Last week, Sam Sacks wrote in The New Yorker on criticizing the classics and how the canon is selected in today’s world. Contrasting the current, primarily American, state of the canon with that of the past, when the gatekeepers of the ivory tower and the salon determined not just which books were classics but the very definition of the concept, he argues that the classics are now determined by democratic and pragmatic tastes:
What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important.
In other words, the current criteria for classics are more a matter of sociology than of aesthetics. That’s why prose-toilers like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley are securely fixed in the canon while masters such as Frank O’Connor and Eudora Welty could easily be left out. “1984” and “Brave New World” are embedded in the weave of language and history, but what does Welty have going for her apart from stylistic perfection? Henry Miller survives—and will continue to survive—because the country once found him shocking enough to censor. (Likewise, D. H. Lawrence might very well be a footnote if not for “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”) There’s better prose in the average issue of Consumer Reports than in most Upton Sinclair novels, but “The Jungle” triggered actual legislative reform and will therefore last as long as the United States does.
I hardly consider myself a literary critic, so it’s hardly surprising I wouldn’t feel the same kind of “freedom” or “exhilarat[ion]” Sacks attributes to today’s critics, who can have at many of these classics, spitting into the Grand Canyon (to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates) because, as it turns out, much of the Grand Canyon isn’t all that grand.* Still, I spend, I think, a fair amount of time doing just that. Great truth and beauty, such as they are, are what move me, but my curious nature draws me as well to the works of “cultural significance,” the important in addition to the great—not to mention the so-called great (since that’s what so many of these “classics” turn out to be). And while I rarely take any joy in savaging such works, or even savage them at all, I find it interesting and even a little bit important to explore the good and the bad, whenever there is any of either to be found. And I may just turn out to be halfway decent at doing it, too.
Even before reading Sacks’s piece (which is, I should say, one of the few written about the idea of “classics” that didn’t make me roll my eyes a single time), I had planned on writing this week about one such work: Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Admittedly, Švejk is hardly a part of the canon the way Orwell and Huxley are; I doubt many American high school English classes assign it. But it’s well-known enough to be the namesake of a popular house blend at my local coffee shop, where quotes from the novel sometimes appear on a blackboard, and has enough cult status to have been recommended to me by a “real-life human.”
Švejk is the story of a Czech soldier swept up by the currents of the First World War, fighting for an empire that systemically oppresses his own people. A note at the end of my Penguin Classics edition explains that it was “one of the most famous and widely-read novels published after the First World War,” and that Hašek died before he could complete it. It’s possible that some of my criticisms would have been mooted by a less abrupt ending, but we have what we have.
*This should not be taken as any slight on the actual Grand Canyon, which I have not yet seen, and my experience thus far of natural wonders suggests it really is that grand.