Coca-Cola, Jane Austen - just what makes a classic?

Does Michael Foot's just republished 'Guilty Men' have the marks to enter the canon of Great Books?

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MICHAEL FOOT never made it into Number 10, but this summer the former Labour leader will gain an honour that might please him even more. He becomes a Classic. Guilty Men, the scorching anti-appeasement polemic that Foot co-authored in1940 under the joint pseudonym of "Cato", will appear in the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics list. Does he deserve to share a catalogue with the likes of Proust, Kafka and Woolf. And if not, why not?

Canon-making and canon-changing preoccupies our archive-minded pre-millennial time. Far from drowning in a sea of anything-goes relativism, as the doomsters claim, we draw up lists, compile charts and obsessively play at Ins and Outs. Last year, the customers of Waterstone's caused a seismic shock among the literati when they dared to place Tolkien's Lord of the Rings at the top of the chain's Books of the Century poll.

At the time, the fuss merely amused me. Then the film and music magazines got in on the game. First it emerged that today's amnesiac cine-buffs imagine that the art began with Star Wars and probably think that Fellini is a sexual practice. Then the airhead readers of the rock press duly chose the likes of Radiohead and the Verve ahead of Hendrix, Dylan or the Stones. I began to sympathise with Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

Classics lists make waves, but they also make money. This month, Oxford World's Classics resurface in a stylish new format, 90 years after Oxford University Press first acquired the brand from an entreprenuer who (like all classics publishers) dreamed of the pots of gold that lurk in non- copyright material with a firm niche on the syllabus. These days, they can also hope to offer works with ready-cooked appeal for TV and movie screenwriters. As the Hollywood joke put it when Gwyneth Paltrow starred in Jane Austen's Emma: they've made a period re-make of Clueless.

Meanwhile, David Campbell of Everyman's Library has just picked up more than pounds 4m of Lottery cash to help him put a set of his titles in every state school. "Literature is news that stays news," trumpeted Ezra Pound. It also stays in profit.

So art-objects called "classics" proliferate, but does the concept's popularity just devalue its meaning? After all, the term when used by marketing wizards (as in "Classic Coke") simply means the old stuff they want to go on selling anyway. Some recent bids to revise the canon do have an air of special pleading (and canny marketing) about them. When Virago's Carmen Callil bought the old plates of forgotten novels by women authors and clad them in deep green as Modern Classics, she did resurrect a few neglected geniuses, such as Antonia White. Others were just period- pieces brought back into circulation by a social movement that caught the jetsam of past fashions in its slipstream.

At the other extreme, T S Eliot famously denied that English literature has any classics at all. Writing in 1944, he judged Shakespeare by the "universal" standards of Virgil and Dante, and labelled him a mere provincial maverick. Eliot anchors the idea of a classic firmly to the lofty heritage of Greece and Rome and the imperial cultures that emulated them. And that, of course, is why many people distrust the notion. "Every man with a bellyful of the classics is an enemy to the human race," thundered Henry Miller in Tropic of Cancer (that 20th-century classic). In this light, the classic means the totems of oppressors forced on unwilling subject peoples (including children everywhere) - the classroom equivalent of Gatling guns and Jim Crow laws.

Yet the reaction to "imperial" curricula has taken the form not of relativism, but pluralism. The scope of the classic merely grows to embrace everybody's sacred works. Penguin may offer their new, suacily unexpurgated edition of Aesop's Fables, but now Oxford boasts a volume of beastly tales from the Sanskrit, The Pancatantra. Our canons have expanded, not collapsed.

When Walter Mosley (judged by Bill Clinton as a classic among thriller writers) was in London recently, he recalled hearing the poet Allen Ginsberg advocate a catch-all canon that would welcome the Bhagavad Gita as well as the Oresteian trilogy. "Aw, man," thought the young Mosley, "Do I really have to read all this stuff?" I'm afraid so. The scrambled, mingled traditions that mark our culture without frontiers mean that the would-be "educated person" has heavier baggage than ever to carry.

So which standards should apply in the booming Classics supermarket? Nick Hornby's novel High Fidelity shrewdly portrays our urge to use comforting lists as sticking-plaster for fractured lives as its music-maven hero compiles his Top Five for every conceivable pop genre. In homage to Hornby, here are my Top Five criteria for would-be classic art-works:

1. Endurance over time.

2. The strength to cross barriers when made accessible to audiences beyond its cultural home.

3. The power to define a genre, either by exhibiting its qualities at their highest peak or else by fixing a new form.

4. A compelling connection to the fundamental forces in human experience.

5. An ability to yield new interpretations that make sense in spite of diverse emphases.

Armed with these yardsticks, how does Guilty Men measure up? It survives and inspires others as a benchmark for controversial prose in a Swiftian mode of savage irony (1 and 3). It speaks from a people besieged by aggressors about resistance to tyrants and the defence of liberty (2 and 4). Like many other political works, though, the fifth gear is lacking. It means just what it means, without a rich hinterland of ambiguity or multiplicity. Still, "Cato"'s blast deserves to pass its Classic MoT. Congratulations, Michael Foot: the doors of Immortality are swinging open before you.

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