Cheltenham Festival: Principles and prejudice

Is Pride and Prejudice more of a classic than Uncle Tom's Cabin? And Shelley less classic than Dr Johnson? At the Cheltenham Festival, the literary world considers just what constitutes `classic'.
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The Cheltenham Literary Festival is founded on the rational principle that books, like 2,000 calories a day and daily newspapers, are necessaries of life. You eat, digest, excrete and then forget them. But permeating the festival is another presiding idea: that some books are special. So special, in fact, that they will be reprinted, reread, reinterpreted and - above all - remembered, for as long as there are literary festivals. This durability is something that makes (some) books different from all newspapers. No editor tells his staff that "the issue of 14 April 1985 was terrific - let's reprint it tomorrow".

The catch-all term for literature that lasts is "classic". It's one of those usefully versatile words that can serve as a noun and an adjective. Linguistically, "classic" has the other property that it cannot be used pejoratively: "bad classic" is a contradiction in terms. Classics are always good. You don't have to like them, but that's your problem.

None the less, the word can be prostituted. American car-dealers - the profession that gave us "pre-owned vehicle" (for "used car") and "runs good' (for "clapped-out") likes to advertise what it calls "future classics". By which it means old bangers that when they get to be "really" old will suddenly begin to appreciate steeply in value. Sometimes it happens. As the junkyards demonstrate, most times it doesn't.

By the arid classifications of the Dewey Decimal System, around 10 per cent of the 100,000 titles published a year in the late Nineties are "literature" (what used to be called "belles lettres" - beautiful writing). About half the 100,000 will, by rough calculation, be new titles. Some 100 of these will, as the Bookseller and Publisher's Weekly lists record, make the best-seller category. Very few. And how many will become "classics"?

Even fewer, and quite likely none. The "Penguin Classics" and "Oxford World's Classics" catalogues (lovely little books in their own right) contain apiece some 700 titles, from Aristotle to Zola. Seven hundred, that is, out of two-and-a-half millennia's production of books. Why do writers write? Fame, money, and the love of beautiful women, Byron replied. Most writers will get none of these good things. And of that elite who get all three, very few can expect the fame to last longer than the woman's beauty, or the money.

One of the fascinating aspects of the classic category of literature is its lottery aspect. What literary cognoscenti of 1813 would have thought that the amusing but surely slight fiction of Miss Austen - Pride and Prejudice - would be reprinted by the million 150 years later, while Scott's manifest masterpiece, Rokeby, would find itself in the dustbin of literary history? What sober arbiter of critical values would have hazarded in 1939 that the novel which would really "last" would be the pulp-fiction The Big Sleep by a middle-aged ex-oilman called Chandler?

Exactly what constitutes a "literary classic", and how we should properly apply the term, is a vexed question. It is more comfortably used in music - where it indicates a commonly recognised style of composition. You don't need to look at the dial to know that you're tuned into Radio 3. Even in such hybrids as "modern classical music" or "rock classic" the meaning is clear. It's a lot foggier in literary-critical usage.

"Classic" was traditionally used in antithesis to "Romantic" - with the historical presumption that the "Augustan" values of the 18th century were overturned by the new styles of the 19th century. Dr Johnson and Alexander Pope wrote in a classic, Keats and Shelley in a Romantic mode. Classics were conservative and backward-looking, Romantics revolutionary and forward-looking.

This antithetical usage relates to the narrowed use of the term "classics" to refer to that fixed body of texts which has descended to us from the dead literatures of Greece and Rome. The term gets very fuzzy, however, when Keats and Shelley are offered to us by Penguin Books and Oxford University Press as catalogue-certified "classics". "Romantic-classics"?

The critic who has done most to clear our minds on this topic, as on so many others, is Frank Kermode. In his book The Classic (1973) Kermode suggested an evolving meaning. Traditionally, "classic" literature embodied the larger-than-literary values of an "imperial" civilisation. You couldn't have classic literature without some "imperium", any more than you can have a national airline without a nation state. It was a version of this thesis that inspired Saul Bellow's grossly offensive rhetorical question (as a slap at Black Studies): "Where is the Zulu Tolstoy?" You need a Russia to produce great novels. Literary talent alone won't do it.

With "modern" literature (which Kermode locates as emerging in the Renaissance), a new criterion of classicism applies. A classic work is one which, in Kermode's phrase, is "patient" of interpretation. This can be demonstrated by reference to Shakespeare. Every generation interprets our greatest dramatist differently. A Jacobean might well have seen Hamlet as clearly dealing with that most vexatious of political questions: how to replace one monarch with another and avoid civil war. Coleridge could read Hamlet as a supremely Romantic text - an exploration of subjectivity ("I have a smack of Hamlet in myself," he complacently noted). Freud saw Shakespeare as having charted the mysteries of the Oedipal conflict before psychoanalysis got round to giving it a name. Jan Kott saw Hamlet, more specifically Elsinore, as a premonition of the totalitarian state.

None of these interpretations is "right" in so far as it comprehensively explains Hamlet better than others. Yet each of them is "right" for its time. Most literature lacks this chameleon quality - it "dates", as we say. The ability of a small corpus of texts to work in any place and at any period qualifies them, in Kermode's definition, to classic status.

It's not easy to convey the subtlety of Kermode's critical writing and my paraphrase may have done him some injustice. None the less, I would add another criterion - namely that literature that changes history in a significant fashion deserves the accolade "classic". And I would propose a perhaps unexpected candidate: Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

Rand's novel was published in 1957 and barely made the American best- seller list that year. With its book-length appendix on "Objectivism" and its massive bulk (1,168 pages in Random House's first edition) it was generally off-putting for the average consumer of novels. Early reviews did not help. Robert Kirsch declared in The Los Angeles Times that "it would be hard to find such a display of grotesque eccentricity outside an asylum". The charismatic Rand (at that time, a strikingly beautiful refugee from the Soviet Union) had access to the new medium of TV talk shows and used them to popularise her novel. Atlas Shrugged accumulated enormous sales over the next decades - American sales of 5 million by l984.

Rand's philosophy took the "oath" of the novel's hero, John Salt ("I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine"), and his iconic "sign of the dollar" as articles of faith. She summarised her philosophy as "The Virtue of Selfishness". In Atlas Shrugged, Rand propagandised for a ferocious anti-collectivist, anti-trades union, free-enterprise, individualist economico-political doctrine that helped form Thatcherism in the Seventies and Eighties and strongly influenced American fiscal policy through the appointment of Alan Greenspan, a Rand disciple, as head of the Federal banking system in the Nineties.

Atlas Shrugged has a simple plot: the leaders of American industry, art, medicine and learning, tired of the "looters", the "whining rotters" and the "socialisers" (ie the proletariat and their political leaders) resolve to go on strike. They, like Atlas, have been holding up the world. Now they decide to shrug off their burden. These captains of industry take off for Galt's Gulch, a valley in Colorado protected by a ray shield from the outside world, which, robbed of all its wealth creators and finest minds descends into barbarism.

The novel ends happily. Having made their point, the businessmen and the big-brains go back, the messianic John Galt at their head declaring "The road is cleared" and making the holy sign of the dollar.

Famously Auden declared that all his "political" poetry of the Thirties had not saved a single Jew from the gas chambers. It is hard to think of much literature that, in any direct and obvious way, has changed the world.

No novel, since Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, has had a more direct and obvious impact than Ayn Rand's. Like Stowe's novel (firmly ensconced in the Penguin and Oxford catalogues) Atlas Shrugged may be appallingly written, but none the less, if by "classic" we mean books that make a difference, and continue doing so, it qualifies.

John Sutherland's latest book, `Where was Rebecca Shot?', is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson, price pounds 12.99