Iconic 80s singer and former front-man of The Smiths Morrissey has declared his autobiography a classic. Normally this wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Rock stars have made less ridiculous pronunciations, and Morrssey’s level of stardom puts him in a category all by himself. Yet, Morrissey has not just proclaimed his classic status, he demanded that Autobiography be released as a Penguin Classic. Lo and behold, Penguin capitulated.
Those black spines are synonymous with the highest levels of intellectual achievement. The imprint includes Plato, Dante, Dickens, Virgil, Freud, and Confucius, to name only a small few. When it was evident that great works of literature were being created in the modern era, Penguin created an entirely separate category, Modern Classics, just to keep the sanctity of the original Classics. Authors like James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and F. Scott Fitzgerald quickly filled the ranks of the Modern Classics, creating a new standard of quality for the 20th century.
I love Morrissey, I really do. I proudly don a tight black t-shirt with his face on it, blasting The Queen is Dead and pretending “I Know It’s Over” is about every girl who has ever broken my heart. But seeing his face on a Penguin Classic enrages me. For myself, the subdued black cover with slight orange font is synonymous with trust. A Penguin Classic means the book you are holding is absolutely worth your time, better yet, essential to your education. In short, when nuclear war is upon us, I will be eagerly shoveling black spines into the bunker hoping any survivors find them and preserve their legacy. Morrissey has no place among the Classics. The Classics are for authors long dead, for those whose work has come to define the human experience.
In other words, Penguin has betrayed my trust.
It would be one thing if Penguin declared Morrissey’s Autobiography a Modern Classic. One could make an argument for an accomplished lyricist’s foray into prose as deserving of the title because of his years spent already writing songs. Yet, Penguin does not do this for their current authors. Thomas Pynchon’s seminal novels, the ones that defined Post-Modernism (V., The Crying of Lot 49), have received the status of Modern Classic. In the fifty years since they were published, they are still being taught, argued over, and complained about by Jonathan Franzen. Yet, Pynchon’s newest novels are not published as Modern Classics, despite the fact that their author helped define modern writing. Books cannot be declared classics upon their inception; they have not withstood the test of time.
I do not care whether or not Morrissey’s Autobiography is good. While it’s doubtful, Autobiography could outshine Bob Dylan’s poetic Chronicles Vol. 1 or Patti Smith’s exceptional Just Kids, two memoirs that may very well be called classics in a few years. Autobiography could also be a tawdry, 457-page list of grievances as some reviewers have suggested. Morrissey’s Autobiography simply should not be a Penguin Classic or a Penguin Modern Classic. After all it is not even a regular classic. It’s a memoir. A memoir that might be good, and might be bad, but has not achieved classic status. Classics, by definition, need to be time tested. While “Instant Classic” is a catchy phrase, and might signify that something is destined for classic status, there is no such thing. Despite Morrissey’s larger than life persona, he is no exception to the definition of the word “classic.”
Classics are not born, they are made.