Modern classics…

The Classics Club – July Meme #ccmeme

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The Classics Club meme for this month is looking at recent books rather than old ones…

What about modern classics? Pick a book published since 2000 and say why you think it will be considered as a “classic” in the future.

Hmm… the first thing, I suppose, is to define “classic”. When I drew up my own list of classics, I decided that it pretty much meant any book over 50 years old that is still in print and read today. By “in print” I mean in a priced version by a publisher, rather than a scanned Kindle freebie or only available on Project Gutenberg and the like. I did include a couple of out of print books in my Scottish section, but in general I still hold that if a book is out of print it hasn’t really survived the test of time.

So, restricting it, not surprisingly, to books I’ve read (and reviewed, ‘cos they’re the only ones I ever remember!) I came up with several that I expect will still be in print and being read in fifty years’ time. The majority are pretty safe bets, since they come from authors with such an established and respected body of work that their stuff is bound to survive. Most of these authors have won or at least been shortlisted for the major literary prizes, though not necessarily for these books. Here they are…

Harvest by Jim Crace

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt*

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

(*The inclusion of The Goldfinch will alert regular readers to the fact that I’m only suggesting these books will become classics, but not necessarily saying I think they’re good…)

* * * * * * *

It’s more difficult to guess which newer, less established authors will survive. It’s rare indeed for an author to write only one book that becomes a classic, however great it may be. To Kill a Mockingbird springs to mind, but not much else. However, in general, the bulk of an author’s work survives or it all disappears, even if it’s generally accepted that one or two of their books are outstanding and the rest not quite at the same level. The Great Gatsby is read by millions of people who never read anything else by Fitzgerald, for example, but all his major work remains consistently in print.

So here are four authors that I think may survive. In each case, the book I’ve listed has had some success but not the recognition I felt it deserved.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel

Burial Rites was a bestseller but was unforgivably not longlisted for the Booker. However, it’s Hannah Kent’s only book to date, and by itself I don’t know if it would survive. But if, as I expect, she goes on to write a whole lifetime’s worth of good stuff, and wins major prizes one day, then I think her books will become classics for sure. Similarly, Yann Martel might be a fairly safe bet because of the major success of The Life of Pi, but I feel he still needs a bigger body of work before his place as a great is assured.

Fallen Land by Patrick Flanery

The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer

Patrick Flanery and Aatish Taseer both received a good deal of critical praise for these books, but neither really took the reading world by storm as much as I’d have expected (though Taseer may have done in India and Pakistan – I don’t know). Again, neither was longlisted for the Booker, not that that’s much of a guide to longevity, anyway – the books on the longlist will mostly be forgotten by this time next year, if they ever get read at all by anyone except those who like to read the longlisted books each year. (My evidence? Pick a year and look at the longlisted, but not shortlisted, books on Amazon and see how few reviews most of them will have; and most of those will appear at around the time of the longlisting announcement. You might, or might not, also be surprised at how low even those dedicated Booker readers tend to rate these ‘best’ books of the year… but be careful, or you might become as cynical as me…)

Aatish Taseer
Aatish Taseer

Both at the beginning of their writing careers, I’m betting both Flanery and Taseer will break through properly at some point, and join the likes of Rushdie, Tóibín, McCarthy, as writers with a solid body of work, some great, some good, but almost always worth reading. And I’ll stick my neck out and say they’ll both win the Booker one day. And, of these two books, the one which seems to me more likely to have a long life is Patrick Flanery’s.

I reckon Fallen Land was written too soon after 9/11 and the global crash for the American public to accept how fundamentally these things had affected every aspect of society. The book, in my opinion, shows the widening gulf that is becoming ever more clear now between the progressives and the conservatives, how that arises out of the constitution and history of the US; and that the gap between them leaves a dangerous vacuum waiting to be filled. With its references to the founders, to slavery, to the importance of land ownership, to the attitude of suspicion towards ‘foreigners’, to surveillance, to the disconnect between people and the government, to the part of the American psyche that turns people into assault-rifle-wielding survivalists, I’m betting it’s a book that will be appreciated more in retrospect for what it says about today’s America than America is willing to admit even now. So it’s the one I think most likely to be a future classic. But only if Flanery does achieve that major breakthrough…

Patrick Flanery
Patrick Flanery

Over to you…what modern book do you think will become a classic?

(PS – On reading this over, it seems awfully opinionated and a bit grumpy… but it’s late and I’m tired and I can’t bring myself to redo it, so please don’t hold it against me… 😉 )

38 thoughts on “Modern classics…

  1. I think this is an absolutely fascinating question, FictionFan! If I’m honest, I’d have to think for a while about which modern books will be considered classics, but I do think you have a point that we may not see them as classics until some time has passed. Oh, and I agree: just because a book’s a classic doesn’t mean one has to like it… Much food for thought here, for which thanks.

    • Yes, even book that are huge bestsellers in their own time doesn’t guarantee future classic status. They either have to be timeless or they must say something that future generations will find interesting about the time they were written. And even then I reckon luck still plays a large part in it. I was trying to think of a crime book too, but I can’t think of a recent one that stands out for me as a future classic – they’re even harder to spot, I think.

  2. I didn’t think it sounded too grumpy at all, FF! You have a great breadth of knowledge about such things and I personally appreciate your honest opinions. Especially when you get a bit cross about things 🙂 Now, I wish I could recommend a modern classic, but as I barely read anything at all, I would be hard pressed to name a modern book 🙂 I would, however, like to put forward Crap Taxidermy by Kat Su as a possible contender. If it isn’t constantly in print for the rest of eternity, it is a CRIME against literature 😉

    • Hahaha! I couldn’t possibly have that one in the house – T&T would have a communal nervous breakdown. Especially if I ever have cause to get the sewing box out… 😉

      It’s the Booker that makes me grumpy, I’ve decided! Some of the books on this year’s longlist haven’t even been published yet. It’s a marketing ploy, that’s all! It makes me angry when great books are passed over for mediocre ones because the publishers decide which ones to hype… *stamps foot* Oh dear, I need cake again. Mind you, at least the Booker lets men in… don’t let me get started on all these women only prizes… grrr!!

      • Oh yes, I do have to keep it out of Terry’s reach 🙂 There’s a great bit at the end of the book that tells you how to stuff your own mouse at home. I am quite keen to try it. but the mice Terry brings me are in no fit shape to be turned into ornaments – unless I want to give visiting children traumatic nightmares.
        The Booker is a bit of a joke, I think. And the women-only ones get right on my wick! Do they think ladies need their own competitions in case they get scared going up against the men? I have no idea what that’s about, but it doesn’t do the sisterhood any favours. In the interest of fairness, they should to prizes for only fat writers, or writers with one wonky eye, or writers with stupid hair… and writers who like cake. I’ll enter that one, I think. Then we can share the cake (I rarely share cake, but I feel your pain!)

        • Haha! I used to have two cats who brought me home live mice – if I’d known, I’d have trapped some for you! All these two bring me are slugs – somehow a stuffed slug on the mantelpiece doesn’t appeal…

          I’ve been trying to write a post about how I feel about these patronising women only prizes for months, but that really gets me grumpy and opinionated! In fact, I suspect it might get me drummed off the blogosphere. Here’s an innovative idea – if women want to win more prizes, then they should write better books!! I was waiting to see if anyone would spot that about 80% of my choices are men… and worse, they’re nearly all white too! Clearly I am a misogynistic racist… 😉

          • Hahaha! Just imagining a line of beautifully stuffed slugs gracing your mantelpiece. They would certainly be a conversation starter. Perhaps I will just have to make do with bits of stuffed mouse instead and pass them off as ‘rustic dystopian art’.
            I agree with you about the women-only prizes. On the one hand we want equality, but on the other we need our own special competitions so that the big, bad men don’t come along and trample over our literary dreams. Pah. With regards to your closing comment – have you considered running for leader of UKIP? 😉

            • Soxy occasionally used to leave me just the tail to let me know she’d eaten the gift she’d brought me – she was so sweet! And frankly the tails wouldn’t take much stuffing.

              Hahaha! I absolutely refuse to wear a Farage/Arthur Daley overcoat!! One has one’s standards! The book blogosphere is awash with blogs for reading only women, or reading “diversely”, which seems to mean excluding certain groups on grounds of colour or gender – 1984-esque doublethink. I’m sorely tempted to start a blog called “White Males Only” just to see what reaction I get… 😉

            • How how very nice of her! Terry has a patch under the trampoline in the garden that I call the killing fields – the remains of his conquests are gathered there, usually just bits of them as he tends to bring half in for me and keeps half for himself!
              I admit that the coat is very off-putting 😉 Isn’t it hilarious how diversity these days seems to mean just a small section of society, who seem to further narrow their own field with each passing day? Somehow, we have never been LESS diverse – and large sections of society are made to feel like Nazis simply for being too plain. I imagine the WMO blog would certainly garner some attention, especially if the bastard Daily Mail pick up on it. Sounds like quite a good experiment to me… I would follow the blog, but being a woman might exclude me. I could ‘identify’ as male, but then that would make me too diverse. What an odd world we live in. I think we should just let the cats be in charge. They seem to know what they’re doing 😉

            • That’s so kind if him – always nice to share!

              Hahahahaha! I so love ‘identify’ – if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck but identifies as a mammal, is that where the duck-billed platypus came from??? I think I might identify as a billionaire just to see if it works. (Oh dear, the sisterhood, brotherhood AND Little Red Riding Hood will all be after us soon… I promise I’m a feminist really, though I firmly expect men to offer me their seat on a bus…)

            • Hahaha!! Don’t get me wrong, everyone should be who they want to be and live how they want to live – but we are ALL different. No need to be a snowflake about it. Just get on with it. (I firmly expect a mob waving torches and pitchforks at my door…)

            • Oh, I know – me too! But I do get fed up with the kind of reverse exclusion that seems to say it’s OK to discriminate against certain groups but not others. I refuse to apologise for liking Dickens, even if he did build a wall down the middle of his bedroom to let his wife know their marriage was going through a bad patch…

  3. I also didn’t think the post sounded grumpy. This is a good list! Off the top of my head I would add The Kite Runner (Hosseini) and All the Light We Cannot See (Doerr). But I need to give this some thought.

    • Oh, good choices! I nearly included Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed, but stopped myself because The Kite Runner is by far the better known. I haven’t read it yet, but coincidentally it’ll be coming up on my summer reading list in a couple of weeks. All the Light doesn’t appeal to me subject matter-wise, but I’ve seen glowing reviews of it from everyone who’s read it, so I think you’re probably right with it too. If only we had a time machine to see how our picks do…

  4. Opinionated and grumpy is good. Very good, in fact. And of course you know I can say that as I intend to claim the award for the most opinionated and grumpy blogger of 2016,2015,2014 and 2013 for myself.

    And of course anyone championing the shamefully under-popular Flanery P, gets the award for most perspicacious and astute blogger in my book. You of course initially alerted me to Flanery P back in whenever, and I suspect we are President (you) and Vice-President (me) of his world-wide fan club.

    In fact…………..in these parlous days, I suggest he should be required reading for anyone before they are allowed to vote in any Presidential elections (I’ll take the mantle for autocratic as well as opinionated and grumpy)

    And of course you made me chortle at Goldfinch, proving your ability to take a wide and objective view. Well done that woman.

    I really must get round to The Road, another long languish on the over-stuffed Kindle

    • I should try to write posts earlier – I seem to get grumpier as the day wears on. It’s the Booker that brings it out most in me though – every year lots of rubbish ends up on it, while good books languish for lack of publicity. It’ll all be different when I rule the world, I can tell you!

      Yep, it’s tragic to think we’ve both been banging on about Flanery for years now and still no-one reads the books! Whenever I get one of these e-mails begging me to review something because I’m soooo influential, I feel like mentioning Fallen Land. It’ll all be different when I rule the world, I tell you!

      And as for the bird-book… well, suffice it to say, it’ll all be different when…

      American Pastoral first!!!!

  5. You didn’t come across as grumpy to me, FF; I just thought you were sharing your thoughts and opinions. As for a modern classic, I’m partial to Gone With the Wind. I know it doesn’t portray black people in the best light, but I believe it’s a realistic portrayal of the times. And while Scarlett O’Hara is hardly a sympathetic heroine, she’s spunky and determined…and therefore, memorable. But perhaps my own thoughts are clouded in my southern upbringing!!

    • I haven’t read Gone with the Wind yet, but it’s getting very close to the top of my list now. Going purely on the movie, though, I agree it should definitely count as a classic – lots of classics have things in them that we don’t find politically correct anymore, but that shouldn’t stop them being classics unless they’re so bad they become unreadable, and that’s obviously not the case with GwtW. It’s one I’m really looking forward to…

  6. True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey just makes it because it was published in 2000.
    I really don’t like the idea of saying a book is a classic though even if you don’t like it yourself. That leads to those kind of ‘best of’ lists that critics churn out despite not believing in the choices. I’m thinking especially of film here where dated unwatchable stuff like Tokyo Story or Citizen Kane are always quoted as the best, despite the fact that nobody in real life ever recommends them.

    • Peter Carey is one of those authors I somehow never seem to get around to trying – must amend that! I agree with you about not including books I don’t like, in general, but my blogging buddy Lady Fancifull would have come after me with an axe if I hadn’t put The Goldfinch in… I’ll take it out later when she’s not looking… 😉 I’ve been ploughing my way through the 1001 books list and at least half of them sound truly dreadful – sometimes I think these list compilers are having a laugh.

      Haha! I’ve just been reading a book about Citizen Kane, trying to find out what it is that I’m missing. I have a horrible feeling that any time the phrase “innovative cinematography” is used that should be my signal to avoid…

    • I think you could be right, though like some of these others I think Ozeki would have to build up a more substantial body of work to be sure of her place. With a few exceptions, I think it’s usually the author rather than the book that becomes “classic” – and once they do, all their books tend to stay in print, including the less good ones. So the secret is to write one great one and lots of good ones… no problem! 😉

    • Another one I haven’t read yet, but must! I did wonder about The Luminaries, but actually decided in that case that the way she played with structure might work against it in the long run. I’d love to have a time machine so we could see which ones last…

    • I definitely think you’re right on that, and maybe Philip Pullman’s books too. One of the things that makes books become classics, I think, is when one generation encourages their children to read their own favourites, and that would make HP an absolute certainty.

  7. I love the post and I like to call it realistic rather than grumpy! It is so hard to judge – I was pleased to see you putting forward the Hannah Kent but agree with you that she would have to write some more to secure her place and I chuckled away at the Donna Tart because that was my favourite review of all time! As to classics of the future? It is so hard because I also think it depends on how history judges the time period as now, more so than ever, many books tend to be preoccupied with our contemporary lives with the bigger questions, which I think makes a book more likely to become a classic periphery to the time period – I know Dickens etc did this but I’m just not sure the millennium is interesting enough?

    • Haha! I had to put The Goldfinch in or Lady Fancifull would have come after me with an axe! Really difficult, especially with new authors. And there are so many books now that we don’t all read the same things in the way people used to, I think. So some excellent books disappear through lack of publicity and not enough word of mouth. That’s really interesting about whether there’s enough happening at the moment to inspire classics – I’ve found very few British novels over the last decade or so that I’d class as truly great because they don’t seem to be addressing anyhting very important. Maybe because we’ve had peace for so long? On the other hand, both America and India seem to be having a golden age in lit-fic – ha! Maybe the Brexit meltdown will give our authors something to write about… 😉

    • I really must read Life After Life – I’m beginning to feel that I’m the only person in the world who hasn’t. Can we still be friends if I admit to not having been too impressed by the one Murakami book I’ve read, 1Q84? And Tim Winton is someone I’d never heard of till I started blogging – must add him to the ever-growing list too – is there a book of his you’d recommend?

      • I would love to hear your opinion of Life After Life.
        I’m not a massive fan of Murakami either, although I’ve read a couple of his books now, but just because I don’t like a book doesn’t mean it won’t become a classic!
        As for Tim Winton, Cloudstreet was very popular, but Breath is the story I can’t forget.

        • I’ve added the Atkinson to the wishlist, but it may be the life after this one before I get to it! Yes that’s true – that’s why I put The Goldfinch on the list too, even though I really disliked it – I still think it’ll survive. Thanks – I’ll take a look at those two and see which blurb appeals… 🙂

  8. I’m partial to Anne Enright, and any of her books, and if I had to pick…The Green Road. Also, Alice Munro’s short stories. Although she’s been writing for decades so I’m NLR sure how ‘modern’ her works are

    • Two authors I keep meaning to get to and somehow never do! But just based on their reputations yes, I think you’re right – definite classics of the future. Must fit them in somehow…!

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