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Against Classics

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This month on the Ark Review, taking inspiration from Mark Grief’s recent book “Against Everything”, we are going to try and write against everything. Collectively though, and one subject at a time. So really more like Against ________. As in, fill in the ________. In today’s piece, Neus Casanova Vico tears down the Western canon as she argues against the classic.

I like reading books. I studied humanities, I volunteer in a bookstore, I (sometimes) write in the Ark Review. What I’m trying to say is that, in my case, liking books leads me to talk to other people about books, which is nice, because that is one of the enjoyments of modern human interaction. However, I have, on occasion, found some major downsides to talking about books.

As with other forms of art and entertainment (as music, cinema, or photography could be), some of us have encountered a recurrent moment in conversation, where someone utters a sentence along the lines of “oh my god, you haven’t read [insert book that “everyone” in the “literary world” has read]”, instantly followed by a mixed feeling of shame and pseudo anger, because in that moment you realise you might not be as well-read as you thought you were, or you might no longer feel as clever in comparison with that person as you felt before, or you don’t care at all but find the situation utterly annoying. Newspapers like The Guardian summarise this interaction quite well in the subheading for a piece on whatever they were writing about in 2009: “those we know we should have read, but probably haven’t. These are generally the books that make us burn with shame when they come up in conversation.”

There is a high chance that the book you [lower voice] haven’t read [/lower voice] is included in most of the reading lists of literature departments, and is included in the collection of Penguin Classics, and also in the Oxford World Classics ( it will certainly appear in Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, but let me talk about that later). Well, contra to this, let me state this clearly: there is no book in the entire history of literature one should have read. There is no book in the entire history of the world one should be ashamed for not having read, or even not ever heard of.

I do believe literature can and should be used to represent different realities. Through fiction, we are able to get a bit closer to experiences totally far away from our everyday life. Fiction is a tool for social change, and concepts like the Western canon or the even definition of classics should be kept up to date with the reality of our society.

Simplifying and generalising (first one being practical, the second one being a bit unfair yet practical), the problem with this somehow recurring situation is not that you haven’t read that book, or that you should re-think your friendship with that person (in case you actually are friends). The problem is bigger than that. The problem is the idea that knowing about and reading some specific books seems to give you the power of holding a valid opinion about literature. What is good, and bad, what is a classic, and what is not. But really, why is that the case? Who are all these people deciding what is a classic? Who has access to them? And anyways, what is a classic?

What is a classic?

If you do a quick Google search on the concept of a classic in literature, there won’t be many clear definitions but rather mid-length lists with book titles like the Odyssey, or Moby Dick, or names like Shakespeare, or Dickens. Going a bit further, you might step into Italo Calvino’s Why Read the Classics? which actually kind of serves the purpose. Let’s stop here. At the beginning of this piece, the Italian writer defines the term classic on the basis of 14 points. Let’s take a look at a couple of them.

In the first point, Calvino writes:

“1. The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading…’ At least this is the case with those people whom one presumes are ‘well read‘; it does not apply to the young. ” (p. 18)

Calvino starts his definition of a classic by defining its audience: someone who is well read, and not young. Maybe I’m going too far here, maybe not, but can this not be interpreted to something along the lines of only those who have gone through an established educational system and have reached adulthood are able to read a classic? Calvino further develops this idea through the second point, where he focuses on the capacity of only those who are in an optimal condition (called best condition) to read a classic are able to enjoy it. In this point, he argues that if a classic has been read during in one’s youth, the experience of re-reading it in the adulthood will always be different, mostly because it is driven by the extraction of other mechanisms present in the book that haven’t been contemplated before. So in order to enjoy a classic one must have the capacity and be in the position to enjoy it. Thus, classics are not accessible to everyone but rather to a specific part of the population trained with a specific series of tools to access to them, as well as in the position to do so, that is to say, people who have access to education, and certain economic status (because of the aforementioned access to training).

Let me tell you, there’s no need to comment on the middle points, not because I don’t have enough space in these lines, nor I don’t want to bore you too much, but rather there isn’t any big shift in Calvino’s argument and definition of the concept. So let me skip to one of the last (and in my humble opinion, most interesting) points:

“12. A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognise its place in the genealogy of classic works” (p. 28)

What Calvino suggests here is that in order to discuss the classics one has to have read other classics before, be part of the classic readers club. From Calvino’s point of view, one needs to be aware of what a classic is and recognise the importance of reading them, but in order to do that one needs to be aware of the lineage of the individual classics in relation to the other classics. This connects to the ideas expressed in points 13 and 14, where he explains the relationship between contemporary literature and classics, emphasising the idea that one needs to alternate “classic readings with calibrated doses of contemporary material” (p. 30). For some reason, Calvino doesn’t seem to be very happy about contemporary literature, nor give much importance to whatever is going on in (his) contemporary moment; he seems to only be interested in the contemporary because, without the conception of present time, one cannot talk about the classics:

“Perhaps the ideal would be to hear the present as a noise outside our window, warning us of the traffic jams and weather changes outside, while we continue to follow the discourse of the classics which resounds clearly and articulately inside our room” (p. 30)

It seems to me that in an ideal Calvinian world, there is a clear structure created that reinforces the patterns (in literature) already existing, i.e. the “discourse of the classics”. These patterns are independent and don’t need from the real world, so we might as well let the real world pass by while we are enlightened by the classics from the comfort of our cozy bourgeois room full of tea and privilege. (Thank god he had been a communist in his early years, I don’t want to imagine what he would have said otherwise).

The very specific definition of classics Calvino delivers in Why Read the Classics? seems to be closely connected, mostly by means of similarity, to the idea of Western canon. Finding a definition for the Western canon can be a bit difficult, but in general terms one could say that the Western canon in literature can be understood as those books that are recognised to be classics in Western culture. Which seem to suggest that they have transcended time and space(-ish) and should be universally praised for their quality and importance to culture. Again, all these definitions floating around, yet no clear source. Let’s investigate a bit more.

An author who seems to know a lot about the Western canon and classics is Harold Bloom. I won’t go into too much detail about his work because despite being of different nature from Calvino’s, I don’t think we will profit from going into detail. Nevertheless, in his introduction, Bloom exemplifies quite nicely my problem with the definition of classics much as the one Calvino does. Bloom labels those who would problematise the notion the Canon “the school of resentment” and describes them as follows:

“the School of Resentment, who wish to overthrow the Canon in order to ad­vance their supposed (and non-existent) programs for social change.” (p. 4)

So, what I’m trying to argue in this article is nothing new, Bloom was aware of my position when I was still a baby. Against Bloom’s disdainful definition, I want to frame the school of thought I belong to affirmatively. I do believe literature can and should be used to represent different realities. Through fiction, we are able to get a bit closer to experiences totally far away from our everyday life. Fiction is a tool for social change, and concepts like the Western canon or the even definition of classics should be kept up to date with the reality of our society. That is not to say that the change hasn’t started yet; day by day numerous initiatives seem to open the path of social change from a structural level – from full programmes in African Literature in Western universities, to countries like Sweden, handing in copies of We should all be feminists to all 16-year kids, to name two of them. Nevertheless, we still find ourselves in a stage where the concept of classics, or the Western canon are still a powerful tool, and, as Blake Morrison wrote back in the day when Bloom’s book came out, are “misused as a pedagogic hammer and literary-critical machine-gun”.

we can see how authors like Calvino and Bloom reinforce the concept of classics, by using their status in this structure of power to affirm the importance of the concept, which in turn validates their status. This is a structure that automatically excludes part of the population from entering certain discussions, or even being apart of a narrative.

Metanarrative

Another way to look at the problematic of classics and the Western canon in our society is understanding them as a metanarrative that we need to get rid of. In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard wrote:

“It then produces a discourse of legitimation with respect to its own status, a discourse called philosophy. I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse of this kind making an explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth.” (p. xxiii)

Long story short: Lyotard thinks that through history, society has established different power structures that legitimate certain ideas by fitting them into a seemingly coherent narrative structures that, vest some people power and remove it from others (although he is mostly worried about how that specifically affects knowledge). Institutions such as universities are part of these power structures, which mostly serve as a way to legitimate those ideas that reinforce the power. Which bring us to the concept of metanarratives: big narratives that legitimate social order and science, and keep expanding the concept of knowledge beyond science, in order to keep those power structures that favours some ideas and consequently some parts of the population intact. The most fucked up thing about metanarratives? We are directly not aware of them.

Authors like Calvino and Bloom have a very specific role in this whole mess: institutions need a more concrete agent to legitimate their ideas through discourse and that is precisely the role of these authors: to legitimate knowledge through their work. As Foucault argues, authors are an internal mechanism for institutions of power to legitimate their discourse. Thus, the mere concept of the author in the context of (power) institutions attributes certain power to whatever the author says. Calvino and Bloom are authors, who are a part of power institutions, namely universities. These universities, for instance, Yale University (where Bloom has been teaching since 1955), are seen by society as creators of knowledge. In the current system of power, with regard to knowledge, the fact that Bloom is a professor at the English Department at Yale University implies that whatever he writes about literature is probably right, because he is a professor at the English Department of Yale University.

One of the reasons the concept of classics is such a powerful tool is because a classic is a story told by one that transcends time and space. Fiction is a great tool to change narratives outside of books, and for that, we need to advocate for a greater variety of authors.

With this in mind we can see how authors like Calvino and Bloom reinforce the concept of classics, by using their status in this structure of power to affirm the importance of the concept, which in turn validates their status. This is a structure that automatically excludes part of the population from entering certain discussions, or even being apart of a narrative.

Make the classics great again

While discussing the conception of this piece with some people I got comments like “but you must admit the Canon is changing”, or “but you really think we should stop reading classics”? The answer is more complex than a yes or a no. Yes, the Canon is changing. The misuse of classics as a tool to exclude parts of the population from the discussion of literature, and the invisibility of certain narratives is starting to be addressed, but a change like this, the unravelling of certain grand narratives having been present in our collective history for so many centuries doesn’t occur overnight. We need to constantly remind ourselves of our duty and our (sometimes privileged) position in this arena; to speak up when needed, but also to step up, shut up and listen to those who have been actively excluded and affected by the system, and never speak for them.

In regard to the second question—no, I don’t think we should stop reading classics. We should, however, be determined not to read Moby Dick just because we feel ashamed of not having read Moby Dick. I think we should read Moby Dick because we believe it will bring us something valuable to our lives. I think it is ok not to read Shakespeare, and no one should think less of someone because of that. I actively advocate for recommending certain readings because, through history, there have been books that have contributed to the development of specific styles of writing and storytelling, and even influenced some cultures. I don’t think we should stop reading Dickens, or Proust, or Houellebecq, but I think we should be aware of where these authors stand in regard to their’s and our social and historical context. We should start discussing more what it means that a book is a classic for us, and how can we use that term in favour of a universal access to literature and a more varied representation of stories from different parts of society.

One of the reasons the concept of classics is such a powerful tool is because a classic is a story told by one that transcends time and space. Fiction is a great tool to change narratives outside of books, and for that, we need to advocate for a greater variety of authors. We need more stories to open up more realities and gives us access to more knowledge. We need to hear the story of underrepresented parts of the population in literature and, to do so, those who are in the privileged position of telling their stories to need to know when to step up and makes space for the others. As said before, changing this whole system of power doesn’t happen overnight, and every agent involved need to take part of the change in some way or another.

Be against the idea of classics neglecting the existence and excluding from its access to part of our society. Get Harold Bloom angry and keep the “School of Resentment” growing. Explore other stories through non-western, non-male authors and like Matsuo Basho, Anita Desai, Mercè Rodoreda, or Han Kang. Stop shaming your friends for not having read Miguel de Cervantes, Voltaire, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Franz Kafka, Michael Proust, F. Scott Fitzgerald, George Orwell, Michel Houellebecq, or D.F. Wallace. Rather, recommend Infinite Jest because it’s literally one of the best books you’ve ever read in your life and it has taught you a lot about tennis and you can’t believe how D.F. Wallace can write such beautiful, complex sentences. Read because it is a pleasure and not a competition of who knows more. Read the classics, read a magazine, read blogs, read whatever you want, but most importantly: enjoy it.

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