Classic misunderstanding

February 6, 2014

I found the patronising tone of the review of my book What Is a Classic? Postcolonial Rewriting and Invention of the Canon (Books, 23 January) very jarring. The book Robert Appelbaum fitfully evokes is not the one intended by me, and I must distance myself from his reductive reading of it.

He writes: “Instead of being indifferent to the question of the classic, [postcolonial writers] tried to write works worthy of becoming classics themselves.” This is simplistic and suggests an easy equation between the Western classic and the postcolonial writer, passing over exactly the fraught historical and cultural contexts my book explores. My argument (Appelbaum admits that he does not “understand most” of it) centres on how there can be no totalising answer to “what is a classic?”, the question of my title, in the changing and complex multilingual domain of literatures in English. The work also discusses how the frame of literary criticism in English, comparative and world literature has transformed and expanded radically enough for Midnight’s Children’s status as a literary classic not to be dependent on the conversation that it may or may not have with Tolstoy and his readers.

Ankhi Mukherjee
University of Oxford

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