What Makes a Classic?

One of the very few online groups I belong to is The Classics Club. (Not by way of this specific blog, but via another one.) The idea is simple: come up with a list of 50+ classics to read in the next five years, contact the moderators, and you’re (probably) in! But if you’re not much of a joiner, you can still follow the blog and make use of their spins, check-ins, and the backlog of monthly blog prompts. A recent post on the blog brought up the question: How do you define “classic”?

My own Classics Club list was based on the Top 100 Novels of All TIME. After I graduated from college, I took a year-long break from reading fiction. I’d read and written too much of it over the course of the last four years, and truthfully I was a bit despairing of fiction generally. What’s the point? Who cares about reading made-up stories about made-up people? What’s the value in that? (I don’t know where that streak of hardcore utilitarianism came from; maybe I was actually depressed at the time.) I binged on nonfiction for a while, because I felt like I wanted to learn something about the world. When I felt like I was ready for fiction again, I didn’t know how to direct myself—how to choose my own books. The TIME list was as good as any, so I picked that and went to work.

An old cover of TIME Magazine with the headline "CYBERPUNK: Virtual sex, smart drugs, and synthetic rock 'n' roll! A futuristic subculture erupts from the electronic underground." over an image of a young white male wearing a headset and PowerGlove-like aparatus, seated at a CRT monitor, with a neon purple and pink spiral behind him.

(Obviously not a cover from 2005 but I couldn’t resist using the most hilarious cover of TIME magazine I could find.)

Over time, I made alterations; the list is 79% men (73% white men), which seems a little disproportionate considering how actual America population demographics break down. I didn’t achieve gender parity, but I got closer (26% women / 74% men). I searched out more writers of color. If this list were to accurately reflect US racial demographics in 2005, there would be:

  • 13 Black writers
  • 14 Latinx writers
  • 5 Asian writers (this definition of “Asian” being a broad swathe of nations and ethnicities, from Middle Eastern to East, South, and Southeast Asian; Middle Eastern wasn’t tracked according to the above Pew Center data)

The above statistics don’t list any numbers on Native populations, but later Census data puts it at around 1%. Needless to say, these numbers aren’t reflected in Grossman and Lacayo’s list.

My criteria for replacing a book on the list, such as they were:

  • Authors listed twice had one entry booted (farewell, A Pale Fire; so long, Animal Farm; nice knowing you, A Handful of Dust).
  • Any book whose summary I found really unappealing (Falconer) or whose story or subject matter I felt I was already familiar with via cultural osmosis (Deliverance, Dog Soldiers, Gone With the Wind) could be jettisoned.
  • Any book that I still found boring after a good faith effort (around twenty to fifty pages) could be considered read and/or taken off the list to make room for another book (Revolutionary RoadThe Man Who Loved ChildrenA Death in the Family).
  • If a woman was taken off the list, she could only be replaced with another woman. The same would have been true for writers of color, but I never ended up taking any of them off the list.
  • Another book by the same author counted, if the book on the list was unavailable at the library (Martha Quest instead of The Golden NotebookThe Handmaid’s Tale instead of The Blind Assassin).
  • Books that I had already read could be retroactively counted if I felt they were classics of their own accord (Name of the Rose).
  • Writers of color were given preference when possible.

All in all, this meant that I added the following books to the list:

* this book is out of bounds of the time limit I arbitrarily decided on, which was 1999 (to make a list of great 20th century novels)

** this book is technically out of bounds of the time limit dictated by the original list, since it was published before 1923

So what made those editions “classic” for me? As opposed to other books I read but didn’t add to the list? It’s a very uneven list there, and honestly some of those I might even take off later in favor of something better, but then again the original list was also uneven so if Grossman and Lacayo can usher in some duds, so can I.

The best definition of classic is the quote from Italo Calvino: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

(Surprising that I would quote Calvino when I find him to be an uneven writer overall, but there it is.)

People gush about classics being “timeless” but that means different things to different people. There are a lot of mediocre writing instructors out there who insist students avoid using things like Facebook or text messages in their stories because “good writing should be timeless,” yet they’re okay with combustible engines and electricity. (Surprise that people of a certain generation always find new technology and developments disturbing! I wonder if writing instructors in the 1920s railed against the use of horseless carriages and radio in stories for the same reason.)

There are universals of human life that have remained the same over time, even if shifting social mores and new technologies have added wrinkles to those experiences. Love, rejection, insecurity, anxiety, hope…nothing can make those irrelevant or passe. Even when you set a story in a very specific historical context (and yes, true, all stories have a historical context), the conflict and the issues related to that context are still around themes relevant to today. Cry the Beloved Country is about troubled race relations immediately preceding apartheid South Africa, but it’s also about forgiveness and fatherhood. Events in The Poisonwood Bible are intrinsically tied to the political upheaval in the Belgian Congo during the 1960s, but it alongside the white supremacy that fuels the cottage industry of Christian missionaries to Africa, it also tackles overambitious hubris, responsibility, and culpability.

But what separates a classic from a didactic lesson (“racism is bad, mmmkay?”) is complexity. Your favorite fantasy novel will definitely have an epic good-versus-evil scope. Some will have nuance, with a character who ends up being a turncoat or engaging in morally questionable choices for the greater good, but how many of them will address the complex issues that lead to the rise of evil in the first place, or the kind of evil that is the crushing indifference of a runaway system rather than a tyrannical evil overlord?

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Friday 5: One is Silver; The Other’s Gold

Gold and silver Victorian fascinators and lockets suspended from an unseen hand or display.
Image courtesy Alex Chambers

Who made you laugh most in 2017?

I guess my sambo, since I spent more time with him than anyone else.

What’s something you learned or discovered in 2017?

A friend of mine directed my attention to Ester Blenda Nordström, about whom there has been a recent spate of new media, including a documentary and a new biography.

In what way was 2017 better than 2016?

I think worse things might have happened in 2017, but they felt less bad (for those not directly impacted, obviously) because they were largely things we could see coming. The celebrity deaths in 2017 also seemed to have relented, at least a little, though my heart broke over Adam West.

What was your most pleasing purchase in 2017?

Houseplants! A humidifier! A stepstool! I’M A REALLY BORING ADULT, Y’ALL.


When in 2017 were you pleasantly surprised?

The way that people, especially in the US, have banded together against bigotry and hatred. Love always wins, but let’s help it win a little faster!

Women in Translation

I think about gender a lot, and I’m a woman interested in translation. It’s surprising, then that I haven’t really thought about the impact of gender on translation (who is translated as well as how) until a number of articles conspired to appear in front of me at the same time. (Big shout-out to The Editors Association of Earth on Facebook; I think I came across these in there.)

Historically, men translated the Odyssey. Here’s what happened when a woman took the job.

Ensuring women are not lost in translation.

Found in translation: how women are making the classics their own.

A stack of seven different bilingual dictionaries: Spanish, Russian, Romanian, and Slovenian. They're sitting on a brown table in front of a white clapboard wall.

This is all good reading. I want to highlight one fact, one piece of raw data, from the second article: three percent of the books published in English each year are translations, and just twenty-six percent of those translations are works written by women. This reflects the larger situation in literary publishing, where men still outnumber women in being published (but women outnumber men in being the ones to publish them–even at the executive level, surprisingly enough).

A culture gains things when it has access to art and literature outside its own language. An individual gains when they have access to the experiences and voices of someone completely different from themselves. If only three percent of published English literature is going to be translation (and we can quibble about what that percentage should be another time) then it seems the least we can do is ensure that a full half of that three percent is works by women.

Which is why, in 2018, I’m going into my pet translation projects with a renewed sense of purpose. Swedish is already underrepresented in English, outside of Strindberg and “Nordic noir” (or so it seems to me); if I can bring more Swedish to the English-speaking table while at the same time bringing more women, so much the better. Translations are first and foremost labors of love; ultimately, market forces are what decide if a translation is viable publishing material. I can’t guarantee that anything I produce will be of interest to an English-speaking audience. But I can’t try to publish anything without having something to publish first.

Friday 5: Thanks A Lot

A gumpy lemur is not amused.Michelle Phillips

What would you sarcastically like to thank your local government for?

I think Stockholms län does a pretty good job of running things, so I don’t really have much to complain about.

What would you sarcastically like to thank your body for?

Menstruation. :C

What would you sarcastically like to thank your neighbors for?

The awesome parties they have, even though they don’t invite us.

What would you sarcastically like to thank the internet for?

Where to start? YouTube comments, /b/, radicalizing propaganda, a rumor mill cranked up to 11…

What would you sarcastically like to thank November for?

Dark, moody weather.

National Novel Writing Month 2018

Today marks the two-thirds point of National Novel Writing Month (or, if you’re hip and in the know, NaNoWriMo). For the uninitiated, National Novel Writing Month is a worldwide event where participants sit down and try their best to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. The math works out to 1,667 words every day. Here, on day 20, people should be at a little over 33,000 words in their manuscript.

As I have since 2014, this year I help administer Stockholm’s assorted regional events. This sounds impressive, though it mainly consists of stuffing envelopes for the kick-off event and then helping either set up or clean up when I can, in addition to directing people who attend my own writing meetup to the NaNo website and the Stockholm NaNo forum and Facebook group. When the stars align, I help run the Halloween Head Start event, but the next one won’t be until 2020 (barring someone becoming fabulously wealthy and buying a house where we can host all of the NaNoWriMo things).

I also write, when I can. As I have since 2015, I’m rebelling by revising an older novel (one I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2014) instead of writing 50,000 new words. Hopefully by this point I’m on track with my own goals, but since I’m writing this a few days ahead of the game, who can say? In case I’m not, and in case you’re not, I want to pass on a little pep:

It’s okay to fail at NaNo. It’s okay to miss the word goal, it’s okay to give up and decide it’s not for you, or that you hate your story, or whatever. There is an unrelenting optimism from official NaNoWriMo headquarters that can feel no less than oppressive at times, and so I’d like to take a moment and tip the scales back a bit towards neutrality.

It’s okay to hate your story, your characters, your writing, and even yourself. It’s okay to hate your NaNo so much, or the twee pep talks so much, or your fellow WriMos/the MLs/the cafe where you meet so much that you want to quit. It’s okay to quit, even.

Because you sat down and, for however long you managed it, you wrote a bunch of words that you wouldn’t have written otherwise. You declared that this was important to you and that you’d commit to doing it, and even dedicating one day to your craft is better than dedicating no days. This isn’t unrelenting positive thinking bullshit; this is math. One is more than zero.

The funny thing, though, about accepting that it’s okay to quit is that it makes it easier to not quit. Counterintuitive, maybe, but framing it as a choice rather than an obligation can make all the difference. It’s the same way that giving yourself permission to fail can improve performance. (See: the old writer’s block trick of deliberately writing something awful just for the sake of writing something so you can get to the good bits.)

Because if you’re quitting just because you don’t think you can win, you’re missing the point of NaNo. It isn’t hitting 50,000. It’s about prioritizing creativity and time for writing a little higher than you do normally. It’s about meeting people doing the same crazy thing as you, and who have the same crazy habits as you. It’s about making time in a chaotic and frankly terrifying world for creation and for quiet alone time. And that happens with or without 50,000 words.

Kazuo Ishiguro Wins the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature

The only reason I’m ever aware of the Nobel Prize in Literature is because a bookish friend of mind is the world’s biggest Ismail Kadare fan. Every year it seems like he’s short- or longlisted, and every year he seems to be denied. I haven’t read anything of Kadare’s, so I can’t really offer my own opinion on whether or not I think he deserves it, but I can be unimpressed with this year’s pick.

I’ve only read Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro; it seems to be his most famous work, and it generally seems to be that an author’s most famous work is either their best or their worst. (The same is probably true for musicians and albums.) But it’s hard for me to take a book seriously when it has a plot nearly identical to campy 1970s science fiction/thriller movies, and in this case there was nothing about Ishiguro’s writing that elevated the plot beyond anything it was in Parts: The Clonus Horror. And at least Parts had Peter Graves in it! Even without reading any Kadare, I was rooting for him over Ishiguro.

Parts: The Clonus Horror Poster courtesy Group Films
Nobel Prize material, right there. // Image courtesy Group Films

Much like last year, where I was okay with giving the award to a musician on the strength of his lyrics (even though I was personally unimpressed with the musician himself), the academy has again left me underwhelmed with their choice. We’ll see what happens next year, but I’m sure I’ll be rooting for Kadare alongside my bookish friend—again—only to be (most likely) let down again.

Friday 5: Payday

From whom did you receive your first real paycheck?

When I worked at Gilman’s/Lost River Caverns, where I also learned to love rocks.

Among board games involving the exchange of money, which have you enjoyed most?

Do you exchange money in Life? I think you do. I didn’t have anything against Monopoly, but I think I actually finished more games of Life.

 

PayDay is the name of a candy bar consisting of salted peanuts rolled in caramel surrounding a firm, nougat-like center. How does it sound to you if you haven’t tried it, and how do you like it if you have? Is there a similar candy bar you like better?

I don’t like nuts in my chocolate, nor do I like peanuts or peanut butter mixed with chocolate. (Unpopular opinions!) Anything with caramel, nougat, and chocolate without nuts is just peachy keen.

 

When did you last do something nice for yourself just because it was pay day?

I went out and bought new bras. Ladies, I recommend making sure that you’re wearing the correct bra size. (In other words: if you’ve been fitted at Victoria’s Secret, or you’ve used that bizarre “add an arbitrary number to your band measurement,” measure yourself again.)

 

What person with the surname Day are you most familiar with?

I had a really hard time parsing this question at first; I took it to mean “Person With the Surname Day,” as if there were multiple holidays we observe in honor of people with specific surnames. Like, I had to read the question two or three times to understand what they meant.

And my first answer is, of course, Doris Day!

Friday 5: I Don’t Get It Either

Twitch is an enormously popular livestreaming platform mostly for watching people play video games. It has more than 1.5 million broadcasters and more than one million visitors per month, and Amazon acquired it for nearly a billion dollars in 2014. Which of your computer activities would you livestream if there were a way to make some money doing it?

Y’all want to watch me write blog entries in real time, right? Right?

EDM (electronic dance music) is usually performed by DJs on stage in front of audiences, playing tracks they’ve mixed, right off their laptops. If you were a push-button DJ playing your tunes in a club, what would be your opening and closing songs, assuming everyone’s there because they’re into whatever sounds you’re into?

My opening song would be absolutely be “Gangnam Style,” or one of the infinite mashups out there. This one might be my favorite:

Or this one:

What can I say? 2012 might have been my peak year.

As for the end of the set, I think this is a good closer:

What’s a good Adele song, and why is Adele so popular?

I don’t know if I like this shade you’re throwing on Adele, Friday 5! I’m not obsessed with Adele but I like her voice.

Speaking of 2012, I was also cheered to see that Adele was so popular with my Korean students. In a country that can be even more looks-based and body-conscious than the US, I hope that at least a few of my girl students realized that it’s possible for them to be talented and successful without looking like a typical K-pop star.

I listened to “Rolling in the Deep” a lot with those kiddos, so that’s probably my favorite Adele song.


The Walking Dead?

I don’t get this one either, Friday 5.


Every generation seems to arrive at a “They don’t write ’em like that anymore” attitude. Why does it seem like most middle-aged people lose interest in new music?

There’s actually a reason for this! I think it has something to do with the way your brain is still developing as a teenager versus how it is as an adult, and so music from your childhood and teenage years will always be more immediate and visceral for you than most anything else. In other words, nostalgia’s a helluva drug.

Friday 5: Off-Balance

I’m a little annoyed that the post I had scheduled about being unavailable due to vacation somehow never went through, but on the other hand everything else I had prepared in advance did! Fortunately everything remained under control while I was away—I don’t need a vacation from my vacation or anything like that. On to this week’s Friday 5!

 

What most recently made you giddy?

Two things: dancing at a really good wedding, and watching the bats emerge at Natural Bridge Caverns. Those two memories alone are worth every penny I spent for this trip.

 

What most recently left you agog?

Sometimes the Friday 5 teaches me new words. I always took “agog” to mean “shocked” or “surprised”; I double-checked just now and instead it’s “full of intense interest or excitement.”

Pretty much my whole trip to the US had most recently left me agog, I suppose. I packed a lot into just three weeks of visiting!

 

What most recently left you aghast?

Despite all of the good vibes and good friends in my trip, there’s no denying I picked a tumultuous time to visit (which, welcome to the next three years). Neo-nazis demonstrating publicly, counter-protesters being injured or even murdered . . . and the worst part is I’m not even surprised.

A close friend of mine and his girlfriend are great admirers of James Tiptree, Jr. They saw me off from Boston with a copy of Her Smoke Rises Up Forever (though I think I left it in Albany, or possibly Old Orchard Beach), and one of the stories in there seemed all the creepier in light of contemporary goings-on: “The Screwfly Solution.”

 

What in your life is the most higgledy-piggledy?

Landing the next student or project is always higgledy-piggledy. Freelance life!

 

 What was your week a mish-mash of?

Maine, Massachusetts, Copenhagen, Stockholm. I was all over the place this week!

Armchair BEA, Day 3, Part 2

Every year at Book Expo, children and adult authors are featured during breakfast. Who would you dream of enjoying a meal with? Would it be breakfast, lunch, dinner, or simply coffee? What would your meal be? What would you discuss?

I hate that “who would you invite to your perfect dinner party?” question, because I have no conception of what a dinner party should be like, let alone what makes a good one. I appreciate the good people at Armchair BEA at least letting me choose the meal and venue (presumably!), making it a little more interesting.

Since it seems uncouth to want to sit and chat over a few beers with someone who struggled pretty seriously and openly with alcoholism, and a dinner would feel serious and intimidating, I would opt for a fika with David Foster Wallace. A conversation with him would be as interesting as it was intimidating, though I’d rather discuss the intersection of philosophy and literature than tennis and Alcoholics Anonymous.

I’d rather have a private meal with someone than a dinner party with a variety of guests. Still, I can see the appeal of a dinner featuring notable American expatriate writers: Maya Angelou, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Patricia Highsmith, Paul Knowles, Edith Wharton, James Baldwin, and so on.

When it came time for beers, without a doubt it’d be a pub crawl with Simone de Beauvoir. I’d love to pick her brain about current affairs and to hear her thoughts on my favorite places and people.