Waterstone’s What makes a classic a classic?

In 1999, Waterstone’s (the British bookshop) produced What makes a classic a classic? Various British (and near-British) writers were sent a questionnaire, asking them their definition of a classic novel and various other questions about their reaction to classics, as well as asking them their ten essential classic novels for the next 100 years and also up to ten books that should never have been called classics. The results overall were not terribly surprising, though there were some interesting individual choices. Ulysses was in clear first place, with nine votes. Three books had five votes each: The Great Gatsby, A la recherche du temps perdu and Midnight’s Children. Five books had four votes each: Cien Años de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), Der Prozess (The Trial), A Suitable Boy, A Handful of Dust and To the Lighthouse. Fourteen novels had three votes each: Lucky Jim , Money, Earthly Powers, Heart of Darkness, The Van (Roddy Doyle), The End of the Affair, Catch-22, Portrait of a Lady, Sons and Lovers, Lolita, House for Mr. Biswas, 1984, Dance to the Music of Time and The Catcher in the Rye.

What is interesting is what is omitted. Of course no Rand and only one for Solzhenitsyn – the Brits have far too much good taste for that – but also no Malcolm Lowry, who would have been near the top in the 1970s, limited William Golding, only one John Fowles, only one positive vote for Thomas Pynchon (though three negative votes) and only one Doris Lessing.

As for the classics that should not have been, many of the writers were reluctant to take a stand, so there are far fewer votes than for the favourites. Lucky Jim , Lady Chatterley’s Lover, 1984, To the Lighthouse and The Catcher in the Rye had three votes each. Four of the five were, of course, in the best of list. Several others made both lists. Best comment, by far, was by Janice Galloway, who said I will, however, go on record as saying I’d rather give President Clinton a blow-job than read Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, La Nausée or The Well of Loneliness again.

Some authors did fairly well collectively. Evelyn Waugh had six books in the favourites list, Graham Greene had five, J G Ballard, James Joyce, D H Lawrence had four, Martin Amis, Angela Carter, Joseph Conrad, Iris Murdoch, V S Naipaul, Philip Roth, Salman Rushdie and John Steinbeck had three each. In the negatives, D H Lawrence had votes for four separate novels as well as one general vote. Hemingway, Orwell, James, Pynchon and Woolf had three separate votes.