“A classic is a book that has lasted more than 100 years.” –Famous Person Cited by English Professor Too Long Ago to Remember
But the forgotten famous person has a point.
Today at work, I was talking with someone about a writing project she’s considering, and two books published several years ago came into the conversation. “Of course, they wouldn’t be published now,” I remarked. Times have changed, the publisher’s needs have changed, what the market is reading has changed…the list goes on.
My subconscious mind must have thought this was interesting because the topic recurred in another guise while I was scrubbing a saucepan after dinner.
It began with recollections of a picture book my mama read us often when I was a little girl. The book is called Supposings, by Johanna Johnston, Pictures by Rudy Sayers. See? That’s already something different. Picture books now say “illustrated by” on the cover. Why did that change, I wonder? Is the word “pictures” too specific, or not specific enough?
Everything about this book reminds me of my 1970s childhood. I remember it being read to us, I remember the sunlight inside the rooms of our house and that soft “nap-time-soon” quiet feeling of cuddling on the couch with wiggling siblings, staring at pictures, pointing at things at will, floating along in the sound of our mother’s voice.
The colors in the illustrations and the style of them remind me of the curtains on the landing and a wool plaid vest my mama sewed that still hangs in my closet, simply for love.
I love this book. But if Johanna and Rudy submitted it now, would it be published? Would it be hard-back? (I don’t like picture books to be paperback. Thin and flooooppppy.) Would this simple, childlike journey through an afternoon of daydreaming be considered a plot? The illustrations would be different, wouldn’t they? Even art for children follows trends. Are those trends set more by adults, or by the shifting landscape of a generation raised in front of screens?
Supposings was published by Holiday House, Inc., in New York, in 1967. There was no such thing as self-publishing in those days. That means a New York editorial staff thought this book was a good risk. Would they now?
What was the competition like back then? Were publishers swamped with submissions the way they are now? Perhaps they thought they were, but could their swamp compare with the tsunami made possible by personal computers, internet research, and the lure of social media stardom?
Years ago, my Daddy explained to me what he meant by “the time value of money.” He told me that even if I have a million dollars, if it hasn’t been paid to me yet (or it’s tied up in a trust fund or etc. etc.), then it’s value is changed. A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
Is there a similar principle for literature? To me Supposings is a classic because it is lovingly bound to a host of childhood memories. My objective analysis of its literary worth will be quite subjective, no matter what. Love is not blind, but sometimes love is not seeing the same object that everyone else is.
Would it be easier to evaluate the lasting literary contribution of a book for adults? I’m not sure. Novels go out of style. So do self-help books. Medical advice? Goodness yes! But at some point in all this analysis, one must confront the reality that a change in criteria is not always a change for the better. Before we can finish judging a book that wouldn’t be published if it were submitted today, we can’t avoid asking whether it should be.