Which Books Should We Stop Calling Classics?


Recently, at Salon, Laura Miller wondered what makes a book a classic, and who gets to say which books should be included in the conversation: do booksellers or online book communities like Goodreads get to make the call? Do critics? Should we consider David Foster Wallace’s work among these classics, even though it’s so recent? Does a canon even exist or matter?

Taking all of these questions into consideration, 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. Today we present the answers to the latter question, and hope you’ll join the conversation in the comments by letting us know which books you don’t think should still be called classic works of fiction.

Adelle Waldman

So this is awkward because Stoner isn’t exactly in the canon, although not for lack of trying, at least lately. For the past few years Stoner has become the darling of so many in the literary world, who argue that it has been unjustly neglected. Personally, I find the novel wholly unconvincing — not so much in its realism but in the moral message that so many readers seem to attach to it, the sense that the life it depicts is quietly heroic and more than a little tragic. To me, the novel reads like hagiography, an unbalanced attempt to make the eponymous Stoner out to be a noble-souled victim of his neurotic and unstable wife. I have no problem believing that some women really are as bad as the horror show of a person Professor Stoner married — Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs. Bennet comes to mind — but Jane Austen, unlike Williams, is careful to show us that the blame goes both ways. Mr. Bennet chose poorly and in Austen’s estimation bears a good deal of the blame for what happens in the Bennet household. Williams, in contrast, lionizes Stoner. But let’s be realistic — the man was old enough to know better. A 20-something Ph.D. student in literature, some of it rather deeply concerned with love, he wasn’t an innocent fresh off the farm when he courted his haughty, unappealing wife. His subsequent unwillingness to stand up to her when she was, in his view, tormenting their daughter makes him not a victim but a coward who valued his own domestic peace over what he believed was his daughter’s best interest. Believable yes? Tragic in its way? Sure, I guess. But Stoner’s no hero, unless poor judgment, passivity and an abdication of moral responsibility are your ideas of what constitutes the good.

Adelle Waldman is the author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.

Miriam Markowitz

The idea that some classics “should be retired” or “are talked about too much” doesn’t sit right with me. I would never advise someone not to read a classic — I’m not in the business of advising people not to read books. A lot of books are dated, but their time may come again. Classics are classics for a reason even if not all of those reasons, or the books themselves, are truly good.

A book may not speak to you; that doesn’t mean it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. There are entire national traditions I find a little boring, but I wouldn’t dare defame them here, and not just because I’m scared of angry professors and pedants, but because it’s possible that I may not really get those traditions, at least not right now.

Books change for readers over time. There’s this bizarre notion out there that if you consider yourself a Serious Reader you must read everything that matters by the time you’re 25, at which point you must be able to articulate an intelligent, coherent, and defensible opinion about each of the titles you have so dutifully digested. After that, all you need do is spend the rest of your life repeating this process with new books and — presto! — you are a person of letters.

But reading a book when you’re 25 isn’t the same experience as reading it when you’re 45 or 85, and if all you read as an adult are new books, you will forget the cadences of the old. This may sound crazy, but the more you read, the better a reader you will become, but only if you push yourself beyond what’s trendy or fun or your kind of thing. If you return to the books you loved and also to the books you didn’t, you will likely be surprised. Which is kind of the point, isn’t it?

Miriam Markowitz is associate literary editor of The Nation and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. Her most recent essay, “Here Comes Everybody,” is about about old books, women and publishing, VIDA, MFA programs, Miley Cyrus, and Syria. Follow her on Twitter @MiriMarkow.

Ilan Stavans

An eclipse would do John Updike quite well. The House on Mango Street doesn’t deserve its place in middle school. And we can do without To Kill a Mockingbird — it’s cheesy and self-serving.

Ilan Stavans is the publisher of Restless Books.

Adrian Todd Zuniga

Does anyone still read Ulysses unless they have to? I feel like Ulysses does more harm to new readers than any other book. “If it’s the best book ever, let’s read it!” quickly turns into, “What have I gotten myself into?” Put something like Lolita v. Ulysses. One is a gem of literary might and accessibility even today. The other is a giant, painful slog.

Adrian Todd Zuniga is the creator and host of Literary Death Match.

Justin Taylor

Salinger. Ayn Rand — though I guess that’s more for politicians than critics or readers. I’m just tired of seeing people pretend that citing her work or influence is a sign of anything other than intellectual degeneracy and profound moral failure. Oh and I was going to say Updike, but it seems like this is already happening on its own. I bet a few of his books are pretty good. It’ll be interesting to see in thirty years which 3 of the 70 or whatever it turns out to be.

Justin Taylor‘s third book, Flings, is forthcoming in August from Harper Collins. Follow him on Twitter at @my19thcentury.

Edward Champion

As someone spending many years of his life reading a canon with some caveats (see my Modern Library Reading Challenge — in both fiction and nonfiction forms), I have significant problems with junking a canon, or pretending that certain strains of literature — even the odious ones — didn’t happen. It’s not unlike historical revisionism. I’m on the side of literary expansionism, where a canon naturally expands and contracts over time. Books are a kind of universe, yes? Newer titles are absorbed into the promising cosmos, and titles get naturally pushed out over time: not overnight and not without decades of serious consideration. A literary canon is helpful in affirming literary taste, while simultaneously offering a place for everyone to rebel against certain greatest hits, which is also good. For example, I’m not especially fond of Arnold Bennett’s fiction. (He also had detestable views on women.) On the other hand, the idea of obliterating his reputation with one essay — Virginia Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” — seems unreasonable, especially if we want to understand why so many held this regressive and often voluble author in high esteem during the early part of the 20th century. I think there’s a place for understanding how certain authors rose to the top during a particular epoch. But it is irresponsible to demand restitution when your response to a sophisticated novel is little more than “Ugh!” rather than a lengthy argument. A monosyllabic cry of disgust may aid a stoned undergraduate braying for another beer, but such gormless egotism has no place among those giving serious thought to literature.

Edward Champion is the host of The Bat Segundo Show.

Katherine Bucknell

For me, science fiction classic is an oxymoron. What could possibly go out of date more rapidly than a book imagining what will happen in a future time or place? I believe readers are attracted to them because they like to be amazed at how long such fantasies do continue to interest readers. And they like to be in on the game of prophesying and guessing. The discussions I hear about science fiction “classics” usually focus on how amazing it is that the author was so close to imagining how things really turned out. But real technological, scientific and also cultural change are far more interesting. Even the best-informed books about the future and the best-written soon become boring. I’m afraid Brave New World is the last of Huxley’s many interesting books that I would recommend. And I would ditch Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and the like.

Katherine Bucknell is the author of four novels and the editor of Christopher Isherwood’s diaries.

Benjamin Samuel

I’ll probably catch some flack for this, but can we stop talking about Finnegans Wake? Sure it was innovative. Experimental, evolutionary, sure. But it also seems like it might be a practical joke that we keep falling for year after year. Then again, the best jokes are the old jokes, and this one’s one of the biggest. That’s what she said?

Benjamin Samuel is the co-editor of Electric Literature.

Toby Hartwell

Too many to mention all of them as there are a lot of so called ‘classics’ that deflect people from reading some of the great undiscovered works, but here are some thoughts. If you are a young reader, Black Beauty is overrated. There are better books with horses in them, read Stuart Little instead. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs could do with some time on the classic subs bench. Try Epitaph for a Spy by Eric Ambler, the original spy thriller. Also Brave New World seems less of a classic on recent reading.

Toby Hartwell is the Managing Director of The Folio Society.

Okey Ndibe

I wrestled for long with this question, and here’s why. I don’t think there’s quite a “problem” of over-hyped, over-discussed classics. My suspicion is that, on the whole, people may be reading far less than used to be the case — and that includes less of the classics. And here’s my example of a veritable classic that’s not read enough: Gilgamesh. I’m often astounded at how many people, everyday readers as well as scholars of literature, have NOT read this great Sumerian epic. Apart from an apocalyptic flood scene that predates — and most likely informed — the Biblical account of the flood and Noah’s ark, Gilgamesh is also a riveting adventure story and speaks to timeless questions of the rampant ego, the uses and limits of power, sexuality, and the fluid boundaries between the sacred and the human. At any rate, my instinct is not to annul any classics, but to urge the expansion of the canon. I’d like to say to people, by all means read Shakespeare and Dickens and Sophocles and Jane Austen, but also read Salman Rushdie, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Doris Lessing, Naguib Mahfouz.

Okey Ndibe is the author of Foreign Gods, Inc.

Via Bauman Rare Books

John McElwee

Is The Alexandria Quartet a classic? I’ve never been able to make it through one-eighth of it.

John McElwee works in the fiction department at the New Yorker and contributes special projects to the New Inquiry.

Image via Book Witch

Jennifer Weiner

I’ll pass on the question “what doesn’t belong in the canon?” It seems like an act of unimaginable chutzpah for a writer to say, I have read this book and found it inadequate for the generations. The only thing more arrogant than reading a book and saying it doesn’t stand the test of time is NOT reading a book and saying the same thing (Exhibit A: the affrighted clucking over all the zipless-you-know-what-ing in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, from writers who didn’t seem to understand that the zipless fuck was an unrealized fantasy, and that Isadora Wing was hardly promiscuous and that what she wanted more than anything wasn’t anonymous sex with a soldier but for her ne’er-do-well lover to marry her).

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.

Meakin Armstrong

I spent my adolescence in Charleston, South Carolina, where it’s all very beautiful, but it’s also where the “War Between The States” was still talked about and debated. As our teachers often reminded us, the Civil War began in Charleston. Gone With The Wind’s “Rhett Butler was also from there — we had a lot to live up to.

The more liberal classes had us read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I have to admit: as good as that book is (and it’s damned good), it leaves me cold. It has a white guy as the savior, not an African American. African Americans freed themselves despite white America — they didn’t need our white asses. After all, they were the ones getting lynched and water-hosed, not us.

Meakin Armstrong is a writer and Senior Editor-Fiction Editor at Guernica .

Molly Antopol

The Fountainhead. The “political” writers I’ve always admired most write with as much emotion as they do intellect: James Baldwin, Doris Lessing, Nadine Gordimer, to name a few. I’ve just always felt that Ayn Rand was pushing her views down my throat in a creepily pedantic way. And I find the rape scene between Roark and Dominique gratuitous and awful.

Molly Antopol is the author of The UnAmericans.