Welcome to the ‘Literary Blog Hop’, a meme hosted by The Blue Bookcase for book bloggers who focus on reviewing literary fiction. This weeks’ hop comes with the question:
What makes a contemporary novel a classic?
Discuss a book which you think fits the category of ‘modern classics’ and explain why.
Being more a reader of contemporary literary fiction, you’d think I’d have a surefire answer to this question, but I’m afraid I haven’t. The problem with it is that unless you are a psychic, nobody can really say which books will end up becoming full-blown classics and which will be forgotten after the initial mass-media hype. This is especially true when it comes to contemporary fiction. For instance, the general set of rules by which books were judged as classics a hundred years ago, could turn out to be largely obsolete in today’s society. As methods of story-telling have evolved over the years, dividing and sub-dividing like an atom into various genres and linguistic styles, so have the expectations of its modern readers. Today’s book-lovers are different from the bookworms of yesteryear. So the classics that might emerge from modern contemporary fictions another 100 years from now, will inevitably differ from the classics published back in the 18th century.
But undoubtably our current classics would have been long-forgotten if it weren’t for the sagacity of their respective authors and the way they struck the right social and cultural chords that not only extended the longevity of their work, but also caused something of a ‘butterfly effect’ in the future of novel-writing itself. ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley is a great example of this. Here’s a universal classic that asks some very serious questions about creation, evolution, science and religion. These are not easy subjects to write about at the best of times, but the painfully human plight of Shelley’s hideous progeny and the demonic transgression of her scientist have become monstrous themes within modern culture. The novel has fascinated many through its ability to foreshadow the future of surgery and in the ethical issues surrounding the advent of ground-breaking scientific events like cloning and designer babies. ‘Frankenstein’ continues to haunt us as a permanent cultural reference in films, cartoons and comic-books. Famously said to have been born from a dream, it has even gone as far as foreshadowing itself. Many authors continue to be inspired by the original which has spawned countless spin-offs. Notable versions that spring to mind is the Dean Koontz trilogy and Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Casebook of Victor Frankenstein’.
But something tells me that ‘timelessness’ shouldn’t be the only ingredient of a future classic, but that it should also have something of the ‘progressive’ about it, something that sets the standard a little higher. When we look at the history of the novel, it’s always surprising to realise that it is, after all, a fairly new art form. And it is here that I look quite literally to the term itself to realise that it isn’t fuddy-duddy, moth-ridden verses that we should be praising; but another thing altogether.
nov·el 1 // n. 1. A fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters.
nov·el 2 // adj. Strikingly new, unusual, or different. See Synonyms at new.
[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin novellus, diminutive of novus; see newo- in Indo-European roots.]
The word ‘novel’ was first coined in the late 18th century from the Italian ‘novella’, a transliteration for popular short stories during the medieval period. The ‘novella’ or novel, was a step towards ‘realistic’ story-telling, where characters and the narrative were firmly anchored in the mundane, everyday world of the reader. During this period, books like ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and ‘Moll Flanders’ demonstrated the break from the fantastical, allegorical romances that came before. Instead, the novel focussed on exploring the moral values of the middle-class through the solitary struggles of a hero or heroine. However it was a little later with Samuel Richardson’s ‘Pamela’, that the character novel was truly born. A type that proved so popular, that it was made all the more famous by Jane Austen and later, the Bronte sisters. The key pattern here lies in the breaking with tradition, not of sustaining or prolonging a certain type of ‘literariness’. And since the novel quite literally means ‘new’, and a classic is a crowning celebration of the unusual or different; then this also has become one of the ingredients for a modern classic.
You may have noticed that the texts mentioned so far are classics that are also a part of the ‘canon’, meaning they are considered to be of outstanding artistic and literary merit. But in a day and age when literary theorists claim that there are in actual fact only 5 types of story in existence, and that all stories are an amalgam or these original five; I find it hard to see how we can continue to have more books added as ‘classics’ to an already mammoth list. This angle again poses a problem: can a re-working of a previous classic be accepted as a classic in its own right? And aren’t we running out of ‘original’ stories? For those who think nay, this thorny question can be answered quite nicely by Graham Swift’s ‘Last Orders’. Winner of the Booker Prize 1996, the novel itself was greatly influenced by Faulkner’s ‘As I Lay Dying’. Whether it will be accepted as a classic later on, only time will tell; but I remember having many a heated debate about the ‘legitimacy’ of Swift’s usage of Faulkner’s plot. To me, it looked like plagiarism; to others it was a work of post-modernist art and proof some timeless stories can be transposed onto an entirely different culture and still retain its original ‘ghost’ (see Suzan-Lori Parks ‘Getting Mother’s Body: A Novel’ for an African-American point of view).
I could probably go on and on listing things that need to be taken into consideration when choosing a modern contemporary classic. Having it win a handful of awards is always a step in the right direction, but not always a necessity. It must transcend time and space (not an easy feat!) and be eco-friendly in that every once in a while it should be recyclable. Then it should also be new. Not just new, but ‘unusual’ or ‘different’ even. So what can my nomination be for a modern classic?
“They were with us before Romeo and Juliet. And long after too. Because they’ve forever around. Or so both claim, carolling gleefully:
We’re allways sixteen.
Sam & Hailey, powered by an ever-rotating fleet of cars from Model T to Lincoln Continental, career from the Civil War to the Cold War, barreling down through the Appalachians, up the Mississippi River, across the Badlands, finally cutting a nation in half as the try to outrace history itself.
By turns beguiling and gripping, finally worldwrecking, Only Revolutions is unlike anything ever published before, a remarkable feat of heart and intellect, moving us with the journey of two kids, perpetually summer, perpetually sixteen, who give up everything but each other.”
To be honest, it was a toss-up between ‘Only Revolutions’ and Danielewski’s previous monster ‘House of Leaves’. But I didn’t want to make another reference to Gothic fiction, so I chose this amazing time-juggling literary word-play as one I’d like to see as a modern classic.
Parts of the book were constructed with the help of Danielewski’s online readership on his blog and alternates between two different narrators Hailey and Sam who are lovers on opposite sides of the US. If that’s not enough, they are also living in different centuries. One side of the book tells Haileys story (green eye with the golden flecks) and the flip side gives you Sam’s story (golden eye with the green flecks). Loosely based on the American ‘road novel’ made famous by Jack Kerouac, ‘Only Revolutions’ is a vast cacophony of many genres. Told in a poetic narrative after the fashion of ancient Greek epics, Sam and Hailey’s stories travel towards each other where they collide in the middle of the continent (and the exact middle of the book) only to go back or forward in time again respectively. Hailey’s story begins on Nov 22 1963 while Sam’s starts on Nov 22 1893. Being a century apart makes their love story a unique one. Other notable oddities is that it’s exactly 360 pages long (one full revolution) with colour-coded words representing aspects of the narrators.
Another thing I discovered by accident is that something very cool happens to the page numbers when you flip the pages of the book. But I still haven’t figured out the meaning of the black dots on the upper page. If anyone has read it and knows what I’m talking about, please let me know!
That’s an end to my rambling… now it’s your turn! What are your opinions? What would you vote as a modern contemporary classic?