Literary trash to enduring classic

It’s hard to predict what books will be considered “classics” decades after their publication.  Books hailed as literary masterpieces by critics often clutter up thrift shops and rummage sales a mere decade later. Things derided as utter trash end up being required reading decades later since they made such an outsize impact on the pop culture of the time that they can’t be ignored. Series that exploded and produced movies, TV, and tie in products often end up as these accidental “classics”.  They’re so big they can’t be ignored.

It’s a bit harder to predict the arc of individual books than series, just because they have fewer chances to take off. A single book is like a bullet, a series is like a shotgun blast.  The series has better odds of hitting, just because it has more chances to take off.  The same holds true for prolific short story writers or poets.  ONE of these might take off and lead people to the rest.

Of course everyone prefers tales of struggling writers that later were hailed genre defining.  We love Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. They fit our romantic ideal of the tortured artist who is not recognized until after its too late. We like our authors lives as dramatic as their tales.

We don’t love successful, prolific authors until such point as we can forget forget about their more obviously commercial nature.  Many people look back at the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy series as classic children’s series they want to share with their children… and ignore they were written by a commercial syndicate employing ghost writers to turn out books following a very specific commercial formula.  The same people that hail the early syndicate books from those series often heap scorn upon the modern continuations of those same series… even thought they’re still doing very much the same thing they were doing 50 years ago.

Charles Dickens published many of his books as serials in newspapers and magazines before collecting them as books.  Many of them he didn’t fully complete the story before begin the serial, so changed around characters and plots in response to feedback from readers.  If he was writing today, he likely would be writing episodes for a blog or for download to an ereader as a subscription… and poo-pooed as a hack that can’t get a “real” book published.

Does this mean that a century from now, Regretsy: Where DIY meets WTF will be regarded as a handbook of early twentieth century folkart revival and its ties with the hipster lifestyle?  Probably not.  Blogs to books aren’t a direct parallel to Dickens, but they are often one of the most widely derided types of books right now.  Are publishers really THAT out of ideas?  Hardly. They are commercial enterprises and picking something that already has an established market is generally a pretty sure bet.  They need winners to make up for losers.  Blogs to books or tie ins with films are just jarring because they remind us that publishers ARE businesses and are in fact engaged in crass commercial enterprises. They briefly strip away the illusion that they are only interested in providing the highest quality literature that enriches the culture.

The great strength, and curse, of the internet is that it often lends books staying power long past their initial period of praise.   Looking at the list of Pulitzer Prize finalists often reveals just how fickle readers can be and how often the critics are wrong about what will be a classic.  Going back a decade, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is still selling in the top 10,000 on Amazon (currently 8,682).  John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead is back in the 300K range. (currently #368,312).  The 2002 winner, The Amazing Adventures of Cavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, fares the best at #4,196.  The most recent printing of “A Tale fo Two Cities”, originally written as a serial, sits in the 6000s. (currrently 6,083) and the most recent printing of Nancy Drew: The Secret of the Old Clock sits in the 11K range. (currently 11,145).

Does this mean successive generations are doomed to having Twilight (currently #1,437 ) and I Can Haz Cheeseburger: a LOLcat Colleckshun (currently #20,313) as assigned reading?   Will they be writing serious essays on which is better, Team Edward or Team Jacob?  Will they be using “I Can Haz Cheeseburger” as a reference guide to the early 21st century LOLspeak dialect?

Only time can really tell.  The critics are as often wrong as they are right.  People calling popular writing a waste of paper are often proved dead wrong.  With the internet making a wider range of items available to an ever widening audience, it is likely that professional tastemakers will have less impact on what eventually becomes a classic.  They won’t entirely go away since there is simply so MUCH available that critics definitely have a role in helping highlight notable items that might become lost in the chaos.  They won’t pick the winner every time any more than the mob will.  This year’s megahit may be cluttering thrift stores a decade from now and forgotten in 50 years.  Or teachers may be pressing them into the hands of teens, telling them how they shaped the intervening decades of literature.

Everybody is wrong. Everybody is right. And there will be fights about what is going to end up a “classic” as long as books are still published, no matter the format.

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    Diane Plumley
    February 29, 2012 - 7:26 pm

    Nora, hello! I disagree with the notion that Dickens can be compared to a blogger or a writer who self publishes just because his work was written for serialization. He was paid, paid being the operative word, to write these serials, most bloggers and self pubbed people are not. In some cases, the opposite occurs, they pay for the privilege for their work to be downloaded. Many writers of the time were serialized, they made a decent living this way. Literary magazines were respectable and more permanent than todays rags and magazines.

    As for Nancy Drew–the significance of the first 20 odd titles cannot be overlooked or overstated as groundbreaking for young girl readers. The original Nancy was strong, independent, and smart. Mildred Wirt Benson, employed to create Nancy from Stratemeyer’s idea, went far beyond his original character outline to create an indelible girl sleuth that certainly earned the classic status. After Mrs. Benson stopped writing, arguably the content suffered, and in the 1950s, Nancy was completely overhauled and most of her independence eliminated. These books I agree, hardly classic works.

    Another series overlooked by most, written entirely by Margaret Sutton, stars another girl sleuth, who not only imbues the same characteristics as Nancy, but is socially conscious and ages. I consider the Judy Bolton books written until the 1960s to be little noticed classics and equal in stature to Mrs. Benson’s creation.

    Interesting post and good questions!

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