What is a Classic?

I’ve posted before on the idea of what is great literature and what is not, and particularly on the tendency of some people to become gatekeepers over the distinction. I personally reject the very idea of reading lists. If people think my reading is eccentric (it is), or that I have not read certain pieces of supposedly classic literature (in many cases, they’re right), that’s fine with me.

Sam Sacks enters this debate (not with me on my tiny blog, but with the heavies) with a post Canon Fodder: Denouncing the Classics on The New Yorker site. I call attention to it because I think it’s interesting, but I also think it tends to miss the point. This is because it falls into the trap of thinking that a word must have one referent. There are at least two senses of “classic,” at least as I would use them. First, there is the classic that is so great (in my opinion), that it deserves to be read widely. Thus I will use the term “classic” of literature that might not be old enough to be considered a classic by more normal people. (The question is, which is to be master–that’s all!) The second use is illustrated by my parenthetical quote. A classic is something that has worked its way so far into the way we think about things that it would be helpful for you to have read it in order to understand your own culture. But in my view you won’t make it through any good sized list without neglecting something anyhow. So I make no apologies for leaning my literature reading a bit more to the contemporary than “true literati” would find acceptable. I’m not a “true literati.” I’m just a publisher. (Note the use of scare quotes, or in this case, perhaps, disdain quotes.)

In any case, I remain convinced that choice in reading is personal, and that you can objectively determine if literature is popular or influential, but not whether it is good or not. That’s a matter of taste. Mostly.


Reading Fiction and Good Fiction

I found the post Reading Fiction: Russell Moore by Scot McKnight to be interesting. So many Christians act as if reading fiction was a waste of time that could better be spent doing “useful” things. I think that misunderstands how our minds work.

Of course, in the comments we encounter the usual question of what is “good” fiction. That one’s harder to answer. Moore refers to a number of works that would be considered “good” or “great” by literature professors. I tend to be more eclectic. I wrote about that here, not to mention my post On Reading Bad Books and What They Are.

Obscuring the Glory of God in Literature

Venus de Milo. Louvre Museum.
Image via Wikipedia

In my post Creativity for the Fun of It, I maintained that it’s fine for Christians to write and publish works that are just for fun, and that God’s glory shines through such things because God is the creator of everything, not just some limited subset that we define as sacred.

As that post has become one of the more popular ones on this blog over the last few days, I re-read it, and noticed that one might misunderstand. I’m speaking there within the context of literature that doesn’t set out to obscure that glory, or get so far off the track that it accidentally does so.

Let me make some comparisons.

  • The Venus de Milo vs. pictures in Penthouse
  • A movie that contains violent scenes of war as opposed to a horror movie
  • A book with sexual content where it is an important part of the story as opposed to a book of pornography

I’m not here going to condemn whole genres, any more than I’m saying that any literature is OK. I’m generally opposed to arbitrary standards. I would say, “Can you find God in there?”, but some people would then look for the word “God.” Perhaps one should ask whether one can see God reflected there through his creation.

As a very specific case in point, I’d like to mention the novels of Andrew Greeley. If I remember the phrase correctly, Greeley was once described as having “the dirtiest mind ever ordained.” I won’t praise his novels as great literature. He seemed to largely work with one plot. But in each novel you’d see the passion of human sexuality used as a mirror to reflect the passion with which God seeks us. I’m sorry that Greeley is now no longer able to write.


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