Leading Article: A truth universally acknowledged? Well, not quite, dear reader

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Who opened which book with the following words? "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that every man in possession of a fortune, must be in want of a wife." Easy. So try this more problematic poser. Who opened which book with these words? "The alarm went off in the middle of her dream. She was dreaming she was dancing, not the twist or jiving - these were beginning to be considered old-fashioned at the club - but something more old-fashioned still: she was gliding to music that seemed to come out of the clouds, for there was no orchestra that she could see and no roof to the ballroom"? And here is the real clincher. The first one is unquestionably a classic, and the second one is certainly not. Why?

Just to put you out of your misery, the second quotation is from The Bonny Dawn, one of the more recent of Catherine Cookson's bestselling romances; the first, as everyone knows, is the opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. Or does everyone know? Who is more widely read - the bespectacled Tyneside Dame, or fiction's most elegant ironist? Cookson's tale is compellingly told, with great verve, sensitivity, briskly believable dialogue, a keen sense of plot and swiftly flowing prose. Whatever it is, it's not rubbish. Many ostensibly classier and more earnestly feted scribblers wish they could pull it off like her. It's good - and it's recent - but (so prolific is the Cookson word machine) it wasn't even one of the nine Cookson novels to be among the 10 fiction titles most borrowed from British libraries last year.

Now, we all know that mere popularity is not enough to merit elevation to the status of "classic" novel. But we are very much less clear about what separates The Bonny Dawn from Pride and Prejudice. After all, Cookson's are great stories, well told. They seethe with universal passions and grapple with hefty social and emotional truths. Their language is neither brilliant, nor startlingly original, but neither is it thin, stilting, insubstantial or even cliched (in the way that, say, Jeffrey Archer's prose is). If they didn't succeed in some large measure, there is no way they would be so devotedly read by such a wide swathe of (mostly female) humanity.

So what is a classic? The old conundrum arises again because Dent, the publisher, has decided to throw together its own Everyman list of 250 classics and despatch a full set to schools. Good promo, you might say, and you'd be right. Because every list of classics includes and excludes in ways that are inevitably controversial, and controversy generates publicity. In this case many obvious "classics" have been excluded, and many questionable titles included, probably for copyright reasons. And then there is the occasional politically correct inanity: presumably the publisher wanted to include the Old Testament for cultural and literary reasons, and therefore felt it essential to throw in Sacred Hindu Texts and a translation of The Quran. Then again, entire oeuvres of poetry are quite properly included - Coleridge, Marvell, Donne - but not a mention of some of the greatest and most important poems in our language: The Prelude and In Memoriam are bizarrely absent. But what the heck; isn't the search for exceptions and omissions half the fun, particularly since none of us are really sure what a classic is, we just know one when we see it?

Well, actually, you can say one or two things that make it quite a bit easier to identify a classic. First, it has to be a book which you can read once, and then return to and find a greater or at least different understanding. It is, in other words, a different book each time you read it - and therefore, by extension, it is a different book for every reader. Second (utterly Leavisite, this one) it has to form part of a cultural tradition - either in creating or synthesising a new way of seeing, or in handing down a legacy. On these grounds, Catherine Cookson could, at least in theory, join the pantheon of classic writers - but it's a pretty fair guess she won't. Equally, nor will many writers of so-called "modern" classics (Dent include Midnight's Children, for example: well, surely that remains to be seen).

But when all's said, does it matter a whit? This is the anti-Leavis bit: no, it doesn't. The argument over what is and isn't classic is as ultimately meaningless as it is perennially entertaining. Many people will be able to identify books that are far more important to them than the classic texts. Some teachers have grumpily responded by arguing that they don't need a lot of boring old books, when they are crying out for more modern texts that young people actually want to read. Frankly, such teachers should be grateful for what they get, and encourage a few more of their pupils to experiment with the huge range of books Dent are putting on offer. For the rest - offer them something else. The important thing is that they read. Like the rest of us, in the end they will make up their own minds about what they value.

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