Baby, You’re So Classic

I’ve been thinking some about the Dear Author essay this week–which tends to be one of the highlights of my Tuesday–which asked what makes a romance endure.

I commented there, but I have a few more random thoughts after the break.

1) The most important book DH Lawrence wrote wasn’t Lady Chatterley’s Lover or the (IMHO underrated) Women in Love, it was Studies in Classic American Literature (1923). With that single volume, in which he considers the work of twelve white dudes, Lawrence created the American literary canon–he almost single-handedly defined the field. For almost forty years, the important books about American literature that followed, such as FO Matthiessen’s American Renaissance (1941), RWB Lewis’s The American Adam (1955), and Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden (1964), all upheld Lawrence’s list. They extended the periodization a bit, but they maintained his schema.

Sure, the canon wars followed and ripped this to shreds (good riddance), but if your teachers were trained prior to the early 1970s or even if their teachers were trained in that period, they probably studied a literary history largely defined by one British guy in the 1920s. As an American high school student in the 1990s and a college student in the early 2000s, I largely read through Lawrence’s model until I arrived at graduate school.

So my first point is thus that classic status is largely defined by academics–and it’s a pretty darn random process. I doubt Lawrence knew what he was doing, but he did it nonetheless.

2) Readers’ reactions to texts matter, but readers’ reactions are shaped by things like print runs and advertising (as many people pointed out on the DA thread), and these are based on gatekeeper mediation, personal relationships and, yes, randomness. Maybe one author’s editor has more pull than another, and hence Author A gets a larger print run than Author B, or a better marketing push, or a better cover. Maybe a publisher just plain old likes Author A better and thus pushes her books more. Maybe Author B pissed off a reviewer once and gets slammed or can’t get reviewed at all. My point is it’s hard to predict who a publisher will get behind and how that might shape audience response.

As a personal example, when I was a kid, I was really pretentious. For several years, I refused to read books that weren’t published in the Penguin Classic or Signet Classic lines because of some now lost to me pretentious reason, but how did books end up in those lines? I’d guess the first consideration was whether the text was in the public domain–but I assure you, that never occurred to 12 year-old me.

Even looking through the titles today, I’m not certain what marks these texts as classic. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables has always had detractors, but it’s also always had readers. Mark Twain famously mocked the prose of James Fenimore Cooper, but he’s there. (So are both of them, which probably pisses Twain off.) So is Herman Melville, whose books sold so poorly in the 19th century that they went out of print–until DH Lawrence resuscitated his reputation. (For the record I love Melville. You should read Pierre if you haven’t.)

So while I’d like to go with a reader-led definition of classic, I’m doubtful that we can separate that stuff from market-driven gatekeepers.

3) Setting aside academic and publishing gatekeepers, classic status will also be limited by all the things competing in the market. If you listen to a station that plays music from the 1960s, which will probably bill itself as a home for classic rock, you’ll only really hear three Janice Joplin songs–“Piece of My Heart,” “To Love Somebody,” and “Me and Bobby McGee”–but she recorded 58 songs. The same goes for Elvis or the Beatles, whose catalogues are larger still.

Those artists’ entire catalogues are competing with all the other artists from the period, plus probably the 1950s and 1970s, and some crap like “Kokomo” will still slip through once in a while. And I would guess if we tried to trace back how those 3 Joplin songs became *the* Joplin songs, the story would be pretty darn random.

Maybe those are the “best” Janice Joplin songs–I don’t know. But I do know that what we experience as the music of the 1960s today is only a drop in the bucket and it would be incredibly naive to assume that it’s the best drop rather than a–say it with me now–pretty randomly selected drop.

My guess it that the classic genre romances will be defined by an academic in about 30-50 years, will include a few things that sell well and also a few which are formally notable, and will also include a few random pieces that the academic has a personal connection to.

I didn’t think I’d read a genre romance until 2011 when I picked up a few because it seemed like a big hole in the reading of an academic who loves popular culture and women’s writing. (Spoiler alert: I fell in love.) But once I started reading about the history of the genre, I realized that my romance-reading grandma had been feeding me genre romance in between my “classics” all along. Mary Stewart. Daphne du Maurier. Catherine Marshall. Lucy Maud Montgomery. Add in some plot developments by Jane Austen and some formal developments by the Bronte sisters, and I was primed to love genre romance.

So my final prediction is when we pass along romances to our friends and our daughters, one of us is idiosyncratically shaping which romances will be called classic in the future.

2 thoughts on “Baby, You’re So Classic

  1. I love this. (And I’m right there with you on the pretentious period… My rule was that — with 3 exceptions — I wouldn’t read a book unless the author had been dead 50 years, because I thought that meant his books (and — yes — they were mostly men) had stood the test of time, whatever that means. (My exceptions, in case you’re wondering, were Joan Didion, Paolo Coelho, and Neil Gaiman.) Well, and by ‘I wouldn’t read a book’ I actually mean that I wouldn’t let anyone know I’d read the book, wouldn’t talk about it, unless it met those criteria or that narrow exception. I’d been reading genre romance all along, but I kept it secret.)

    I am ambivalent about canonization in romance fiction. On the one hand, it’s true that culturally we are seemingly unwilling to accept the value of a thing unless someone important has stamped it with value. We’re unwilling to say boldly, “I like that thing because X, X, and X,” unless someone has already told us the reasons to like it. And there isn’t going to be a widespread acceptance of romance fiction as a worthwhile, valuable thing until some important people — academics or other accepted gatekeepers of literary quality — tell the world why some romances are important as literature…. But, I have to be honest, I enjoy a smug feeling of discovery whenever I read a romance novel that is fantastic not only within the genre but also as a piece of literature, and I’d almost hate to lose that feeling to mass critical acclaim. I feel towards certain romance novels the way some heroes are portrayed to feel vis-à-vis their heroines: I am incredulous that others do not immediately see what is so remarkable about such and such a book, but I’m also so damn proud of myself for being the one who does. It’s a heady feeling.

    I guess I’m still a pretentious asshole. :)

    1. I’m still so pretentious in ways both large and small that it’s deeply embarrassing. My only saving grace is that I am aware of my pretentiousness and I mock it, even as in my head I think, “But seriously, you like X?” (All the while secretly consuming X.)

      But to the larger point, I wouldn’t like genre romance to develop a canon if I thought the canon would ossify or hurt the genre. In the case of American literature, Lawrence’s canon kept a lot of books out of the hands of readers. It shaped courses, dissertations, research and funding lines in ways that we’re still recovering from. It also wasn’t an honest representation of what people were reading in 18th and 19th C America and it wasn’t honest about what criteria he was using to decide what to include. It wasn’t just a list; it was an agenda–even as I doubt that he meant to. Honestly, I think he was just writing about the themes in some books he liked, but the title and the fact that people didn’t know much about American literature meant that they all read his list and then it became the list.

      However, the canon wars corrected some of this. We still have a long way to go and I’m not sure we can fully heal (not to be melodramatic) but today, people in the academy are much amenable to the idea that we should study texts as products of culture than masterpieces as works of art.

      So if genre romance is going to develop a sort of genealogy chart that helps us see where ideas and themes originated and circulated and as a map of the genre for academics and readers, that would be cool.

      However again, the development of the canon–random as it is–is inevitable. It’s just how we do literary history. Some people are always going to oversubscribe to the canon rather than seeing it as a contingent thing, a palimpsest that we change and notate and edit all the time. But people who really know the genre are always going to have their secret discoveries and favorites.

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