Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Classic Book Conundrum

This week, I've decided to tackle the age-old question: what makes a book a classic?
Unfortunately for me, there seems to be no universal criteria on which to make this distinction.  A Google search brings up about 336,000,000 results of people asking that same question, but there's no real answer designated anywhere, and that makes my job particularly hard.  I've seen a gamut of responses, but all are as arbitrary as the next.  Yet, our society HAS in fact determined that a set of books are worth reading through the generations.  Seriously, you see the word "classic book" thrown around as if it were a fact about nearly every book that just happens to seem old.  So it would be nice to know: really, what makes a book a classic?

Common responses have ranged from, "Classic books are those that are universally relevant," to "It can stand the test of time," which are similar enough, I suppose.  There's also the pithy maxim "it must have a timeless theme."  Basically, this concept has been debated by the likes of Italo Cavino to Mark Twain (or so says Wikipedia).  And yet, Cavino even acknowledged determining a universal list of "Classic" books is impossible:

“There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.”

Great.  Well, that being the case, I've decided - I'm not going to bother.

What I am going to do is instead take a look at publishing companies who sell books under the premise of being a 'classic book.'

In addition to bookselling chains such as Barnes & Noble and Borders having their own special "classics" list, publishers like Random House, Oxford University Press, Modern Library, and Penguin Books sell what they determine are "classic" titles.  Obviously, these publishers have some idea or criteria for what makes a book a classic, but between all of them, there isn't real consistency.  From what I've seen, B&N, Borders, and Oxford World's Classics seem to include mostly books whose authors are dead, or that cannot be considered 'modern' classics.  Modern Library is dedicated to (no surprise) what they call "Modern Classics," and Penguin Classics and Random House's Everyman's Library is a nice eclectic mix of both old and new.

So, even amongst publishers, different books are considered "classics."  I'm not surprised that chains like B&N and Borders have lists made up primarily of older books - many books on their list are considered 'public domain,' so every few years, they can publish a new set of the same books, just with different covers and pages, and make a quick buck off the lit-nerds whose life isn't complete unless they own every edition of the same book they've already read 12 times.  But perhaps that's cynical of me (and honestly, I'll need to devote another post to that topic).  Let's look away from the profit-driven model of "Classic Book" and examine the content of the individual lists.

B&N and Borders share an interesting commonality: their lists are primarily made up with white, male authors.  With the exception of some famous females such as Austen, Bronte, Wharton,  and a few others, the list is overwhelmingly male.  B&N has what it calls an "African American" subsection of its classics, which includes 8 - eight! - books written by black authors (and of those 8, 2 are just reprints of earlier editions, so it's really 6). 8 out of 320 books published as a classic, written by black authors. And not just black authors, African American authors.  African and South American authors seem to be wholly unrepresented when it comes to classic books, from these publishers at any rate.

(Sidebar: to their credit, B&N does what I've seen no other publisher do: publish a book of 4 slave narratives, by typically unheard of authors - why they couldn't dedicate each their own book, well, that's a question for another day.)

But maybe that's not fair.  Maybe a wide range of novels from Africa or Central and South America just were not written centuries ago.  Totally possible.  Let's look at Oxford's list.  They include Cervantes, a Spanish author, but technically, being from Spain he's still European, so I don't know how I feel about singling him out.  On a positive note, Oxford features a much more even gender distribution, featuring women I've never even heard of (though, they do that with men too, so I'm not sold yet).  They do include Sayings from the Buddha by Pali Nikayas, have to give them credit for that.  But, overall, there seems to be even less non-white authors on this list.

Hmm. I'm beginning to pick up on a nasty trend.  Let's look at Modern Library's list.

Modern Library has identified a list of 100 Best Novels, not necessarily a classics list, but I'll modify it to my purposes. I'm only going to work with the Board's list, not because I have anything against the every-day reader, but because of their best books, they listed L. Ron Hubbard three separate times, and in my eyes, that's a travesty on a scale large enough to strip away any privilege they had in determining a "best novel" list.

Anyway, Modern Library scores points for including one of my favorite books, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, but loses points for including only 7 women (though, I originally thought it was ten because I mistakenly counted Evelyn Waugh as a woman - my bad).  Only 7 women, of 100.  On top of that, only a handful on non-white authors.

It seems what determines classic books is not the merit of the book itself, but the merit of how progressive our society can be when it comes to recognizing worthy titles.  It's not by accident that the majority of all these lists include white male authors.  And I don't want to discredit those authors - some of them are truly terrific.  Some are...not really my cup of tea.  But I am hard-pressed to believe that, even in our modern times, we cannot find more than a sampling of non-white authors writing truly fantastic books.

Ah, but Alex, you haven't finished the last two lists, by Random House and Penguins. Don't worry, I'm getting there.  I was actually quite surprised with these publishers.  Random House's Everyman's Essentials Library include 100 books, like Modern Library's, but the list is far from being as homogenous as the others.  Including more women (such as Toni Morrison), more Latino authors (Gabriel Garcia Marquez rightfully makes the list several times), and more Eastern and African authors (including Achebe and Lao-Tzu), it's a much more eclectic and expansive list.

But as far as classics goes, Penguin Classics by far and away has done the most extensive work with developing a library.  With over 1,500 books (and still growing), Penguin includes both Modern and old Classics.  But what I admire most about this publisher is their acknowledgment of the trend my brief research is demonstrating.

I shouldn't be surprised that the most famous and Classic books are those written by white men.  Our world still operates from the white man's perspective; privilege and racism are ever existing, so of course, our society lauds white men's contributions to literature and books.  But Penguin Classics does a bang up job addressing this notion:

In recent years there has been an expansion of Spanish, German and Italian translations, and a broadening of the publishing of non-fiction. The series is now as committed to philosophy, theology, travel, politics, history and autobiography as it is to fiction and poetry. There has been an increase in the representation of women's writing, particularly in the English language. The original Penguin English Library editions of the major nineteenth-century English novelistsDickens, Austen, Hardy, the Brontës, Gaskellhave been replaced by new versions with up-to-date critical apparatus and freshly and accurately edited texts. There will continue to be a large growth in the representation of vernacular English texts within the Classics, both of fiction and poetry, in response to a much broader sense of literary tradition.

Now sixty years old, the series has little left to prove but much still to accomplish. Whilst reasonably comprehensive on European literature, the vast non-Western canon remains a challenge that can only be met gradually. Gaps cannot be filled overnight. A new edition requires the right person with both the skills and resources for this detailed, painstaking and demanding task.

My point in addressing this is not to clamor for the removal of titles from our "classics" lists.  I simply want publishers to begin to include authors who don't fit the white male paradigm we find in these lists.  This isn't just a book problem, either.  We find it in television and video games all the time as well (but that's for a future blog post).  Again, no hate for white people, or men; just a call for diversifying our libraries, and a challenge for us as a society to stretch ourselves when it comes to what we consume in media.  Why diversify?  Well, that's a post for another day.

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