Monday, January 23, 2012

It's a Cult Classic!

What does the term "cult classic" conjure up for you? Last week Ellie Robins of Melville House wrote this great post on the subject, responding to another article on the subject in El Pais. Robins asks whether the term is something that marketing folks apply to a book (and in doing so, do they strip the term of its meaning?) or if it's something that just gets applied to a work or an author. And in either case, what exactly does it mean?

The subject of cult books and cult classics has been on my mind lately because not too long ago I picked up a book called 500 Essential Cult Books: The Ultimate Guide, by Gina McKinnon and Steve Holland. It's one of those books-about-books, a long list of books the authors consider to be classics, albeit not the kind you were required to read in school. These books are the underground classics, the ones that got passed from friend to friend, or the ones you picked up in a used bookstore and read when you should have been doing your homework. Or the ones you read because your education was self-directed. When I was a teenager, I read all kinds of crazy things because nobody was really telling me what to read outside of school and my appetite for books was insatiable. Or they were the books you read because you felt a little outside the mainstream for some reason, and these were the books that spoke to you, the ones that made you feel like you belonged somewhere, or the books that let you step outside the lines from time to time.

A lot of the books McKinnon and Holland list trade on that alienation and marginalization or cover some kind of out-of-the-lines experience or idea. And I would bet almost none of these books were marketed initially as alternative or edgy or "cult." Books achieve cult status because they find a niche audience, fans who adore the and carry them around like totems and share them with friends. The aura of otherness, of specialness, grows up around them and as the books stand the test of time, become indelibly imprinted upon them.

So yeah, I don't think a marketer can tell me which book is a "cult classic" only because there's no way to know! How can a salesperson predict the future? I think it would be unfortunate if that term became just another piece of ad copy, just another trendy buzzword to apply to whatever flavor of the week someone in publishing is being paid to push.

I had a lot of fun paging through 500 Essential Cult Books; I found something in almost every chapter that I'd read and lots that I own and haven't read. Some of my favorites listed in the book include
  • The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa,
  • The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles,
  • The Prestige, by Christopher Priest,
  • Jesus' Son, by Denis Johnson, and
  • The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov.
When I realized that I had neither read or nor owned any books in the Religion chapter I bought Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the broken spine and dogeared pages on my battered, well-read used copy testament to its importance to at least one other reader. No marketer can tell me which books are really going to speak to me or last through the years; only readers themselves will make those determinations in the end.

What do you think? What does the term "cult classic" mean to you? What are your favorite "cult" books?

I had an idea to run a challenge based on 500 Essential Cult Books; any interest?