What Is a Classic?

It’s a Pandora’s Box of a question. The buzz over writing by women gained steam in 2013, encouraged by a number of unrelated events. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize in Literature, only the 13th woman to do so since 1901. Willa Cather’s long-awaited letters came out. It was the 40-year anniversary of the feminist Virago Press, whose very raison d’être was to publish recreate the canon and “discover” forgotten or overlooked women writers. And Pamela Paul became the 2nd female editor (out of 20) of the NYT Book Review.

Vigorous dialogues about books by women proliferated in literary circles: Claire Messud’s angry narrator in The Woman Upstairs sparked a debate about sympathetic female characters. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries were widely hailed as terrific “big” books, a quality usually assigned to men. Europa Editions shook up the year’s end with Elena Ferrante’s feminist novels, while rumors of a hoax proliferated: Was Ferrante a man?

There are, of course, quibbles. The 13 women who have won the Nobel don’t coincide with who’s who on the literary canon, there should be more women like Cather to vivify the canon, and women still need more bylines in literary outlets. Is it a problem of habit, style, laziness, or sexism that has kept women on the sidelines?

It’s not news that women have different experiences, and things worth saying, and can illuminate life in ways we don’t anticipate. Cheerleading for books by women has been going on for decades, and lashing out against White Males has been going on for decades. But underneath the White Male malaise is a heartening collective ambition to put more women writers on our shelves.

Where does that leave us in 2014? I started thinking about accountability and desire: Who do we have a responsibility to read and who do we feel compelled to read, especially at different times in our lives? Which are the books we go back to? Which are the books we agitate for inclusion in the canon and why? What is a classic and why do certain books grab us unusually?

Classics reflect culture.

T.S. Eliot’s 1944 essay, The Classic, proves how elusive, political, and restless the concept of a “classic” is. Riffing off Eliot’s essay, Frank Kermode took on this question in 1975 in his book, The Classic. He observes that Eliot believed a “classic” was a work with universality to it, and which reflected the values and eternal truths of Roman civilization. Then Kermode hones in on America and on Hawthorne in particular. America, the new world, chose a new past. And Hawthorne didn’t see the past in terms of inherited certainties but rather of cultivated uncertainties. The Scarlet Letter was “consciously modern, carefully unauthoritative, open to multiple interpretation because the modern world is so,” Kermode explains with acuity. It’s the opposite of what the old classics were expected to provide. The new classic “poses a virtually infinite set of questions” and invites in the imagination of the reader. He modernizes the whole notion of what a classic is.

J.M. Coetzee also takes up Eliot’s essay in his own. He doesn’t buy it, and thinks Eliot is promoting a conservative political program for Europe’s reconstruction, based on a belief in some cultural-historical unity. (Eliot was American, he complains.) But Coetzee also tries to figure out what a classic work is. He looks at Bach’s the Well-Tempered Clavier, and decides that his first revelatory experience of it must have been the unmistakable impact of a classic. A classic survives, people still play it. That’s not terribly useful, but what is useful is his recognition that Bach was not appreciated in his lifetime, being seen as the last gasp of the Middle Ages. Bach was not canonical. Bach was taken up by the German nationalist cause in reaction to Napoleon, and was promoted as a classic by the movement and by Protestantism. It was nothing less than German pride. Coetzee’s point is that a classic is not just an aesthetic marvel but a product of invisible influences. Classics are bound by their historical context.

If you put American uncertainty and historical context together, you get a pretty bang-up definition of what’s compelling in great books. Add sympathy to that list and it broadens considerably. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that these are the same qualities you find in a great book from centuries ago. The big themes of The Brothers Karamazov are family uncertainty: despair, longing, envy, pride, lust, redemption. No one feels good in the end and several important people remain godless. In Middlemarch, too, there’s no psychological ease in town and all sorts of mistakes get made. But it’s a book of its time: An intellectually ambitious woman uses marriage as a stepping stone for higher learning. So while Kermode honed in on Hawthorne as a hinge, uncertainty around love, marriage, self-possession, and social status has been embedded in literature. The Bhagavad Gita, from the Indian epic the Mahabharata, is a tale of uncertainty and self-possession on the battlefield. Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon poem, is ostensibly about the defeat of evil, but who does not feel sympathy for Grendel and his mother?

The joys and perils of “women’s writing”

On the surface, controversies about what is a classic and how does it fit into “the canon” are outsize. Students read books of the past, meant to prepare them for the future, in a time bubble defined by excitability and inexperience. But dig deeper: It’s a beginning of a lifelong conversation with literature. What you read in college tilts you into the world and triggers emotional stances you might not have if, as a literary person, you read entirely different books. It is, without a doubt, the beginning of a broader engagement in literary circles about what and how we read and who we publish.

Carmen Calil started Virago in 1973 with the point of publishing books by women. It was a huge undertaking, born of the conviction that more books by women should be part of the canon. It was part of a movement to stop women from being marginalized and to discover or rediscover important writing. Antonia White’s Frost in May inaugurated their Modern Classics. They published Angela Carter, Muriel Spark, George Eliot, Willa Cather, Barbara Pym, Daphne du Maurier, Grace Paley, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Mae West, Christina Stead, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Frame, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Joyce Carol Oates. Other feminist presses were finding for their feet too. In 1988, there were 11 feminist publishers in the UK. Florence Howe started the Feminist Press in 1970 to “reconstruct the history of women”—but these days, anyway, fiction isn’t their main squeeze. Virago, too, is no longer in its heyday. Now there’s also the UK-based Persephone Books with a mission, to reprint “neglected fiction and non-fiction by mid-twentieth century (mostly women) writers.” Trade and independent publishers fill in the gaps. The women’s movement brought renewed interest and attention in books by women, but the great feminist experiment doesn’t have the same oomph it used to.

The downside of promoting books by women is the truth that not all books are great. Broach this issue at your peril. An exchange between Helen Vendler and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in 1990 shows how thorny and venomous it can get. In a 1990 essay, Feminism and Literature, Vendler critiqued eight books, including the first two volumes of No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (1988-1989), edited by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, famous for their pathbreaking book of feminist criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). Concerned that feminist critics “found women characters treated less sympathetically by men than they would like,” Vendler jabs that it’s dangerous to conflate literary characters with real people and that feminists haven’t thought to criticize famously rough portraits of men (such as Middlemarch’s Casaubon). She addresses the uncomfortable issue of third-rate work, and wonders about the female writer and the female audience as social constructs.

These are fair enough concerns, but it’s easy to see why Gilbert and Gubar lash back. They accuse Vendler of a “hectic attack” and call her a “feverish polemicist.” Their reaction is informative. The exchange is loaded with baggage and personal attacks, and everyone walks away with hurt feelings. Vendler did her job in that she looked closely at the quality and presentation of the literature in the anthology—and wasn’t impressed. The prose style, Vendler says pointedly, “is the most serious obstacle to taking them seriously as writers on literature.” Vendler’s tactic of discrediting Gilbert and Gubar over some convoluted writing, and doing it with a tone of sweeping condescension, is disheartening. (“Gilbert and Gubar have no clear idea what literary history can do, what it should do, how it should be written.”) Vendler objects to “mini-books”—to the idea of an anthology itself. She is fluffing her peacock feathers a bit with her pixie dust of Knowledge. Vendler’s disdain doesn’t preclude loving some of these writers and feeling they have not been given their proper due. But she’s not so keen on “sisterhood” if the work is “shoddily done.”

Sisterhood is an issue in Phyllis Rose’s review of Gilbert and Gubar’s Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, Writing on Women (1985) too. Rose objects to the idea that “women join hands across the ages to enhance their self-definition as women writers and to help one another create.”

“Why might a woman writer prefer not to be a Woman Writer?” Rose asks. “Perhaps for the same reason a frog dislikes to be used as a demonstration of the nervous system. It’s afraid that might be all there is to life,” she says, and points out the tension between critics who need those women to fill that role and the women who don’t want to fill it.

To wit: Elizabeth Bishop, considered by many to be the finest American female poet of the 20th century. Bishop famously kept her sexuality and personal life out of her poems, and had no interest in being represented in women’s anthologies. (It’s worth saying that anthologies are terrible engines of forgettability and they operate on a false premise of groupthink.) It wasn’t until the poet and lesbian Adrienne Rich championed Bishop that the women’s movement took her up and Bishop got a cheering section. She became mainstream, a “lesbian poet.”

Something similar happened with Virginia Woolf, who is nothing (now) if not canonical. Woolf was an important minor writer, Rose argues in Writing of Women (1985), “a fragile, ethereal novelist of the interior life.” Critics and biographers undid the image of Woolf as an invalid and made her into a major author who was then read from a feminist angle. Woolf (who Rose wrote a biography about) was promoted as a great woman writer first, before moving into the company of “genderless greats.” Which is ironic, because in her 1929 lecture, Women and Fiction, Woolf said, “the giant creative mind must be androgynous.”

The fact is, if women don’t champion other women writers, as they did in the seventies, works by women are sure to gather dust in some attic full of quilts, and fall out of print. Forget about ever being considered a “classic” or making it onto the canon. Zora Neale Hurston is firmly in the canon, says Lyn DiIorio, a professor of English—who specializes in Caribbean literature—at CUNY Graduate Center and the City College of New York, but wasn’t always. People didn’t read Hurston in the thirties and forties because of her confrontation with Richard Wright. Their Eyes Were Watching God, written in dialect, traded in “the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh,” Wright accused. Hurston was forgotten and died in poverty, Lyn says. But in 1975, Alice Walker recovered Hurston, in Ms., prompting a biography and mainstream and academic attention. “It’s typical of what happens to a woman who’s quirky, and who has conflicts with powerful men, even within the African-American rubric,” Lyn says.

How do you become a classic and score a coveted spot in the canon?

John R. Searle, writing in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) in 1990, says the way to satisfy the requirements of the cultures left out of the canon is to abolish the canon altogether. If Western civilization is a history of imperialism and colonialism, “you cannot just reform education by admitting new members to the club,” he says. Something multicultural and hierarchical would have to take its place, he insists. But doesn’t putting a woman on the traditionally male-centric canon legitimize her that much more?

A completely new canon would look something like the literary version of the utopian city of Chandigarh in Northern India, designed and built from scratch by Le Corbusier in the fifties. It was an orderly urban experiment, the opposite of Indian cities, which are hives of activity, with alleys that veer out from commercial boulevards and twist into smaller streets where, inexplicably, a storefront jewelry shop appears among a row of tailors serving apartment dwellers above. Most cities evolve in an intuitive, if still haphazard, way, but it works. To create something that doesn’t reflect the way people live goes against the nature of how we live. The same goes for creating a classic. What evolves, what surprises, what lasts?

In terms of women being on the canon, what seems most critical is the period when literacy became widespread (women, finally, were being educated in seminaries), in the 19th century and after. Mass production enabled the masses to get cheap books and women published widely and read voraciously. Cheap novels and serialized fiction were all the rage. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1851, became an international bestseller. Women helped create a foundation for commercial publishing today, both as authors and as readers. Women were the readers for pioneering Gothic novelists like Anne Radcliffe, and for the wildly popular Beecher Stowe, Marie Corelli, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and the Brontë sisters. “It’s no accident,” says Edwin Frank, editor of the NYRB Classics, “that the main characters of many novels written by men in the 19th century were increasingly women—such as Henry James’ Isabel Archer and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. There was an adage about not reading novels in the morning, when there was serious work to be done, novels being the leisured preserve of the unworking woman.”

Women’s role as readers and their experience of marriage shaped the 19th century novel. It is this era in which flurries of “classic” women writers enter the canon. The history of the period is both wonderful and horrifying from a 21st century perspective. “Novels were held suitable for women, because they were seen as creatures of the imagination, of limited intellectual capacity, both frivolous and emotional,” says Martyn Lyons in his essay on female readers in A History of Reading in the West. It “could excite the passions and stimulate the female imagination,” and “make erotic suggestions which threatened chastity and good order,” he says. How fantastic! It’s telling that adultery became so common a theme in novels both by women and by men who recognized (as Stendhal did, in his letters) that women were a big portion of their readers. Female adultery became the archetypal social transgression—Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Effi Briest—Lyons says. It’s worth pondering, given what Kermode said about The Scarlet Letter being the hinge on which the modern literary classic turns. It also speaks metaphorically to the point that women have been historically unsatisfied—with marriage and the lack of opportunities. With these kinds of books and marriage in mind, what is a classic book by a woman?

Women have written about marriage, from 18th century courtship novels (Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre) to sensationalist infidelity-packed Victorian melodrama (such as Ellen Wood’s bestselling East Lynne) and the failed-marriage novella (Simone de Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed, Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment). Are any of these works canonical because they focus on a topic important to women or should we discount that altogether? Perhaps books are classics in different ways. Some of course will be canonical—some for their merit and some for their feminist merit.

It’s no secret that publishers can influence what becomes a classic. Much of a publisher’s backlist is made up of “classic” titles and those classics publishers are, like anyone else, looking for the next big thing. Tons of reissued and repackaged “classics” get shiny new introductions and new covers that editorialize in nuanced ways. Some fulfill the publisher’s intent: Consumers flock, professors adopt, and publishers get a sure bet for at least a couple of years.

Keith Goldsmith, executive director of academic marketing at Knopf and Vintage, said you market books with the hope that they get adopted (professors tend to stick with books, which guarantees sales) but you also “discover” writers if you see trend for a certain period or if certain styles of writing come back in fashion. “Writers are rediscovered at various points with a little bit of serendipity, and it’s hit or miss,” Goldsmith said, citing Nancy Mitford and Edith Templeton as two writers new to their classics list.

What’s curious is why certain women lose traction. (How effective are we at getting the public to care about them again?) NYRB Classics put Dorothy Baker and Jean Stafford back into print, along with Sylvia Townsend Warner, Renata Adler, and Ivy Compton Burnett. Despite having won a Guggenheim in 1942 and a Pulitzer in 1970, Baker and Stafford fell off everyone’s radar. Frank says both women started with a bang but wrote irregularly, hampered in part by personal problems. He also pointed out that “Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding is timeless in its unaffected, clear, attention to character, and timelessness is also an impediment to success since it’s essentially unfashionable.”

Elda Rotor, the associate publisher and editorial director of Penguin Classics, says she’s most proud of publishing 117 Days: the story of journalist Ruth First’s detention and abuse in 1963 South Africa, and Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It? (a coming-of-age story about a Mexican-American girl, set during the Civil War), which was one of Rotor’s first acquisitions at the press. Professors already teach Ruiz de Burton, she said, but adding her to Penguin’s list was to provide an “authoritative text.” For this year, Rotor called out works by two pioneering investigative journalists: Ida B. Wells and Nellie Bly, and noted that this quote, from Bly’s Around the World in 72 Days and Other Writings, should be shouted out from the rooftops: “Gather up the real smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid both by their success and unforgetfulness of those that held out the helping hand.”

Perhaps that’s where accountability and desire kick in. We have a responsibility to look at who has been forgotten. So while kindling a fascination for books by women is one thing, it’s also useful to figure out which books deserve our admiration. How do we do that? Rose said she likes to think of herself, in her role as book critic, as a former of canons. “I would like my essays to be seen as little cannonballs in an assault on an older way of seeing literary history,” she says. It’s a useful way to think about the women writers we care about. More criticism and more scholarship mean more attention, which means another “classic” that publishers can make a buck off, which institutionalizes things.


Diane MehtaDiane Mehta is a writer in Brooklyn and is currently working on a novel set in 1946 Bombay. Her writing has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, The New Republic online, The New York Times, The Literary Review, Prairie Schooner, and many other publications.