Whenever I see a book or movie advertised as an ‘instant classic’ I shake my head in wonder. How could they possibly know? What the heck is a classic anyway? Similarly, when I see lists of must-see films or must-read books, I wonder who exactly is trying to impose their taste on me. Because, of course, what is or is not ‘classic’ is simply a matter of taste – or worse yet, a form of cultural imperialism. When I see lists of classics that exclude women or cultures other than English (or even European) I suspect some heavy duty filtering is going on.
Of course, to be fair, the vast majority of people only read competently in one language. Mine is English. Technically I can understand written French but I can’t catch the subtlety and nuance of the literature. I suppose that lists of classics published in China might have a similar problem of inclusiveness.
But back to the original question: what is a classic? Most people believe or have at least been told that Shakespeare’s plays are classics. But that’s merely because they are relatively old and happened to survive. Half of his plays are pretty bad and are often first drafts to boot. Coriolanus is a practice run for Lear; Titus Andronicus’s bloody ending is echoed much more brilliantly in Hamlet. And really when you line them up by date written, Marlowe was doing better work than Old Bill. But he died young (or was murdered by a jealous rival?). And then there is Aphra Behn.
The plays of Shakespeare were popular enough in his time but largely languished for a hundred years until revived by an ambitious actor in the 18th Century. If he hadn’t popularized them, would students today be studying them in schools?
Still, the test of time has to be part of what we consider important. Dickens has survived and thrived into the 21st century while the much more popular Bulwer Lytton is remembered only for a bad writing competition. Chinua Achebe is recognized as one of the greatest writers but how many other African writers have been unfairly ignored? In genre, how many of the hundreds of writers of science fiction from the thirties and forties are remembered now? Even aficionados can only name a dozen or so – the general public, probably none at all. So can we call anything from that era and field classic?
Maybe. But who am I to say? I suppose the real test of a classic – why some of Shakespeare’s plays deserve the title – is whether, long after it was written, dramatized or filmed, a cultural work retains its ability to shock, amuse, move and change the person who views or reads it. Many works are life-changing but only speak to the moment they were written and the audience they were written for. Most of those are soon forgotten or relegated to the status of ‘interesting cultural relic.’ The works that continue to change lives – now that is what a classic does. It may be as simple as a laugh or a moment of poignant understanding or it may speak to the deeper places in the human psyche.
I guess I can’t define a classic but I know one when I see it.
And that’s ten minutes.