By: Monica Sousa
When the majority of us think of classic literature, we tend to think of them being noteworthy or exemplary. We may think of works like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, Pride and Prejudice or The Iliad. We may think of poets such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, John Milton or T.S Eliot.
The term “classics” is closely related to the Western Canon, a body of literature that Western scholars have traditionally accepted as the most influential in shaping western culture. These deemed classics also seem to make the cut on various high school, college and university reading lists.
When this summer’s movie adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was released, it caught much attention and praise as well as brutal criticism. When the novel itself came out it was met with criticism and it still gets mixed reviews today. There are people who see it as overrated or annoying because of the stigma of being known as the “great American novel.” However, regardless of what backlash people may have towards The Great Gatsby and other well-known authors, it has been taught in institutions for years. This can make one wonder whether there is even a point in trying to denounce literature when it is likely to continue to be taught and recognized by people for many more years to come.
In order to answer this question, one needs to consider the bigger question, which is what exactly makes a “classic” in literature? Is there a certain criteria that must be met? This question has concerned many authors. Author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain, defined a classic novel as “a book which people praise and don’t read.” However, in poet T.S Elliot’s critical essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, he argued that art must be understood and therefore appreciated by reflecting the context of other previous pieces of art. In other words, literature communicates with other literature.
Concerning the Western Canon and why certain books continue to be taught, Brock University English and Literature professor Gregory Betts explained that, “people learned important lessons through specific books and so propagate their own knowledge through them in an undeviating cycle. After postmodernism, though, the whole idea of a fixed literary canon is now bunk and ideologically suspect. Books don’t just tell stories but teach ideology and models of citizenship.”
When I was in the first-year English class taught by Professor Betts, we explored Oscar Wilde’s play The Imporatnce of Being Earnest. This “classic” is a work that still has resonance today and can still be seen in fresh perspectives. Perhaps this can be seen as something that makes a “classic” a “classic” – its ability to still teach its readers in today’s worlds. However, it is important that books do not have to be old to teach people. Therefore, we can appreciate the old “classics”, but we must remain open to new works in literature and new trends and directions literature takes.
English and Literature professor Tim Conley also had something to offer about the idea of classics, saying that “What we call a classic is not a book that we read, but one that we reread, perhaps even one we cannot help but reread, a book with which we are engaged in what the writer Maurice Blanchot called ‘the infinite conversation.’” Conley continued by saying, “People talk rather glibly about ‘the test of time,’ but nobody says exactly what that test is: how long we keep a book in the waiting room before saying, ‘hey, come on in, you’re now a classic.’ I think it’s better to assess such things the way one might a friendship. The depth of my friendships is not measured by duration, or at least not by that alone, and the intensity with which how my friend sees me, makes me see myself, and teaches me to see that the world may ebb and flow at different times. My favourite books are my friends.”
A classic in literature can be seen in many ways. Much like how we interpret classic books, we should also take the idea of classics as something with many possible interpretations. Classics can be old or new. They can teach people, make connections with other literature, have universal appeal and connect with people by being there for us like our friends. A classic is something personal to us that we truly admire and never choose to abandon. What do we do when we hear criticism towards it? All we can do is try and support our favorites anyway and keep reading them regardless of any negative criticism.