Spurred on by the recent two-minutes hate regarding The Great Gatsby, Sam Sacks has a provocative little essay at the Page-Turner blog at The New Yorker online. His thoughts on democracy and criticism–on the sociology of criticism, as it were–are interesting, and form part of a conversation that is very much worth having. A couple of excerpts:
Eliot thought that a classic, in the strictest sense, was a work that apotheosized a great civilization at its zenith; so exacting (or, if you like, priggish) are his standards that literally the only writer to entirely fulfill them is Virgil.
Sainte-Beuve is more flexible and encompassing, but he stipulates that a classic can only be truly distinguished by readers who have enjoyed a lifetime of learning and have staked out the leisure to devote themselves to their libraries. It exists as a concomitant to the salon and the ivory tower.
So if Eliot is imperialist and Sainte-Beuve is aristocratic, we need some idea of what makes a classic in a democracy. For that, we could do worse than to turn to Sainte-Beuve’s contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville, who has always seemed to have the new world’s number. In “Democracy in America,” de Tocqueville observed that Americans esteemed the arts and sciences more for their practical applications than for their abstract value—hence the popularity of newspapers, religious treatises, and self-help books. Reading itself was not done for the purposes of something as perversely theoretical as enlarging one’s soul; it needed to have some tangible function in the here and now: “Democratic nations may amuse themselves for a while with considering the productions of nature; but they are excited in reality only by a survey of themselves.”
A look through the Classics section of bookstores—in America or any of the Western democracies—bears out de Tocqueville’s instincts. The offerings are wide-ranging, tilting toward diversity and inclusion. But, more to the point, artistic brilliance is no longer the most important determining factor. What makes a classic today is cultural significance. Authors are anointed not because they are great (although many of them are) but because they are important.
There’s better prose in the average issue of Consumer Reports than in most Upton Sinclair novels, but “The Jungle” triggered actual legislative reform and will therefore last as long as the United States does.