The eternal classic

There is no reason spending valuable time on something that is not significant. As the Paris bookshop Brentano’s once had printed on a T-Shirt, ‘So many books, so little time’. With this cornucopia – and not in a good way –it’s nearly impossible to navigate through the choice.

Fortunately retailers and publishers make it simple: the classic list. The classic says in a quiet donnish voice (that’s Oxford Don, not Sicilian Don) that a book is worthy in so many ways; it has been enjoyed for decades, hundreds of years even, and each year new readers have drawn a plenitude of joy, lessons and rewards from it.

That last part was a fast forward into blurb language. Shocking. It illustrates a real problem with the classic, and that is, it’s very easy to slip into hyperbole.

That fault is also evident in speech, as for instance in idiomatic Australian where the epithet “classic” is freely given to any action which benefits another, or in some rebukes authority however indirectly, such as, for example, obtaining beer after closing time, or taking a sick day from work to go surfing. The interchangeable sobriquet ‘legend’, more often abbreviated to ‘ledge’ or ‘you ledge’ has similar status, and for the same highly commendable actions in pursuit of active pleasure.

One way or another, being classic is the best there is, it is an indisputable cynosure.

One person’s classic is not another’s. I have reviewed some Dickens lately and my own ambivalence to the work, apart from a couple of books, is still the same. I can’t quite see why Nabokov held him in such esteem, yet he loathed Balzac, who I prefer, and for the same reasons that Nabokov hated. I won’t go into the reasons now over the difference between those two authors.

Apart from being read long after the books were initially published, and the authors’ own lifetimes, classics are a varied diverse body of work. Cold Comfort Farm is a classic but then so is The Idiot.

Occasionally newspapers like to perpetrate a prank on agents by sending them classic books as submissions and then republishing the rejection letters. Sometimes the retitled book is noticed but not in many cases. It’s probably true that most classics were not seen as better when they hit someone’s in tray as manuscripts and then sold poorly at first, but time alters reading and perception. It’s mysterious process of filtering.

There is some discussion about what constitutes a classic. I read a blog where a bookseller said it was all a bit moot. I recall from formal English lessons that a book had to be over fifty years old before it could be called classic. Presumably as copyright laws are extended, that will be moved too.

In the future, we can be sure, that machines will read the manuscripts as the task of reading and assessing will, like basic trading on stock exchanges, be utilized by algorithms interpreting texts using exabytes of data to contextualize dozens of criteria. They will also make forecasts on projected sales amongst defined market demographics and, in all probability, know all the other books on readers’ shelves and readers.

Whether in the future classics will be real or just declared like a singer’s autobiography is a bit hazy. The word will remain, as it has for ages, the best, the ultimate, and most iconic in the marketing lexicon.

Guy Cranswick
21st May 2014

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Effing and Blinding

How much swearing – cursing – is too much in a book? This question was posed to readers in a newspaper and a few books, infamous for their swearing index, were discussed. One of the books I had read, How Late it was, how late. I read it, actually, not quite all, on the basis that was akin to a favorite, Molloy, and that connection is true enough as far as it goes. The question was put as to how attitudes over effing and blinding have changed.

Over a century ago a famous swearing incident occurred on the first night of Pygmalion when Eliza shrieked ’Not bloody likely’ and the audience were convulsed in laughter for so long it stopped the play.

Laughter is a valve to manage outrage, but the audience were also laughing in that peculiarly British way at the class status of the speaker. If it had been said by a lord it might be seen as eccentric and imitated, but as Britain was, and maybe still is, pathologically cursed by class, analogous to a racist society, such that any interpretation of the behavior of others is through the conditions of racial difference. Hence, the laughter at Eliza’s convention breaking swearing is deeper for an elite audience because it comes from someone so uncouth and common.

A few well used swear words can be very effective but the returns diminish very quickly and so it was with How late it was how late, which, though it displayed the genius of various swear words as adjectives, nouns and imperatives, as phrasal verbs and naturally, the common tmetic usage; the experience became fairly rapidly like sitting near someone at a sports game who has three good expressions to insult the opposition and the referee and uses them over and over and over. Fatigue sets in on that score but that does not mean the book was poor, the novel was very strong and deserved its acclaim.

It was words of another kind that occupied Will Self to ask in a serious essay: what is future of the literary book. This question has direct interest. Is this object that existed for a couple of hundred years going to last? It’s like discovering that the job you had is being phased out of existence, not going offshore to cheaper producers, but going altogether.

It was a question that invited some ridicule. The comment section to Self’s essay mostly jested at his obscure vocabulary and the frustration that self-proclaimed literary work is an effort, or seems to be an effort. The implication is that reading of significant literary works should be no more taxing than browsing the newspaper.

In this space it would be too facile to reduce the argument to either/or statements. The end of printed word and the novel have been raked over at various times, and it may be dwindling, or passing through a difficult period, but the larger idea in Self’s essay is that in a culture of glib distraction, is there opportunity to reflect on something more interesting than shopping and shoes. There is not a ready answer to that problem but it’s more likely it’s a conundrum that a person who sits in front of a keyboard everyday as part of their job ponders. For most people books with or without proscribed words, or dealing with perennial inquiries into significance are a peripheral matter.

Guy Cranswick
11th May 2014

Give them wisdom that have it; and those that are fools, let them use their talents

Mastering something, and the more complex the better, is a rewarding accomplishment. Along with expertise comes acknowledgement of that knowledge and insight, and which duly, confers status to the person who has worked hard. It comes as surprise to find that these qualities of expertise are not so clear-cut.

After a long study of wine judges, a vintner, and statistician, discovered some very odd results from the wine judges. From one year to the next, they might give the same wine an almost random grade. One year it might be best in class, but at another event, it might not even reach the final half dozen. The patterns, or lack of them, runs against the integrity of expertise. A product ought to have the same quality wherever and whenever. If the judges who have spent time cultivating expertise can’t get it right, the hoi polloi will have no chance.

This hypothesis was tested last Christmas in a street taste test of people’s preferences for a cheap versus expensive Christmas pudding and mince pies. In a reversal for price tag snobs, the cheaper product won every time. It had more overt taste qualities – probably more salt and sugar. The same type of result occurs with wine tests where the cheaper bottle appeals to more people than the very subtle higher quality vintages. It vaguely proves that our tastes are not much more expert and sophisticated than the typical three year olds.

This evidence makes it rather difficult to assume that expertise is inviolate. Human senses and a whole of lot of other factors too, make it almost impossible for humans to make perfect absolute judgments on things, whether wine or technology, or books and writing. This doesn’t mean that expertise is valueless; taking the opinions of someone who understands wine or medieval literature is more worthwhile than someone who doesn’t. It may mean, that like objectivity, it’s rather elusive, not absolute, judgment is created by the effect of the agents themselves, and so, not too much store should be given to it.

I suppose the influence of the expert lies behind a new book on Shakespeare as a psychotherapist. Here the argument is that audiences had a sort of psychotherapeutic experience and the complexity of the characters indicates that the author was a proto-psychotherapist.

It’s an engaging view for contemporary readers now familiar with psychology from Freud to Frasier. It does, however, pull and stretch several aspects of the Elizabethan world to make the argument. Notions about psychology, of assumptions about how the mind worked were not familiar in the 1590s, and even when Freud made his case three hundred years later, there was severe criticism of such ideas. The place of God and religion in Elizabethan life predominated over any personal psychology.

Audience responses are very hard to interpret with hindsight. Ancient Greek theater had a very different aim to how it initially developed and in cities other than Athens. The text is the same but the audience used an understood the material in a different way from its original intention.

Even so the book is one more way to reflect on the work though it’s not clear that it determines what actually happened and why. Not absolutely anyway, which is what we have to live with.

Guy Cranswick
1st May 2014