What makes a classic a classic?

Brittish singer Morrisey performs during

Is there anyone better qualified to comment on the latest publishing sensation than Robert Mighall, Madrid-based writer and brand consultant? There are plenty of huge Morrissey fans out there – but not many are also former editors of Penguin Classics.

I’m about 50 pages into the eagerly awaited, immediately downloaded, Autobiography by Morrissey. It’s too early for me to judge who’s right: The Telegraph who hails it as a masterpiece, up there with Dylan; or The Independent who wonders whether the integrity of the Classics imprint will survive its “droning narcissism”.

This aside, I must confess to being personally torn over Penguin agreeing to publish it under its august Classics imprint. On the one hand I’m a big Morrissey and Smiths fan. He is one of the truly great, perhaps even “classic” singer songwriters of our (or at least my) age. And we need more iconoclasts, especially such iconic ones. Yet I was once the editor of the Penguin Classics series. And I can’t help feeling a tad irked by the principles I steadfastly defended for nearly three years being so spectacularly subverted. Even by a hero.

When I was responsible for the list I was constantly being asked “what makes a classic a classic?”. I usually answered “that which endures”. Time does a marvellous job separating the wheat from the chaff when it comes to art. And most of the stuff people eagerly consume or froth about today, will be winnowed by the cruel winds of time and end up, rightfully, forgotten by the next generations. You’d think the Classics canon was a closed book wouldn’t you? Not a bit of it. Titles that had been staples of my undergraduate syllabus slowly died from lack of sales before my very eyes, shuffling silently out of the list to dusty oblivion. But, like a nightclub operating a one-in, one-out policy, the list was constantly being refreshed with new contenders. For every Smollett that expired under my watch, there was the likes of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories – “unquestionably Classics I hear you cry” – entering to keep the list replenished and relevant. Neither Doyle, nor Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, nor Rider Haggard’s She were Classics before I got there, and who knows what the next generation will allow to join or leave the list. The market, as ever, dictates.

What endures in any art is what remains relevant. And what remains relevant is that which continues to touch us with some core truth. The greatest stories hold up mirrors to their audiences, allowing us to see beneath the fancy dress and language counterparts of ourselves. Our struggles, desires, and dreams. That is one of the themes of my forthcoming book, Only Connect. The title comes from E. M. Forster’s Howards End (which is still in the series, you’ll be relieved to hear). And it partly refers to the emotional connection stories need to create, whether that story aspires to art, or needs to inspire or influence people in the field of business.

And business is the real issue at stake in the “can Morrissey be a Classic on first publication?” debate. Morrissey is a massive pop music brand, Penguin is the only real brand in publishing (go on, try to name another one). The book topped the book lists on its first day. The decision was taken for purely commercial reasons (Morrissey demanded it). Which means it is like every other book on that list. If they no longer sell, they are no longer in the list, and therefore, given Penguin for many defines a Classic, will soon be stripped of this status. Nearly 99% of the authors with whom Morrissey is now rubbing shoulders are out of copyright. The Classics – being royalty free – make a major contribution to Penguin’s business, and therefore Pearson’s profits. We should suffer no sentimental delusions about the role of aesthetics or ethics influencing Penguin as custodian of the canon. “Classic”, whether we like it or not, is largely a commercial consideration.

Storytelling is a currency in all senses. If it connects, it has relevance, and therefore has something to contribute. Either to the Story Business (of which Penguin is a key exemplar), or the Business Story. Morrissey’ as Classic is a business story pure and simple. Whether he still has currency for the generations to come only they and Penguin’s money people can decide.

Would I argue thus for any other contemporary pop artist? Probably not. But then is there such an artist?

You can pre-order Rob’s book Only Connect here and his blog is here.
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About Author Profile: Robert Mighall


15 thoughts on “What makes a classic a classic?

  1. Worm
    October 22, 2013 at 09:00

    An interesting read, thanks Rob. I guess the deciding factor for me would be whether the book is written well enough to at least not be embarrassingly enfeebled next to its stablemates

  2. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    October 22, 2013 at 11:41

    Being ancient mine ears have heard the glory of the coming of the lords, from Bill Haley onwards and although the present lot are mostly a bunch of recycled pond life I do live in hope. Not sure what to make of young Morrissey, I know that I should genuflect in his general direction, in all honesty and despite chastisement from junior, I cannot.

    In any case, the Selbstbildnis frequently requires a dose of vanity filter or a session on the psychiatrists couch.

  3. george.jansen55@gmail.com'
    October 22, 2013 at 18:05

    After exhaustive research (a glance at Wikpedia’s Lou Reed page), I have realized that I had Morrissey mixed up with Sterling Morrison. Probably therefore I am not qualified to comment on his status as classic or not.

    Is Penguin the only brand in publishing? Last I looked, there were among many others OUP (publishers of Oxford World Classics), Elsevier, Prentice-Hall, FSG, Addison-Wesley, Harper & Rowe, Little Brown, Random House, and the university presses of schools newer than Oxford but with excellent lists (Cambridge, California, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, etc.). If Penguin is the only brand, can the other presses then declare themselves mavericks?

    • Brit
      October 22, 2013 at 22:06

      That’s just a list of publishers, George.

      The only other brand I can think of which possibly sells books as much as the author or genre or title would be Virago.

      See more on Thursday’s Dabbler on the power of the Penguin brand.

      • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
        October 23, 2013 at 13:16

        I take your point, though I am not convinced. I picked up a slim novel by Peter De Vries the other day, and it was only a third or fourth look that I noticed it was a Penguin.

        I would name New Directions as fitting your criteria as well as Virago and perhaps better than Penguin: distinctive dress, understood range of matter. NYRB books always catch my eye in the store, and often find their way home. The French Livres de Poche (Hachette) and Folio can be spotted at a distance.

        Then there are the specialty publishers, everyone from the techie O’Reilly Associates to Harlequin.

  4. Gaw
    October 22, 2013 at 22:00

    Cheers, Rob!

    I confess to never liking The Smiths. I didn’t appreciate the way they, and especially the lead singer, put so much effort into feeling miserable for no good reason when the teenage me found it quite effortless. Can he really have anything worthwhile to say? His opinions as reported in the press from time to time are rubbish.

    • Brit
      October 22, 2013 at 23:01

      Surely I answered those Mozza questions yesterday. Also, The Smiths weren’t just miserable, they were also very funny and, musically, extraordinary.

      • Gaw
        October 23, 2013 at 13:58

        The tossishness obscures the humour for me, and without the humour the lyrics, if not the music, would seem to be intolerable even to fans like you.

        Rob’s comment about the humorlessness of the autobiog makes me wonder to what extent he’s intentionally amusing rather than being a Malvolio-like berk.

        • andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
          October 23, 2013 at 17:16

          It’s almost impossible, I think, to tell if he’s intentionally amusing or not – but as I explained in the Diary yesterday, it is precisely therein that the appeal lies.

          I think the song ‘How Soon is Now?’ encapsulates the layers of Smith-appeal.

          “There’s a club if you’d like to go,
          You could meet somebody who really loves you.”
          So you go, and you stand on your own
          and you leave on your own
          and you go home, and you cry
          and you want to die.

          As a teenager, you can take it at face value. But it’s also a funny gag with a set-up and punchline. And the guitar is awesome.

          • Gaw
            October 23, 2013 at 19:29

            Histrionic or cynical, meh. But I admit they certainly had some catchy tunes.

            Johnny Marr, j’en ai marre. Ever noticed that? He certainly was.

  5. hooting.yard@googlemail.com'
    October 23, 2013 at 07:51

    Clearly Penguin made a hard-headed commercial decision, but no brand new book can ever be deemed a classic.I think they have embarrassed themselves but are happy to sit back and watch the coffers being filled. It’s intensely depressing.

    Somewhere online I watched a video of a (non-Steven Morrissey related) discussion grouo involving several Penguin staff, including the current editrix of Penguin Classics. They are all terrifyingly youthful. I suspect that is pertinent.

  6. rhmig@yahoo.co.uk'
    October 23, 2013 at 10:50

    Thanks for comments. I must agree with Brit. The Smiths’ misery mongering had a fair dollop of humour in it. The reason why their songs resonated with so many disgruntled adolescents (a tautology?) was because their misery was partly a pose. Morrissey’s guiding light was always Wilde, the uncrowned Prince of Posing. And this shows throughout his lyrics, his public persona and his publicity tactics. Unlike the raw angst of the US grungers, there was always the saving grace of humour and self irony. Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now was not an articulation of misery but a commentary on it. I prefer to ennoble it as ‘melancholy’, befitting its poetic pretensions. The problem I have with the Autobiography so far – 100 pages in (I’ve been busy) – is a lack of this humour. Morrissey spent a long time in LA and perhaps it rubbed off some of the self-irony. Bu the biggest problem is the lack of editing (no doubt another contractual stipulation). No one should go unedited, especially when they barge their way into the canon uninvited. The Classics list will survive. Keats and Yeats will not be disturbed in their slumbers. But nemesis might visit Penguin yet. Imagine if this sets a precedent. What will they say when Robbie Williams demands that his self-penned monument be conferred Classics status too? Bono? Sting? Some X Factor instant has been? Will they have to break it to the artists and their agents that they are not quite as important as our Moz? And so lose the deal.

  7. cheryl.obrien@cwp.nhs.uk'
    October 24, 2013 at 08:59

    I really would “like to drop my trousers to the queen”

  8. meehanmiddlemarch@googlemail.com'
    November 9, 2013 at 02:38

    “The tossishness obscures the humour for me” – couldn’t have put it better myself – Morrissey has always left me cold – confirmed by his rude behaviour to Victoria Wood on her history of tea when she proffered a teapot submitted by a friend of hers – surely worth a bottle of Glengoyne for Gaw!

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