How We Discuss Classics & Representation

With conversations about representation gaining speed and more books gaining recognition for having more and better diversity, a common trend I’ve noticed is bringing classics into the mix. I have a lot of thoughts about it, namely how we’re centering classics as the opposite of good, modern representation and diversity.

I don’t think that classics are or should be everyone’s cup of tea; diversity in reader preference is as important as having diversity in the books that we’re reading. That said, as someone who enjoys classics and the boom in more inclusive media, I’m not sure that the way the discussions surrounding classics versus modern literature are adequately tackling the issues with classics in terms of representation and pitting them against each other has more inherent problems than not.

Classics have gotten the reputation of being for and about old, white, straight dudes. When looking at required reading lists for any given literature course that isn’t a specialization, you’re bound to see one old, dead, white dude after another. Dickens, Twain, Thoreau, Hemingway… These authors and their books are taught as being the pinnacle of their crafts, the definitive ideal of what makes literature, literature.

And that is the problem.

The classics that we’re taught are a slim, generally non-diverse, sample of classic literature as a whole, and even taking into consideration the female authors that are widely taught (I personally had a decent education on the Bronte sisters and independently read Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley and Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen) it’s still not representative of classics as a whole.

In digging around to research for this discussion, disappointed but not surprised, I found book after book written by marginalized authors that never made it on a required reading list for my lit classes and certainly didn’t make it onto the lists for a lot of other people, either. Writings by black authors, Asian authors, queer authors—and that’s not even counting examples of classic literature in Middle Eastern or other lesser-recognized cultures—that have existed for years, even decades, recognized by their contemporaries as the ideal but never given the same weight as their white, straight, male counterparts today, especially in the West. This doesn’t even encompass potential erasure of identities, like in the case of Alexandre Dumas, author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, where the fact that he was a man of color, while easy to look up, isn’t something discussed out there and forefront, or with The Color Purple and Fried Green Tomatoes, where the queer relationships that were in the books were almost entirely watered down and downplayed in their movie adaptations.

Classics have always been by and for marginalized people and have always been diverse and representative of more than one voice. We’ve just been taught that they’re not because what’s been shown as the ideal academically has been white, straight, and predominantly male. Writing them off entirely because of the perception that they encompass antiquity that the modern age has magically moved passed, whether intentional or not, actively erases the voices of the people that helped make it possible for marginalized, modern writers to have their foot in the door. We owe them more than saying that classics aren’t worth the read because the only classics we’ve read are classics that don’t speak for us when they’ve been in the crowd screaming our names for years.

In a broader sense, I understand where the frustration over classics comes from. There can be a lot of elitist attitudes attached to the idea of classics and their consumption, some boiling down the idea that you have to read classics in order to be considered ‘well read’ or properly educated, or that by not reading classics you’re somehow lesser of a reader with less insight on what ‘good’ literature is. You couple that with being shown in academic settings that what people consider the classics to read, the required reading of the lit world, so to speak, tends to be dominated by white, straight, male stories, it’s not hard get discouraged at the lack of varied stories that people point to saying there, this is the ideal, this is what literature is all about. It’s an ugly, messy ball that’s seeped in classist ideals, racism, and sexism, and it’s quite easy to turn readers off.

It’s an understandable, but also easily correctible frustration, at least if not in an academic sense, where the changing of ideals and how things are taught comes with time, then in the individual sense, where we as readers are capable of seeking out the kinds of stories that we want to see outside of academia or the hell hole that is Twitter discussions about what does and does not make ‘good lit’ or who are and are not ‘good readers.’

It took me a single Google search to find classic literature written by black authors. It took another to find classic literature by or about queer characters. Another still to find classic literature by Asian writers, and a general list of female writers (that, incidentally, included more than just the Bronte sisters and Mary Shelley.) Being taught that classic literature is only white, straight, and male is only valid up until the point that you have an internet connection to prove that assertion wrong.

An argument could be made of… well, why does it matter? Modern literature is already doing the leg work of providing diverse, representative books today. Why do we need to backtrack now to… old, dead, marginalized people when living writers are doing the thing? My answer would be: why does it have to be one or the other?

Outside of the contention for classics in terms of lack of diversity and prevalence of old ideals that don’t mesh well with modern ideals, there’s this notion that old books lose their value in the wake of new, modern literature. The problem with that is there’s no shelf life for literature. Diverse, modern literature isn’t the conqueror of classic books, but the evolution of classic books and both can exist in the same spaces. To say that all classic literature—including the diverse classic literature—is unimportant now because we’ve come past those times as a society is inherently flawed for the simple fact that stories have power long after their authors are dead. I would argue that classics written by marginalized authors are that much more important because they have done the thing that marginalized people are often told they cannot do in comparison to their more privileged counterparts, and that is withstanding the test of time and remain profound and beloved as pieces of well-crafted literature.

Going back to Alexandre Dumas, one of the first classic books I read was The Count of Monte Cristo. I can easily trace my interest in reading and storytelling back to the first years that I really started reading classic literature, and The Count of Monte Cristo remains one of my favorite books and inspirations in terms of the kind of character building and storytelling that I strive for. I was perhaps ten, maybe eleven years old when I read the behemoth that was Edmond Dantès’ journey through revenge and retribution, and at twenty-five, I can still say that Dumas’ work continues to be a reason that I want to be a writer and why I love to read.

What this all really culminates to is that the issue with classics is largely central to how they’re taught, and which ones are taught, and how that frames the perception of what classics are, who they’re for, and their value as it relates to modern fiction and what it offers modern readers. That’s not to say there are no valid criticisms of classics or no valid reasons that people wouldn’t enjoy certain classics (I personally cannot stand to read Mark Twain or Charles Dickens, and when you have people writing from the 1800s you’re undeniably bound to run into 1800s ideals in their works) but like with modern literature, classic books are diverse. We do classic literature a disservice by erasing that history, and therefore the history of where modern, diverse authors came from.

Diverse Classics Jumping Point

African American Classic Lit.
Asian Classic Lit.
LGBT Classic Lit.
Middle Eastern Lit.*
Caribbean Lit.**
Latinx Classic Lit.
100 Must-Read Classics by People of Color [Book Riot]
50 Diverse Classics [List Challenges]

*(This list seems to have both classic and contemporary Middle Eastern lit., since translations of older texts are hard to come by.)
**(This list also contains a mix of classic and contemporary lit.)

These are by no means comprehensive or complete lists, but I do think they’re a good place to begin a search, and in the case of the Goodreads links, super easy to add new books to your TBR.

4 thoughts on “How We Discuss Classics & Representation

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