How Much Does a Novel ‘Become’ a Classic?

Bought for £1.99 at Oxfam Hexham from the classics section, or was it under fiction?

Bought for £1.99 at Oxfam Hexham from the classics section, or was it under fiction?

My first encounter with The Diary of a Nobody was the direct-to-camera monologue given by Hugh Bonneville in the TV adaptation on BBC4. The mixture of delight and horror at modernity made for a drama that was compelling. It was somehow both Victorian and contemporary. I’ve since found myself less surprised at buying and reading this classic novel than I am at wondering what stuff a ‘classic’ is made of.

The novel revolves around the domestic life of a middle-class social climber called Mr Pooter, as narrated in his diary. His account is an historical record of the emerging middle-class in the 19th century. He continually expresses disdain at the conventions that have been adopted by his peer group and its progeny. His strongest ire is reserved for his son Lupin. Lupin is a continuing source of bemusement to Pooter, unable to ever live up to his father’s seemingly arbitrarily decided standards of what a respectable way of life is. Pooter thus represents an idea of Englishness based in class and snobbery. This is the England of pettiness, status anxiety, and angry little men and women battling against impudence. In his vanity, and in thinking that in all of his seriousness that he has a sense of humour, Pooter becomes both an object of satire and a sympathetic character – not an easy combination to pull off effectively. This may be what’s behind its enduring appeal. I think of this while pondering on what it is that makes a classic a classic?

It’s worth considering the time in which Diary was written. Its gentle fun-poking at class came about at a time when a growing middle-class wanted to distinguish itself through its tastes. The late 19th century formation of ‘leisure’ and the diversification of its cultural phenomena brought about new questions about what counted as culture. For example, 1869 saw the publication of Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold. Arnold attempted to set out what he thought was culture with a capital C. He centred on the classics, principally meaning Greek classics. His broader idea was that culture is the best that has been. The interesting thing about this is that The Diary of a Nobody was published two decades after Culture and Anarchy and has since fallen into that category we call ‘classics’.

Would that qualify it, in relation to Arnold, as contemporary fiction that became a classic? The diary’s proddings at class and snobbishness weren’t universally popular until some time after the first world war.

Alternatively though, is Pooter’s devotion to expressing aghast at the changing world around him a story that’s been around since the dawn of time? There’s something abstract and eternal to the themes that are central to classics. Social distinction and new ideas may have always undergone contestation.

I’m not sure which of these versions of the book’s classification is more convincing. The former suggests that a classic withstands the tests of time. The latter suggests that it’s a question of having something eternal to a story. So the book seems to be about both class and classification; in turn, these two things are as much bound up with the book itself as they are with the book’s content. A question arises from this: is a classic a book that forces you to consider what kind of a book it is?

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10 Responses to How Much Does a Novel ‘Become’ a Classic?

  1. Lucy says:

    I loved this book, and while lots of books can become classics because of how they chart the human experience, it’s unusual to find humour that is still funny. Slapstick comedy can age, topical comedy generally means nothing later on, except for those people who did get the PPI phone calls or own an early iphone, but kids will always be annoying. And ungrateful. Bah.

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    • Jeff says:

      Really good point. Humour does indeed date very quickly. I grew up on the new leftish politicised comedy. Yet old clips of Friday and Saturday Night Live with Ben Elton etc. have an overdone PCness that can be painful to watch today. Maybe Diary’s humour is still relevant because it’s about something that’s both recognisable and hasn’t changed?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Classics are hard to define and not always obvious. If we’re still reading them decades or even centuries after they were written then they must be one, but what that strange alchemy is that makes them survive I don’t know. And there are many books deserving to be classics that aren’t. A tricky one…

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    • Jeff says:

      Yes, as Ste J points out here, there’s the Who Decides factor. As he says, a publisher’s labelling of something as a classic is part of the equation.
      Don’t know if it’s usually part of the discussion on these things, but I wonder what the motivation/s is/are to call something a classic? Is it nothing more than a competitive statement of preference in the hope that it’ll aggregate to a consensus? Is the word intended as a landmark to give order? Is it a word that’s come down to us from educators like Matthew Arnold so that the unwashed can be kept in line? I notice how the word is used a lot by men who want to re-affirm what they perceive as a disappearing masculine worldview (connected with things like cars, sport and guitar-based conventional rock music).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Ste J says:

    Classics seem to be something that are decided by consensus or perhaps the publishing company realising them to the classics range. There aren’t many classic comedies that come to mind, if you exclude The divine comedy of course but the ones that do come to mind, the above, Three Men in a Book and The Pickwick papers seem to be of a type, bumbling men shambling through life who just want to achieve the goals they set themselves. I want to know how Ulysses became a classic when only five people in the world have had the patience to read it.

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    • Jeff says:

      > bumbling men shambling through life who just want to achieve the goals they set themselves

      Surely that’s tragedy?

      You make a good point about a classics ‘range’. There’s a notion of the power and authority to confer a name in that. That’s how Ulysses gets the moniker. It’s one of those books deemed highly praiseworthy on account of how it breaks with traditions / genre to define a new one, in this case modernism, and for those writing about postmodernism, also supplies an example of how modernism and pomo ‘share some characteristics, which complicates these categories’. The quote is from A. Literary Critic’s Guide to Understanding Everything by Reading James Joyce and Similar Novelists, page 2/3ish.

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      • Ste J says:

        That clears that up then. No mention on if the book is good then, which I thought would have some bearing on the matter but then again maybe it doesn’t have to be.

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        • Jeff says:

          Exactly. I’m not sure that the books on modernism and pomo that I caricatured there are necessarily there to present something that’s easily defined as ‘good’. I think the idea of books like Ulysses is that they challenge our bourgeois complacency. Just why should we assume there’s a plot, a consistent and reliable narrator … something as stuffy as grammar etc.? The thing is, these things get challenged all the time from within novelistic conventions anyway. I don’t mind books like Ulysses myself – I just don’t read them. Doesn’t it depend on how you define such a book though? I love If On A Winter’s Night by Calvino. It builds stories up in your head and then intervenes and plays with the fact that it’s all words and imagination. Does its attack the pretence that the act of reading creates/ expects that something actually happened, or is it parasitical on that, dependent even? I don’t know. I don’t even know if that would qualify or disqualify it from being a classic. But it’s a great book. It’s a great book because it fucks with your head, the very thing that brings a novel to life as a novel. To some that might be juvenile, pretentious, or something else. Calvino’s novel is one of my favourite reads, and it cuold be juvenile, pretentious, or even good. Getting back to the subject, I suppose the advantage of its ‘classic’ designation is that there’s a lot of people out there who have read it. So I suppose that’s another element to it. Whether you agree or disagree with questions of status, you can at least enter into a common language.

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  4. It’s a really interesting question. Personally, I’m well aware that several of my favourite, more pretentious, ‘classics’ were looked down on in their day. Ann Radcliffe and Dickens, for example, were writing popluar best sellers, but now you’ll find them securely hidden away in the Classics section of bookshops and libraries.

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    • Jeff says:

      Yes, the idea that there are books can be elected to a range called ‘classics’ must come from somewhere. Interestingly, I see that Penguin started its range in 1946. Maybe this was part of a post-war effort to establish internationalism and a democratised learning culture after the ravages of world war?

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