Wednesday, December 19, 2007

To Be, or Not To Be (A Classic)

I've been wondering what constitutes a 'classic' of fiction. I hasten to add that this isn't some random problem to be addressed, in case readers are entertaining visions of me seated in my smoking jacket, puffing on a pipe and thinking 'deep' thoughts as a matter of course. I don't own a smoking jacket, and I don't think I'd have the patience to smoke a pipe. (My grandfather was a pipe smoker, and seemed to spend large portions of his day either preparing to light his pipe, or trying to keep it lit, but very little of it actually smoking the pipe itself.)

Anyway, the question of when, or why, a book comes to be considered a classic arose in the context of the book I have just finished: Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth. The novel in question, which deals with the building of a cathedral, among other things, is adorned on its front cover with the words 'THE CLASSIC MASTERPIECE', which would seem to indicate that someone, somewhere, even allowing for the usual overenthusiasm of publishers, feels that The Pillars of the Earth is both a classic and,indeed, a masterpiece.

Now I had never read a Ken Follett novel before this one. In fact, my only knowledge of Ken Follett is that he is the archetypal 'champagne Socialist', a wealthy supporter of the British Labour party, and that he wrote The Eye of the Needle, which was made into an okayish film starring Donald Sutherland. I picked up The Pillars of the Earth because I'd seen the media coverage of its recently published sequel, and because I'm kind of a sucker for a good historical novel.

And here's the thing: The Pillars of the Earth is a well-researched, very entertaining read. I flew through its 1100 pages in under a week, and, the odd scene of rape or attempted rape apart, enjoyed it immensely. But is it a classic? Well, no, I don't think so. Follett isn't the world's greatest prose stylist, and some of the characterisation is a bit perfunctory. If a book is truly to be considered a classic, then issues like prose style and characterisation come into play. It's not enough simply to be able to tell a good yarn. Classic, or masterpiece, status demands something more than that.

Is it a masterpiece? Well, that's a different matter. A masterpiece,in the context of art, is an artist's greatest piece of work. As I've said, I haven't read any otherbooks by Ken Follett, so I can't say that The Pillars of the Earth is his greatest achievement. From what I've read about the novel, and Follett, I suspect that it is. If he's proud of it, he has good reason to be. It's a fine read.

I'm just wondering if The Pillars of the Earth actually needs to be a
classic. It does what it does exceptionally well. It keeps the reader turning the pages. I now know a lot about cathedral building: not enough to attempt to build one myself, obviously, but I understand a little more about the thinking behind the construction of cathedrals. I also know that I'm very grateful not to have lived during the period in which the novel is set (roughly the middle of the 12th century). I also recognise that, at some point in the future, I'm going to read the sequel, and I'll probably thoroughly enjoy that too.

But it seems to me that the urge to confer classic status upon The Pillars of the Earth rather does Follett an injustice. It raises expectations that the novel itself simply can't fulfill. This is not War and Peace. It is not Bleak House, or Vanity Fair, or any one of the other books that spring to mind when the words 'masterpiece' and 'classic' are used to refer to a work of fiction. I just don't think it's in that league, but then very few books are.

The use of the terms 'masterpiece' and 'classic' in the context of The
Pillars of the Earth
also suggests a certain inferiority complex on the part of one or more people involved with the publication of the book, although not necessarily Follett himself. It's clearly not enough that the book is gripping, and well-researched, and eminently readable. It has to be something more than that, something greater. Its status must be elevated, even if that elevation threatens to undo the writer, and the novel, in the process. That seems to me to be a bit of shame . . .

This week John read:

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

and listened to:
Going to Where the Tea Trees Are by Peter Von Poehl (one of the best 'lost' records of the year, I think . . .)


TomH said...

Classic infers 'one of a kind' status. That status extends to arts and entertainment and politics and etc and etc...

Shakespeare, Picasso, Churchill... one of a kind and classic in nature.

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KayKay said...

"The Pillars of the Earth is a well-researched, very entertaining read".

That's it in a nutshell. It's "The Da Vinci Code" of medieval epics; A blistering plot that flies off the page with the same rapidity it's pedestrian prose leaks out of your brain seconds after the last sentence is read.

You get Cathedral Building 101, the requisite Sword Clanging carnage, filth and sex (of both the Consensual and Non-Consensual variety) and other trappings of the 12th Century, but distilled to it's essence, what Follett gives you is pure 21st Century Soap Opera.