Publishers have always been cultural arbiters, and throughout publishing history they have used their power to harness the “classic” label—and its attendant packaging—to turn a profit. Bestowing classic status on a book has the effect of redefining a book’s history: sometimes prolonging its shelf life, sometimes uplifting it from the deep backlist. For some, this manhandling has eroded the potency of the word “classic” as a marker of timelessness, high aesthetics, or universality—words that are slippery and subject to intense debate.
Such is the case this week. The Brits have their knickers in a twist over the fact that Morrissey’s Autobiography was published today under the Penguin Classics imprint. Boyd Tonkin wrote in the Independent that the book would “wreck overnight the reputation of a global brand that, since 1946, has built up its worldwide trust on the basis of consistent excellence, expert selection and a commitment to pick and sell only the very best.” Brendan O’Neill, writing in the Telegraph, was angry that the musician’s memoir is “not a modern classic, but a classic classic,” suggesting that there is latitude in the term. The Mirror snapped that the publication “undermines every possible definition of the word ‘classic’.” The Guardian was irritated by the “dumbing down” of such a “high-minded enterprise” as Penguin Classics.
It’s true, E.V. Rieu was a classicist, and he launched the series in 1946 with high-minded Homer. He originally envisioned the imprint as translations of Greek, Latin, and European titles through the late nineteenth-century. It evolved from there, eventually surpassing 1,000 classics, including many, many classics that this former English major would be unable to argue are either timeless or universal. But evolved is the key word here. As the literary critic Frank Kermode once wrote, “the renovations of the classic, in one epoch after another, are a matter of history, and to renovate is to acknowledge one’s modernity.”
Tonkin insisted that Morrissey ought not to be shelved with the other M’s in the esteemed Penguin Classics line-up, alongside “Montaigne, More, Milton, Marlowe, Melville, Machiavelli and Michelangelo.” There was a time when I would have agreed with that exclusionary position—I once wrote an entire master’s thesis on the power of the “classic” in book publishing—but does Mandelstam (Selected Poems) fit better? Or Multatuli (Max Havelaar) or Maturin (Melmoth the Wanderer)? I’m not listing these lesser-known talents to make a statement about who belongs and who does not, but it is worth noting that classics series are not all Shakespeare and Austen, and that economic factors, marketing imperatives, and the personal likes of publishers have always played a role in editorial selection, even in the theoretically untouchable realm of classics.
Brendan O’Neill’s overly simplistic statement that “A classic is a book that is judged by posterity to be an outstanding work” is topped only by his incensed wonder that “a couple of men in suits at Penguin’s head office” were able “to decree, behind closed doors, that Morrissey’s autobiography is a classic.” That’s what publishers do! In his memoir about the early days of Random House, Bennett Cerf wrote of Modern Library publisher Horace Liveright, “If a girl he was trying to win said, ‘You ought to have this book in Modern Library,’ and it meant a weekend at Atlantic City, he’d put the book in.” Cerf further reported that when he took over the Modern Library in 1925, he had to weed out titles that “Liveright had added because of some whim or to please some author he was trying to sign up or to show off to somebody.”
O’Neill’s claim that Morrissey’s Autobiography is “a relativistic denigration of those classics whose worth we as a species have already agreed upon” is extravagant at best. I have never agreed that Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest is a classic, and yet there it is in the Penguin Classics catalog. To be fair, I have never read Effi Briest, nor have I read the majority of the thousands upon thousands of “classics” available in the catalogs of Oxford World’s Classics, Bantam Classics (which reissued a good chunk of the novels of Thomas Hardy), Barnes & Noble Classics, Cameo Classics, Harvard Classics, Modern Library Classics, New York Review of Books Classics, Perennial Classics, Puffin Classics, Scribner Classics (which runs all the way from The Yearling to Robinson Crusoe), Signet Classics, S&S Classic Editions, Verso Classics (includes Althusser’s For Marx!), Vintage Classics, or Washington Square Enriched Classics, not to mention Everyman’s Library or the Library of America. (The Library of America list, incidentally, begins with Melville and Hawthorne and recently blew through classics by Jack Kerouac and Laura Ingalls Wilder.)
The literary canon is a largely imaginary list. (Also an expected one. When Encyclopedia Britannica rebooted its “Great Books of the Western World” series in 1990, it added zero works by people of color and works by only four women to its canon.) And while “classic” may be a nebulous term, in a published classics series, we have a set of material artifacts, thousands of them, all uniformly dressed—”in the familiar black livery” as Tonkin described it—all standing neatly in a row. Tonkin said he believed “that black jacket will still lend” the Autobiography “an unearned aura.” Is it that he just hasn’t earned it yet, baby? Or do we truly believe putting a Penguin on the cover of a book instantaneously confers status upon it?
The whole ruckus is classic Morrissey. He pulled a similar prank back in 1986, when The Smiths switched record labels and signed with EMI. According to Tony Fletcher’s new biography of the band, A Light That Never Goes Out, when asked which EMI imprint he wanted, Morrissey chose HMV, “His Master’s Voice,” the first to use the word “POP.” By the eighties, however, HMV had become a classical music label—not suitable for his brand of post-punk pop. Still, Morrissey got his way.
As he does now with his Autobiography, bound in the uniform design so dear to readers’ hearts and minds. The irony cannot be lost on a man who wrote a song called “Paint a Vulgar Picture” about how record company executives make money by re-issuing old material in different sleeves. With a rush and a push (and a wink) he elevates his story to “classic,” no better and no worse than anything else with the iconic little signifier on its cover.