The discontinuity with Penguin Classics

In my last post, I mentioned and showed that my partner and I received our copy of Morrissey’s ‘Autobiography’ through the post on Thursday, the day of its release. Since its publication was announced, the biggest debate has been around the decision by Penguin to release the volume as a ‘Classic’, complete with the famous black livery. It was a condition of its publication that it would be issued as such, but this has provoked fury from many people due to the book having only just been released, and so not qualifying as a ‘Classic’ on the basis of the usual criteria ie age, importance and popularity. People have also stated that perhaps the ‘Penguin Modern Classics’ imprint would be more fitting, as the ‘Classics’ brand is reserved for texts that are pre-1900. However, I would like to take a moment to show several ways in which this decision is actually not a strange one by Penguin, by looking at some of their other books in print.

I said in the last post that I have recently started to read Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’, and so I will start with this.

HoD MCThe cover on the left is the Modern Classics version of this book that I have (well, mine is the 2000 edition without the white band, but otherwise it’s the same), and the other two are earlier Modern Classics editions. Now.

HoD CHere we have four editions of ‘Heart of Darkness’ (with ‘The Congo Diary’ in the third case) all from the Penguin Classics series. I can see where Penguin are coming from: the story was first published in serial form in 1899, and so falls under the ‘Classics’ brand, but was then published as a book in 1902- thus a Modern Classics.

Another case, this time E.M. Forster’s ‘Maurice’, written 1913-14, and published in 1971.

EMF MThe first two covers are from Modern Classics, with the third a Classics version. Similar images can be found for all of Forster’s works, with both Classics and Modern Classics editions available.

t s e t wThen there’s this: ‘The Wasteland and Other Poems’ by T.S.Eliot. Interestingly, this great work of Modernist literature has been published as a Classic by Penguin and not a Modern Classic. This is also the case with James Joyce- my edition of ‘Ulysses’ is a Modern Classic, but my copy of ‘Dubliners’ as shown in a previous post is part of one of the previous series of Classics. I could go on with similar examples.

Another issue that has been had is with Morrissey’s book being a new book, and having not already been out before. Well, Penguin do also have a knack of publishing previously unpublished works as Classics and Modern Classics too. For example:

Truman Capote Summer CrossingThis recently unearthed early manuscript by Capote was published for the first time in 2006 as a Penguin Modern Classic, despite not actually being a classic at this point. It could be argued that it was by a classic author, but… the book still wasn’t technically a Modern Classic. The same could be said for the published letters or diaries of famous authors which then get released as part of the Classics range.

Personally, I feel that Penguin are perhaps making an interesting choice publishing ‘Autobiography’ as a Classics, but unlike some people, do not feel that it is such a strange thing for them to do. Perhaps a Modern Classic would have been more appropriate, but some form of classic status is not unfitting. The lyrics of The Smiths could be published as Modern Classics, which by Penguin’s interesting logic (as demonstrated here) would then make this autobiography an automatic classic. Or perhaps we can now have the lyrics of The Smiths published as a Classic on the back of this. Only time will tell!

autobiographymorrissey_lrg

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One thought on “The discontinuity with Penguin Classics

  1. John Fordham says:

    nonsense – this is a debasement of the whole meaning of the word classic, a work written a number of years ago (thousands to say fifty) but which is still relevant to our times. There are so many real classics out the some still untranslated into English that by publishing this in the classics series is both a defilement and a debasement. Shame on you Penguin, I am not gullible enough to swallow this one. It will not be added to my collection of Penguin Classics. Perhaps we can look forward to something written in the not too distant future by Justin Bieber or a member of One Direction!

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