Showalter defines 'instant classics'


Elaine Showalter, the Avalon Foundation Professor of the Humanities and professor of English, is leading an alumni studies course this fall titled "Instant Classics of Contemporary Fiction: What Makes the Cut, and Why." The books she selected to include are: "A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess; "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood; "Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguru; "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie; "White Noise" by Don DeLillo; "The Hours" by Michael Cunningham; and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" by J.K. Rowling. She spoke with the Princeton Weekly Bulletin's Yvonne Chiu Hays.

What is an instant classic?

ES: An instant classic is a contemporary novel that immediately dazzles readers, influences other writers, attracts the interest of academics, wins prizes and enters the literary curriculum. Of course, the terms "instant" and "classic" are in tension with each other because one suggests popularity and the other involves permanence. When you put those two things together, it limits the field, but there are still a surprisingly large number of candidates. I picked seven that I thought passed the test, would make interesting reading, and covered the range of the styles and genres of contemporary fiction. And I hoped that if people came to terms with these books, they would have a good basis for going on with others, because this list is not meant to be complete.

How did Harry Potter make your list?

ES: The only one that I am unsure about is "Harry Potter." The series isn't finished yet. So it's a little too soon to really know how Rowling's going to turn out. But I thought it would be a very interesting case to discuss. It's such a literary phenomenon, and if there has ever been a book acclaimed as an instant classic, this is it.

Is the success of the Harry Potter series based on hype and formulaic writing?

ES: I think it's more than formulaic; something different and new has engaged all these millions of young readers. Some of their enthusiasm may come from hype, but not all of it. It will be interesting to apply the ideas that we put together from the other books to "Harry Potter." I think many contemporary classics tend to engage serious issues in comical, parodic ways. They don't have to be serious in tone.

Can a great novel also be a bestseller?

ES: Yes, and all seven of the books we are reading have been bestsellers as well as critically successful. For example, we're reading Don DeLillo's "White Noise." DeLillo has written a number of novels, and some of them are more highly regarded by academics and critics than this one. But "White Noise" is the one that I think everybody agrees is his breakout book -- it was the book that first reached a really wide audience and remains the book that is the most popular with general readers. At the same time, it breaks new ground aesthetically and thematically, and influenced many younger writers.

Is it harder to write a classic novel today?

ES: I don't know if it is harder to write a classic novel than it ever was, but I certainly think it's harder for a novelist to get attention. The extraordinary changes in publishing, in marketing and distributing books made the novel's fate much more complicated than it was a century ago. We're actually living in a golden age of fiction, but the novel today has to compete with so many other forms of entertainment for people's time.

Does this mean we are more likely to miss the truly great novel in the flood?

ES: Yes, if we depend only on bestsellers. Bestseller lists are dominated internationally by five or six writers. Those books are like brands -- Nike or the Gap -- because they have a huge amount of publicity and money behind them, and a dependable record for delivering a good read. They're familiar brands and they have a loyal audience. That doesn't mean they're not entertaining. But for a serious novel that is trying to do something new also to reach a mass readership is very, very difficult.

Do those trends disappoint or discourage you as a literary critic?

ES: I think that it's wonderful that there are so many novels being published, and it's wonderful that we have so many choices. Along with that, I think readers need and want more recommendations, advice and guidelines. They're filling that need in a variety of ways, such as by joining book clubs, which are proliferating everywhere. Readers like to talk about what they're reading, but they also want guidance and recommenda-tions they trust about what to read next. I think there is a tremendous need for that kind of opinion, and academic literary critics have an opportunity to speak to a large audience beyond the university. We don't have to leave it all to Oprah Winfrey.

Faculty, staff invited to join in

Faculty and staff interested in joining the nearly 300 households around the globe that are taking Showalter's course can still do so. The course is taught through a combination of readings, lectures on tape, e-mail discussions and optional campus lectures and precepts.

A second campus session of lectures and precepts is scheduled for Friday and Saturday, Dec. 8-9.

More information can be obtained at <> or by contacting Christine Hollendonner at the Alumni Council at 258-5854 or <>.

Author Michael Cunningham will give a public reading in Princeton on Thursday, Dec. 7, and will give a special reading for alumni studies participants Friday, Dec. 8, during the on-campus session.

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