When I was considering speaking at New York Comic-Con, and in general considering what titles every library should stock, I began to think about how folks think of classics. A few articles, (this list of unfinishable books from The Guardian and this article about the worst films to win Oscars) started stewing in my brain the other day, and I began to wonder how classics are made, over time, and why we cling to defining the “best” titles with only a few time-tested titles.
For example, I thoroughly believe that while there are titles that are considered classics now (Watchmen, Maus) that will always be classics, I do think that as the market shifts away from the direct, fan-driven market and moves over to a broader, reader-driven market, some titles will fall away.
That being said, I also think judging a title’s ability to stand the test of time is remarkably difficult because (and yes, this is blindingly obvious) not enough time has passed to call something a classic that just came out last year. So many classics, as we name them (Dickens, for example) started off so far from what was deemed literary quality at the time that no one at the time would’ve called those works a classic.
I’m happy to try to identify the best books of the past year, but the ones that will be around 25 years from now? That’s a bit harder, and in a way, I’m not sure it’s an exercise that’s particularly helpful in judging a title’s quality, readability, or impact.
While I’m just as fond of making lists as anyone, I do wonder why we as a culture insist that only something of “literary” quality will be around. Another fun article to take a look at considers what movies have won awards versus what movies people actually want to watch. And so I ask — why do we keep pretending all titles, of whatever format, can be whittled down to only a few standout classics?
I don’t know about you, but I can find a graphic novel, or book, or film, or TV show that will be great for my mood, but not great all the time. When I want Sandman, Maus isn’t going to work for me. I don’t think that diminishes the quality of either of those titles. By the same token, I will watch Two Weeks Notice every time it’s on — does that make it a high quality movie? No, not really. But the fact that I watch it over and over does say something about its potential longevity.
Then there’s my other problem: I keep running up against what Mark Twain identified as a classic: A book which people praise and don’t read. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but there are a fair number of graphic novels out there that may well be extraordinarily well crafted — but can anyone read them? (Yes, I’ll be honest, I’m looking at you, Chris Ware.) It is a storytelling medium, after all — if no one can piece together a story, then why is it quality? Because the five people who actually made it through thought it was brilliant?
I feel a bit like that about some modern art: whatever the process or the comment about the process or the significance of creating art the way you did, if I can’t walk up to a piece of art and get something out of it without needing someone to explain it to me, is it really successful, let alone good? On top of that, if I can’t feel something about the story, then is it quality? Does sheer artistry, or cleverness, or innovation automatically raise a title to a higher level?
In the library world, there’s something called reader’s advisory. It’s all about matching the reader with the right book. Not the best book, or the most revered book, but the right book specifically for them. If the world at large paid more attention to that facet of reading, that we all read according to whim and mood as much as awards and bestsellers, we might have more helpful lists floating out there.