Not “Immodest” Proposal
We teach English literature courses not because they outline an ideal, nor because of the historical and historiographical significance these works pose. We teach these courses because they enable a means of exercising individual critical thought. They mightn’t focus on what a given argument is in a given work of literature, they mightn’t focus on plot. English courses—the most effective ones at least—are concerned with the method and the process itself. The question is not so much “what is happening?” but “how is this being done and with what purpose.” We examine the intentionality and out of it glean what constitutes the exemplary methods of storytelling. The identification of key works—so called “classics”—is fundamental to maintain this focus on the implicit elements in writing.
Current courses that focus on novels—specifically classics—tend to deal with antiquated literature. The “tried and true” volumes within the literary canon are just so. It is arguable that they have become too antiquated and old fashioned—at least some of them. We must ask ourselves whether there is a point in which certain classics “expire”.
What exactly is a classic piece of literature is widely debated. ‘Notoriety’ has become interchangeable with the term ‘classic.’ This, I fear, to be a common-held misconception. Popularity is not the sole indicator of a work’s being a classic. The defining characteristic is “shock-value.” Classics are read and taught with the intent of affecting students (and the greater readership) on level that inspires both critical thought pertaining to their own values, as well sparking their own creative processes. Works that are shocking must strike a balance between maintaining reader interest, establishing a believable reality, and providing some sort of surprise. Shocking stories become classics in their ability to arouse new thoughts after each reading. They are classics in their appeal to a wide range of audiences and their questioning of societal ideologies.
Classics are generational and generative. They are necessarily products from a single generation and therefore provide a glimpse, if not into the time out of which they were produced, of practices commonly employed in writing within a given era. Classics are generative in that they must spark discourse with regards to a greater context. They may seek to disprove a generational societal norm for example, or they may seek to provide a snapshot of that generation. Some solely ask questions as to why things are the way they are. In order to do all of these things classics must maintain their shock value.
Back to this question of whether classics can ever “expire” I find it important to consider that these works do not exist in a vacuum. The labeling of a piece of fiction as a “classic” doesn’t hinder time’s effects on it. Tastes change. Perhaps classics will not remain popular forever, but they should remain relevant. If classics are to remain relevant we need to focus on what maintains that relevancy otherwise students will lose complete interest as works become more and more remote in the past.