Thursday, 24 September 2015

That's Classic, by Anne Stormont

What gives a book classic status - the accepted definitions and a personal list

How do you judge what's classic? Is it like beauty––dependent on the beholder? To a certain extent, I think it is. For one thing, culture will play a part as will personal taste and opinion.

And the word 'classic' has various meanings and a couple of cousins.

My husband has been known to describe a soccer match that has ended in favour of his beloved Aberdeen football club as a classic. Here its use is to show that the play was a very good example of its kind. And staying with sport, there are also certain major golf and tennis tournaments which are describes as classic–– again implying something outstanding.

My son will describe certain of my behaviours, usually when he's laughing at said behaviours, as 'classic Mum', and here the meaning is that the behaviour is absolutely typical.

The classic label is also applied to things which are judged to have been of the highest quality and /or appeal over a long period of time. These could be anything from a long-running comedy or drama programme on television or radio, to a movie, a play, a piece of popular music , an item of clothing or an accessory, a hairstyle, a piece of equipment and so on––just about anything really––it just has to have enduring appeal. Think Chanel Number 5 perfume, the short bob hairstyle, just about any Beatles album, the Mini car, the movie It's a Wonderful Life, the Kenwood Chef food mixer, the Little Black Dress... Make your own list.

Then there's 'classical' the slightly posher more formal cousin of 'classic', but definitely in the same classification family. Here, too, the things having this label applied to them must be long-established, but usually by centuries rather than decades. They must also adhere to a set of long-established forms and styles, and, of course, be of an exemplary standard. So, for example, classical ballet and music, but also items that represent a first significant and influential field of study which has gone on to be further developed by others, such as classical Freudian psychoanalysis.

And finally there's the second-cousin once removed, i.e. The Classics which covers the study and interpretation of ancient Greek and Latin civilisation, their languages, yes, but also their cultural aspects such as their literature, philosophy and history. The Classics underpin the English language and, of course, many of the other modern European languages too. They also provide the foundation for just about every aspect of Western cultural arts.

But Words with Jam is a magazine for writers, so does any of the above apply to us and, more particularly, with the results of our labours? I suppose the short answer is–– it's not for us to say. Judgement will be made using some or all of the above criteria. Having the term classic applied to our books is something we as writers can only aspire too.

What applies to movies, cars and paintings applies to books too. Classic is surely in the mind's eye of the beholder.

It's readers who decide what's officially classic––readers who reach a consensus-by-osmosis over a long period of time. It could be readers of a quantum physics textbook, a literary novel, a  whodunnit, a poetry or short story collection, a children's novel or a parent-child picture book––but it will be readers who'll be the judge of what gets the classic badge.

But we can, as readers, have our own, non-consensual, list of classic books. The books that meet our personal criteria that may or may not meet the classic standards of others. Below I've listed my own personal classic book biography. It covers the period from my childhood back in the stone age to the 1990s. Anything more recent of course can't qualify yet. So the main criteria for achieving a place on Anne's classics list is relative longevity, their high level of positive influence on me and my own huge affection for and attachment to them.

The Mother Goose Book of Nursery Rhymes
The Mallory Towers series by Enid Blyton
The Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
Peter Pan by JM Barrie
Jill and the Perfect Pony by Ruby Ferguson
Vicki in Venice by Lorna Hill
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown
The Collected Poems by Robert Burns
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran
The Collected Poems by TS Eliot
The Collected Poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Les Fleurs du Mal by Baudelaire
L'Etranger by Albert Camus
The History of the English Language by Albert Baugh
Dibs: In Search of Self by Virginia Axline
Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Postman and Gartner
How Children Learn by John Holt
The Learning Game by Jonathan Smith
Taking it Like a Woman Ann Oakley
Women Fly When Men Aren't Watching by Sara Maitland
Over by Margaret Foster
The Hours by Michael Cunningham
Unless by Carol Shields
Grace Notes by Bernard Maclaverty
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

So there you have it. My life story up to the millennium in thirty books. It's all in there––childhood wonder, adolescent awakening, university study, political awareness, womanhood, marriage, motherhood and my imaginative, emotional, personal and professional life. All are (to me)  high quality, influential and great examples of their kind.

What would be on your classics list?

Anne Stormont is an author-publisher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults – mainly of the female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children, when she goes by the name of her alter-ego, Anne McAlpine. She blogs at  – where you can find out lots more about her.

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