RARA-AVIS: letting time sort it out

From: DJ-Anonyme@webtv.net
Date: 19 Jun 2006

Defining literature as what has lasted makes me think of a conversation I recently overheard. One teen was talking to another about music. He proudly declared that he did not listen to new music. He wouldn't even consider listening to a band until it had been around for a while. He is currently listening to Coldplay, can like them now that they have three [studio] albums out and are still good. I had a hard time holding in my laughter. Leaving aside the questionable quality of Coldplay's most recent, redundant album (except for the great hidden track) and the perfect excuse this practice provides for lazily letting others do the sifting, what about one hit wonders? There are plenty of bands who make one great album, plenty of authors who wrote only one good book. Of course, this isn't an exact corollary for the test of time, since many one shots, both musical and literary, are deemed to have stood the test of time,

It is also terribly dismissive of new material. What, I've got to wait until Ken Bruen has written three books and had them well reviewed before I can read any of them? (Of course, with Bruen's swift output, that would only require waiting a month or two.) I'm sure there are plenty of people who only read older works, but I wouldn't want to miss the thrill of discovering a great new author and following his or her career to see if the books get even better.

Of course, the real logical problem with this theory is rediscovered classics. Hard Case Crime, Starkhouse, Point Blank Press, Crippen & Landru, etc, are all engaged in finding and reprinting lost classics. But how could a classic become lost? I mean, if it "speaks to something timeless in the human condition," how did it ever go out of print? Wouldn't the test of time remain consistent? Did Hammett (at least his short stories), for instance, cease to be great literature in the '60s and '70s, only to become it again when even most of his hardest to find short stories have been anthologized?

In addition, who is it that determines if and how something stands the test of time? Do we only consider what noted scholars of literature say? If so, much of what we discuss here would be thrown out. Or do we defer to authorities in the field, in which case crime fiction, sci-fi, comic books, etc, would be judged by those who study them? By this point, we're getting pretty relativistic, not to mention insular, steering away from any universal canon? Or do readers judge? Is it just a matter of sales? Is Stephen King great literature since his books have remained constant sellers, have withstood at least several decades of time? (Never having read any of his novels, I'm not commenting one way or another on his worthiness.)

I do like a lot of old books. However, I don't kid myself that I'm reading them the same way that original readers (or even other conemporary readers) did. As an example, it was recently noted that Travis McGees can now be read for their vision of a different time. So I don't see the books "standing a test of time," but as standing up to the test of "right now." As times change, taste also changes, both the taste for what is new and for what is recognized, and how it is recognized, from the past.


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