Among the many great pieces of wisdom humanity has managed to cling to over the ages, there is the tenet that one should never judge a book by its cover. The wrapping paper, after all, usually says little about the stuff inside.
It does, however, say quite a bit about how we view the stuff inside.
For example, I have, in my life, been in possession of two copies of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. The first was a small paperback, with a cover akin to that of a romance novel, while the blurb on the back lauded it as a sweeping romantic tale. Despite the fact that the story of Wuthering Heights depicts an unhealthy, codependent relationship much more than an actual romance, and that the point of the book is, arguably, precisely that it’s not romantic, in 2007 readers of The Guardian voted Wuthering Heights the greatest love story ever told. That says a lot about how Emily Bronte’s story is regarded, and suggests that that cover was an accurate reflection of the prevailing cultural assumption that Wuthering Heights is, indeed, a romance.
The other copy of the book I’ve owned is a Norton Critical Edition, which is graced by a rather bland photograph of the moors while vaunting its academic editor and its belonging to a collection of critical editions that feature multiple works of criticism. It suggests another way in which we view the novel today: as a classic, worthy of footnotes and college essays, a work of “high culture” rather than popular culture.
Neither cover is entirely correct. Neither cover is entirely incorrect. Certainly there is some romance in Wuthering Heights, however dark and doomed, and certainly it’s deserving of being a literary classic. But it is not a tale of sweeping romance to be celebrated, or inspired by.
As for what makes a work a literary classic — well, that’s up for debate, based as much on the value of the work in itself as on today’s standards of what “good” and “literary” entail. Yesterday’s popular culture quite often becomes today’s high culture — and yet the distinction between popular and literary or artistic persists, for a number of reasons, among them, that of cultural capital and the maintenance of class boundaries through the rather foggy concept of “taste.”
This distinction between popular and literary, between high culture and popular culture, is particularly relevant in the face of another copy of Wuthering Heights I’ve recently acquired. This one belongs to Oldcastle Books’ new collection, Pulp! The Classics, which is exactly what it sounds like: a redesign of a number of great works of literature, republished with pulp paperback covers and blurbs to make them look like 20th-century popular fiction.
It’s a cool concept, but what makes me so excited about it is that it does more than add some clever new covers to beloved books; it irreverently challenges the way we view classics, starting with good old Wuthering Heights. It reminds us that most of what we regard as high culture today was one day popular culture, and treated as such.
In particular, many of the novels published by, say, Oxford University Press today, be they by Dumas or Dickens, Austen or the Brontës, were looked down upon – precisely because they were novels. What may be one of the most highly regarded forms of literature today was considered inferior to poetry or epic, a silly pastime, an entertainment engaged in by idle people with too much time on their hands. Jane Austen herself wrote a novel making fun of women who read novels – because reading novels so wasn’t cool, and it certainly wasn’t classy.
Thus, both Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, both in this collection, wouldn’t have been too well respected in their days. Wuthering Heights was published by Emily Brontë under a pseudonym, because a nice young lady writing a novel would mean a lot of bad press for the family name, and also because books by men were taken more seriously. It received some pretty terrible reviews upon publication. And, though Pride and Prejudice received favorable reviews, Austen’s books were still novels written by a woman – and the fame, respect and scholarship she has today would have been inconceivable two hundred years ago.
A number of other titles in this collection also have their roots in popular culture. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was published serially in a newspaper, and, once released in book form, would very likely have been for sale at train stations for some light train reading. Forget annotated editions; Wilde’s only novel would’ve been sold where today we see Dan Brown and whatever other mystery authors are the rage these days. It rather puts into perspective the thin paperback with the colored pages that fits in so well among old pulp mysteries that I often encounter in my favorite used bookstore.
But perhaps the most outrageous of the pulp titles is the upcoming “pulpification” of Shakespeare. What blasphemy! From a historical perspective, though, Shakespeare was the definition of popular culture. He may have created the English language as we know it today, but in his day, he was just a playwright writing for an acting troupe. He broke a bunch of dramatic conventions (as when he mixed comedy with tragedy) and eschewed the then-respected classical themes to depict English and European history. But his plays were performed in a public playhouse, with much of his audience made up of commoners who paid a penny to watch his plays while standing. Thus, while relatively well-known, Shakespeare was not exactly considered a Great Writer — and it’s only thanks to the Romantics in the 19th century that we know him today as the greatest playwright in the English language.
To save the best for last, there is Sherlock Holmes. I’ve written and reviewed quite a bit about Holmes and his numerous adaptations, sequels, and pastiches, spurred by my fascination both with Holmes himself and the popular phenomenon that he both was and is.
In the Victorian period, the Holmes stories, like Dickens’ and Wilde’s novels, were published in newspapers, making them pretty much the equivalent of TV shows today. Their popularity often bordered on hysteria, which of course did little for the stories’ literary standing in the cultural imagination. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself viewed the Holmes stories as a money-making venture, inferior to the historical romances that he preferred to write.
Yet today, though Sherlock Holmes remains as ridiculously popular as ever (which the plethora of recent adaptations testifying to the fact), the stories have also garnered respect and literary standing. They’re adapted by respectable studios like the BBC and released in a myriad of annotated editions.
Still, it would be well to remember that pretty much every single TV procedural and cheap paperback thriller for sale at an airport draws its lineage, its very identity as a mystery story, from Sherlock Holmes. To pulpify The Hound of the Baskervilles, therefore, is more fitting than it may seem at first glance.
So I leave you to consider: perhaps what Pulp! The Classics is really doing is returning these classics to their original context of popular culture and entertainment. They remind us that great ideas and literary value can exist in a literary work regardless of context — or perhaps they ask us how much the context influences the literary value that we find in a work of art.
The entire Pulp! The Classics collection of books (with a number forthcoming) can be found at their site.