Friday, 27 February 2009

Essay: 100 Greatest Let Downs

Or don't. Whatever.

So there's this book list on facebook right now. Actually, there's two (that I've seen). Both lists begin with the preamble, "the BBC says most people have read 6 of these 100 books" and then something to the effect of these are supposed to be classic reads. If you haven't read them, then you're a borderline-literate pleb and should probably just stick to your Archie comics because there's no way you could possibly understand the subtle nuances of Terry Pratchett's prose.

My question, who decides what's a classic? The BBC, or someone masquerading as the BBC seems to think they're entitled. I have a high school English teacher who would disagree and take issue with the fact that not a single Margaret Lawrence novel made the list. Are they, the books on the lists, prizewinners? Some are. Are they bestsellers? Some aren't. Are they tedious and likely to make your eyes bleed? Again, some are. So then what's the criteria? A random sample might help us figure out what makes a classic read.

The turtle moves! And talks. And smites.

The Lord of the Rings - JRR Tolkien
The Bible
Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
Catcher in the Rye - JD Salinger
The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - Douglas Adams
Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Dune - Frank Herbert
Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
Moby Dick - Herman Melville
Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens
Dracula - Bram Stoker
Charlotte’s Web - EB White
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad
The Little Prince - Antoine De Saint-Exupery
The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks
His Dark Materials- Philip Pullman
The Pillars Of The Earth - Ken Follett
Noughts And Crosses - Malorie Blackman
Good Omens - Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

One thing is plainly obvious at first glance: no westerns. Also, most have been made into movies, so if you don't have the patience or the literacy skills to make it through all of Dune, you can let Kyle MacLachlan do the work for you. What else do we see? The selection runs the gamut from sci-fi to historical fiction. So there's no one genre of fiction that qualifies as classic even though horror and sci-fi are poorly represented. We also note that most writers are not American. This could be bias on the part of the BBC, who would rather choke to death on tripe than admit that Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut, who didn't make the list at all, managed to pound out a good book or two.

The great Canadian novel.

Turning back to the question, what makes a classic? Based on the criteria listed above, a classic book needs to be the following
  • adapted for the screen, or in negotiations for adaptation
  • written by someone who is not American, or not really American
  • prizewinner and/or bestseller and/or the author has a prize named for him
  • not a western
It is unfortunate Michael Crichton didn't make the list. He fits the bill. So does Roch Carrier. And Anonymous from Beowulf. The problem is when one person sets a list of greatness, things other people deem great are excluded either through a lack of knowledge or personal choice. Worst is the list is presumed to be made by someone in a position of authority, a learned individual who's word is final.

I personally don't really care if the BBC thinks I'm poorly read--they've got crap taste in books. Furthermore, I'd argue any good book is worthy of the time and emotion you put into it. Even if it is, by all accounts, total trash.


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