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?

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Why it won’t be the i wot won it – our promise to you

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor