozen at this point in history, but they aren’t all cut from the same moldy old cloth. There are classics and then there are classic classics.
Let’s try that list again.
Pilgrim’s Progress? Classic. David Copperfield? Classic classic. Vanity Fair? Classic. Little Women? Classic classic. Finnegans Wake? Classic. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Classic classics. Mile High Escapades of the Stewardess with the Mustache? Non-classic. Hooker for a Day? Uhhh...well, ditto. How did I mess up two lists in one blog post? Damn!
Anywho, did you detect the pattern there? The difference between the classics and the classic classics? The difference between, let's say, Jude the Obscure and The Hound of the Baskervilles? If not, let me lay it on you.
The classics people still read because they have to (assuming that by “people” we mean “English majors”). The classic classics people still read because they want to -- and then they actually go and enjoy the darned things!
Despite what I said above about classics swarming around our culture like flies who’ve discovered that, oh happy day!, the deep-fried Twinkie stand is right next to the Tilt-a-Whirl at the state fair, it’s actually not that easy to become a classic. You’ve got to get at least a hundred English professors to agree that you’re worthy, and getting those folks to agree on anything is sheer hell. I mean, jeepers creepers -- they still can’t decide if Ulysses is an example of late modernism or early post-modernism! (The answer, of course, is deceptively simple: Ulysses is utter horseshit.)
So salllll-UTE to any book that can become a classic, no matter how horseshitty it might be. And double salllll-UTE to any book that can become a classic classic. It’s hard enough to entertain people when they get your pop culture references (such as, perhaps, salllll-UTE). To entertain them when hundreds of years have passed since your book first saw print? That’s more than an accomplishment. It’s practically a miracle.
Which is why today I’m saying salllll-UTE to you, Jane Austen. Last month, Pride and Prejudice celebrated its 200th birthday, and it’s not only being read and enjoyed by people around the world, it’s still inspiring new imitators and extensions and homages and salllll-UTEs. That makes the book more than a classic or even your average classic classic. It is, in a way, alive -- and perhaps even immortal.
Sorry, Mile High Escapades etc. etc. I just don’t think that’s going to happen for you....