Redheaded Neanderlady

Redheaded Neanderlady
This is a photoshopped version of something I found in National Geographic about the time I started researching

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Instant classics?

A few days ago, I was hunting around for a book I was reading(from the library), that apparently had been republished. I will be reviewing it, and its sequel, a bit later, once I've finished the book. While hunting around for this particular book, my eye happened to fall on a book(or was it boos?) in the Betsy-Tacy series, by Maude Hart Lovelace. I remember reading many of the Betsy-Tacy series as a child and young teen, and they were itneresting, and memorable in a way. But I wondered as I wandered: why were these being reprinted as adult books? Or, to put it more precisely, books for adult readers? I suppose you could say they were "historical", since they all take place in the early 1900's, up to about World War I.

In this case, it turned out that there is a Betsy-Tacy society, dedicated to preserving Ms. Lovelace's books for posterity. These are people(I imagine mostly middle-class, white women of a certain age), who in some way see "themselves" in a much more "innocent" time and are fond, as many people nowadays claim to be, of "innocent" books. I don't have any quarrel with this per se, but on the other hand, I don't exactly consider the Betsy-Tacy series, nor Maude Hart Lovelace, to be "classic" books, nor is she a "classic" writer, again in my opinion.

But this is just my opinion. There seem to be a lot of reissues, particularly of certain historica/romance type books, for which there is, apparently, a genuine readership. For example, many of Anya Seton's books(including my, and a lot of other people's favorite --Katherine), which is fine, because many of these books wer eout of print for a long time. Same thing with another of my favorite historical writers -- I got the name of one of the characters in my Great Medieval Science fiction Masterpiece with Neandertals from her -- Madselin. The book of that title hasn't been reprinted as far as I know, but another one calledThe Lute Player has. It's an odd book in some ways, as many Norah Lofts books are; there's a streak of, well, weird sour realism in some of them, and I remember this in The Lute Player.

The weird thing about all of this is, none of these books were considered anything but "popular" literature when I was reading them. Maude Hart Lovelace was a children's writer, and I found her books in the children's section of the library. Now they're apparently "for adults". Norah Lofts and Anya Seton were "popular" writers in the 1950's and earlier 1960's, and were certainly not treated as "literary" in any sense of the word.


Not that I'm unhappy with any of this republishing, but what makes a "classic", anyway? I'm old enough to remember reading these books when my hair wasn't gray. And I didn't think much, one way or the other, about them, except that I liked much of Norah Lofts and Anya Seton's writing, and I loved most of their subject matter. I certainly never thought they'd every be considered "classics". but I suppose tastes and times change, and things go in and out of fashion. As I said, maybe it has something to do with some people longing for more "innocent" times, whatever that may mean. As I say, I'm not pointing fingers at anybody in particular.

But it's also interesting that these books were a lot longer than is generally "allowed" nowadays, and some writing conventions that were "allowed" then have fallen out of fashion. Personally, I find longer books a lot more enjoyable, and I'm writing each of my books in this Great Medieval Science fiction Wioth Neandertals triology somewhat longer than is generally "allowed". . . .even ten or fifteen years ago, when the book I am now reading, was first published, a relatively unknown writer could get away with a 400-500-page book.

I also notice that the vast majority of these republishings are historical novels and "romantic-historicals" written by women. there aren't any similar books written by men(I mean certain "guy books" with lots of adventures, etc, not romance or "historical/romantic"). The only other genre I'm familiar with where "classic" authros have been republished is certain s-f collecions of authors like Isaac Asimov(though he has never really gone out of style), or -- all I can think of at the moment is Theodore Sturgeon, and a few others. In this case, the men outnumber the women by a huge margin, because when I frist began reading science fiction, most of the writers were men(with the exception of Zenna Henderson, some of whose work has also been reprinted).

All I can say to this is, the world of book publishing seems increasingly bizarre to me. Agents say that, from unknown authors, they want "short"(e.g. around 300 pages max) books of any kind, yet people complain that they are not getting "enough" new talent. I know economics plays a role in this; it's easier to print a shorter book than a longer one, and more profitable, at least until the author becomes better known. But why can't these guys take a chance? It's not just the publishers; it's the agents as well. And it's so difficult to get published that I see a lot of authors twisting themselves into knots to get themselves published. Again, I don't blame them.

And yes, I see a place for these old "classics" being republished(if you can, truly, call them "classics"). But why the republishing of old authors and titles, when there are a lot of good people who do good writing(and yes, I've seen that, too: I've been critiquing a lot of stuff, lately, so I know. I'm just puzzled, that's all. And I guess it's a puzzle that won't immediately be solved. At least not by me.
Anne G

12 comments:

Katie said...

I'd be curious to know if you consider the LIW books to be classics? Little Women? What do you think determines a classic? For me, character-driven books with incredible prose are usually my standard. The BT books meet these qualifications. I don't know if this grumpiness is usual for your blog, but I would love to have you re-read the series noting the spirit of friendship and familial love they show and then re-evaluate.

Stacy Belford said...

The members of the Betsy-Tacy Society and the Maud Hart Lovelace Socieyt are a diverse group of women and men who span a variety of ages. We not only love the BT books but are passionate advocates for books of all genres for children and young adults. We just happened to find each other through our mutual passion for this particular series. The girls turned young women in this series are unique for their time in that they don't see marriage as the only possibility for their adult lives. They are all well travelled and have careers above and beyond homemaking. Perhaps you should go back and actually reread the entire series before you are so quick to judge them.

CLM said...

I think historical fiction gains in popularity when current events are depressing. I remember reading the Betsy-Tacy books around 4th through 6th grades, then moved on to Norah Lofts and Anya Seton when I attended a school that went from 7th - 12th grades with a small but well stocked library, overseen by a very modern nun. I think I introduced her to Maud Hart Lovelace while she shared Lofts and an obscure English writer who had written two mysteries inspired by his sister, an RSCJ nun. It is great that so many of these classics are becoming available again!

Anne Gilbert said...

Stacy:

You may recall that I was careful to, shall we say, bracket my comments with "in my opinion". Note also, that I "imagined" what the members of the Betsy-Tacy books were like. I am more than happy to be corrected here, and if I came on as sounding overly critical, that was not my intention at all. I really rather liked the Betsy-Tacy series, and I distinctly remember reading every one of them. What might have seemed to you to be "criticism" was actually puzzlement, because (a), I never thought of the Betsy-Tacy series as adult literature in the broadest sense of the term, and was rather surprised that Barnes & Noble was selling the books in their "literature"section, and (b) until I saw the offering, and looked at it, I had no idea there even was a Betsy-Tacy society! My broader puzzlement was more on the lines of how some books become "classics", which started out as definite "popular" fare, and relatively recent "popular" fare at that. Lastly, I must emphasize, that I have absolutely no objection whatever, to people reading these books, whether they are the Betsy-Tacy series, or something else. I'm glad people are actually reading them, and I think there may well be markets for more of the same kind. So please accept my profoundest apologies if I offended or misunderstood in any way.
Anne G

Anne Gilbert said...

Katie:

Before I answer your question, can you tell me what the LIW books are(the abbreviation doesn't ring a bell). Also, this is kind of a hard question, and I'll have to give it some thought. I also realize that everyone has different tastes. Finally, when I was thinking about the "innocence" thing, I had something else in mind(but not necessarily what you're thinking), to which I will reply in full when I get your answer about that series.
Anne G

Anne Gilbert said...

CLM:

The idea that historical fiction "gains in popularity when current events are depressing" is an interesting one, and something I certainly hadn't thought of. I'm glad your "modern nun"(and I've met several nuns who are actually very "modern" in many ways)liked Norah Lofts, because I liked her, too, despite her sometimes almost cynical and sour strands to some of her work, and I read much of her work as a teen and young adult. Same with Anya Seton, though the last time I read anything of hers, which was maybe five years back, it didn't "wear" quite so well. Be that as it may, I loved Betsy-Tacy when I was younger, but I always thought of it as "children's fiction".

Katie said...

LIW=Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Matamgirl said...

Well I hardly think that everything Barnes and Noble shelves in their "literature" section is literature or it certainly isn't in my local store.

I believe that it was a decision on the part of Harper Collins to release the books as Harper Perennial Classics a designation that meant they would be classified as adult literature rather than young adult literature and shelved accordingly.

As for books being popular when they were released rather than literature that is the case for a lot of what we now consider "the classics" Charles Dickens's works were popular fiction when they were released as were Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. We remember them and not their contemporary writers and forget that while they were alive they were not considered the best writers out there.

athomethinkingwoman said...

The Betsy-Tacy series is mentioned in "You've Got Mail," in which the bookstore owner character is reknowned for her good taste in literature. Given your interest in anthropology, perhaps a reread of the series is worthwhile. I believe that the most recent reprintings are in the adult section because of the way bookstores stock certain imprints, not because they are considered adult books.

Anne Gilbert said...

Katie:

I hope you will drop in and look at this reply. I felt that your question about what I define as a "classic" deserved a more thorough answer than I could give it in a "comments" section; it was a very good one. So if you, or anyone else here, wishes too, please read my "How to Define a Classic" blog post, which I have just posted.
Anne G

Radhika Breaden said...

I would like to respectfully disagree with your ideas and classification of the Betsy-tacy books. I am an Asian-American physician and I was the chairperson of the recent Betsy-Tacy convention in Mankato in July 2009. I don't know if 40 is considered "of a certain age", but I have no religious beliefs or ideals of an older USA that was better and more wonderful than today. I love the books because they have perennial themes on friendship, growing up and relationships that WOULD fit today as they did almost 100 years ago.
Just FYI, the Betsy-Tacy Society is a local society which is mainly concerned with preserving the Houses, not necessarily book promotion, and had nothing to do with the recent convention. Some members of the board of the BTS have not even read all of the BT books.

Anne Gilbert said...

Radhika:

Once again, I stand corrected here. As I said in the post, I was just "imagining" the kind of person who liked these books, without much real knowledge. Obviously I was wrong here, and I hope you will be forgiving of my ignorance on this. However, there is kind of a "history" with this, though it's not mine. Certain "culture warrior" types, both male and female, point to pre 1960's literature(and especially pre-1960's children's literature), as modeling more "innocent" times which we should all strive to get back to. Obviously Maud Hart Lovelace was a writer of this supposedly "golden" era(and a good one, too, as were many others in that time and place). But one thing I did learn, and fast, is that people who like the BT series are not necessarily of this type, again, for which implied remarks, I apologize. Blog writing teaches one a lot of things, as well as disseminating information about various others. I hope you or others will continue to read this blog if you like, in the spirit of (hopefully friendly) mutual discussions about writing and reading and other related matters.
Anne G