Rat: (interrupting) It has to both bore and confuse everyone.
Goat: (closing his eyes in either despair or disgust) NO.
Rat: (ignoring Goat completely) Except for high school English teachers. They have to like it.
Pig: (in his usual state of totally panicked, naive credulity) What’s WRONG with those people?
-Pearls Before Swine, by Stephen Pastis
Ha ha! Thank you so much, Mr. Pastis, for perpetuating those hoary old high school English teacher stereotypes in your cartoon. Because yes, I am one --- teacher, to be clear, not hoary old stereotype (despite what some of my students might think) or cartoonist. Teaching is my day job, that is. Above my desk on the classroom wall, there’s a sign reading, ‘English teacher by day. Deadly English ninja writer by night.’ Sincere thanks to the young sycophant who gave it to me. Bless you.
However... truth be told, I found that particular Pearls Before Swine comic very funny (as usual) and also (as usual) perhaps more bang-on in its observations about life than we’d like to admit. But Mr. Pastis gives teachers too much credit for a power we don’t possess. Books don’t become great literature just because legions of English teachers, intent on torturing succeeding generations of students, decide the books in question are sufficiently tedious or confusing to make the grade.
So, then... what makes a classic? Why do some works last, while others fade into oblivion? For example, we teach Shakespeare in high school. Why is he still around, more than 400 years later? For that matter, why is Homer still around, all those thousands of years later? (No, no, no, he said wearily, closing his eyes in pain. Not Homer of The Simpsons. Homer of the Iliad. Homer of the Odyssey. That Homer. If you still have no idea whom I’m referencing... I’m sorry. We can’t talk anymore. Go away and find some Simpsons reruns to watch.)
I have this discussion with my students on a semi-regular basis, and I think there’s at least four things that take a well-written book and elevate it to the status of classic:
First, a classic needs to have widespread appeal (NOT just to English teachers, Mr. P). That means a great number of people have to like it, either because it appeals intellectually, or it touches some universal, popular chord within people.
Second, a classic needs to make some worthy comment or observation about the human condition, the journey we all share. Despite what some of my intrepid scholars think (at least before we start his plays) Will does that. The themes and ideas and issues he wrote about 400 years ago are still completely valid and relevant today.
Third, a classic needs to be enduring. We still love to read a story about a young girl being led through a fantastical world by a rabbit that is really, really concerned about being late... even though it was penned over a hundred years ago by a mathematics professor who was simply trying to amuse that girl and her sisters one lazy summer afternoon while they were all out on a picnic.
Finally (and related to the third), a classic needs to catch on --- somehow, in some mysterious alchemy, become self-sustaining. It needs to take hold of us so we love and cherish it and then want to transmit it on to our children, and they to theirs. This is rather like catching lightning in a bottle, and where the transformation from being just another book into something timelessly eternal (in literary terms, anyway) comes into play. It’s also the question that vexes every writer, I think: exactly how does that happen? Because we’d nearly all like to produce something that will live on long after we’re gone. The answer is... I have no idea. And I doubt anyone else does, either. (If I knew the answer --- well, my place besides Homer and Will would already be assured.) It really is one of those divine conundrums, right up there with why someone falls in love with someone else and is prepared to spend their life story entwined with the other. As I said, it’s a mystery.
Whither the future of classics? I have to say that I’m a little pessimistic here, because the ground rules have been shifting so monumentally in the last several decades. And it’s that damned technology stuff that’s responsible, he said in his best Luddite tone. We live in a world that seems to be losing its ability to focus for any appreciable length of time, and it’s getting worse and worse. Whether we’re talking of television or film or literature or just about anything in the creative realm, things have got to click with audiences right now or they’re discarded. There’s almost no opportunity for thoughtful reflection, for something to be given time to find its audience. And there’s so much information flow out there, filtering the trash from the worthwhile is becoming so hopelessly difficult that many people have just given up trying. Even when something achieves phenomenal success, our addiction to constant new stuff means the phenom’s lifespan is relatively brief before audiences move on, hungrily searching for The Next Big Thing.
I hope I’m wrong about this. I really do.
In the meantime, I shall go on reading about people with names like Ulysses... and Hamlet... and Frodo... as they navigate their ways through the slings and outrageous fortune, enthralling and terrifying readers as they have done since they first leapt from the page and into our imaginations.
Long may they continue to do so.