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?


Heidenkind said...

Great post, Marie! To me a "cult classic" definitely implies a niche market, but I think it's more along the lines of something whose fans feel there are parts of themselves that can't be understand unless you love the movie/book/etc. as much as they do. If that makes sense? So as soon as you know someone else is also a fan, you feel a connection to them.

I would say during the first few seasons, X-Files was for sure a cult classic. LJ Smith's books were also cult classics until they were rereleased and the TV shows based on them started. Now a lot of that magic has disappeared, at least for me.

A cult classic challenge would be amazing!

Sandy Nawrot said...

I totally cannot contribute because when I think of "cult classics" I think more of movies! So what does that say about me and my literary prowess? Probably that I suck. Now cult movies - I can talk cult movies.

Zibilee said...

I have read a few of these on the list, and if you want to experience a great book, I would say to go with The Master and Margarita, which is something I read many years ago. I will also give my thumbs up to Naked Lunch. I have been trying in vain to obtain a copy of The Prestige from the library, but they have been difficult, so I am planning on ordering it from my audio source in the next week or so. Your comments on that book have stayed with me.

Jessica said...

I would definitely be interested in a Cult Books challenge. Go for it!

bookspersonally said...

What an interesting topic, love heidenkind's interpretation of the connection between fans/followers.

Jeanne said...

I also think there's a bit of "this was wildly popular for a while and I can't figure out why" in the application of the label "cult classic." I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance when I was 12-13 because everybody was reading it. Eco's The Name of the Rose was like that for a while.
On the other hand, I hadn't heard of The Master and Margarita (I liked it) until a couple of years ago, and didn't read The Prestige until around the time the movie was coming out. So sometimes the "cult" status helps keep it in circulation.

Rebecca Chapman said...

I know this will probably be a pointless comment, but its something that has never really occured to me. I tend to think that what is consdiered a cult classic is so subjective its almost impossible to think that one could really exist - but i obviously need to give it more thought.

Re-reading that, if a cult classic is a book that isn't a classic, but gets it own little following, wouldn't all books be cult classics?

Unknown said...

I've held that book in my hands a couple times at the store. Examined it closely. It's a fascinating topic that I could probably expound upon forever. I like what an earlier poster said about the X-Files first couple seasons: spot on. I think the same can be said of so many of those books included in this top 500 list: they began as cult classics, but have since become so mainstream the cult label, I think, no longer applies. The Naked Lunch, for instance, once cult, but now possibly canonical. Same for Master and Margarita.

I'm very happy to see The Sheltering Sky included. I've never really considered it a cult classic insomuch as I've just considered it a classic period, but I'm glad to see it get some attention regardless of any label. Is there a more hits-you-in-the-gut ending to a novel than in that debut masterpiece? It's been over ten years since I read it, and I'm still going "whoa!"

Marie Cloutier said...

Becky, Enrique and Heidenkind, I think I would probably distinguish between cult classics and a cult phenomenon; classics stand the test of time- they're not trends. X Files was a cult phenomenon in its first few seasons but I don't think it was a CLASSIC at that point because it was too new. Same with the books you mentioned, Becky. I don't think you can say something is a classic until it's had a couple of decades to show it can stick around and still be relevant. Something can certainly be a cult phenomenon when it launches though, before it gains mainstream popularity. And Enrique I have to disagree that Naked Lunch is canonical- it's way too edgy to ever be mainstream! :-)