It is hard to define a cult classic.
In Friday’s post on Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, I struggled to define the idiom. My own fuzzy sense is that cult classics are quirkier or more obscure than classics or the typical best-seller, though best-sellers can be cult classics. (Stranger in a Strange Land is an example.) But perhaps the meaning of the term is changing in online discourse: many lists of “cult classics” now include popular books from the canon, like Jane Eyre. Classic or cult classic? Can they be both? Sometimes, but Jane Eyre is definitely not a cult classic.
The dictionary definitions are also nebulous. The Oxford Dictionary vaguely opines: “Something, typically a film or book, that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.” The Collins Dictionary elaborates on that: “Typically a movie or book that is popular or fashionable among a dedicated passionate fanbase creating an elaborate subculture that engage in repeated viewings quoting dialogue and audience participation.” The writer of the Collins entry loses many, many points with me for omission of commas and writing “fanbase” as one word.
Onwards from schoolmarmdom…
Here is a list of five of my favorite books that probably are cult classics. At least one of them is in the canon, though I would argue it has been relegated to cult classic status. Do let me know what you think. Maybe they are too well-known, or too obscure.
And do recommend your own favorites.
1. Nobel Prize winnner’s Sigrid Undset’s medieval trilogy, Kristin Lavransdatter. These gorgeously-written historical novels, The Bridal Wreath, The Mistress of Husaby, and The Cross, set in 14th-century Norway, chronicle Kristin Lavransdatter’s life and her experience of love: filial love, intense friendship, passionate first love, sex, a tumultuous marriage, maternal love, charity, religion, and spiritual love. And as time goes on, Kristin becomes aware that her greatest sin, pre-marital sex with the handsome older slacker, Erlend, has shaped her unhappiness and the fates of her sons. She is constantly pregnant and ill, but still must run the household, and her impetuous husband is imprisoned for treason after organizing a political plot. The church is Kristin’s refuge, and in the final book, Kristin embarks on a religious pilgrimage.
But this is all about the stye, even in translation, and not the plot. I posted about this stunning trilogy here. And, by the way, I would love to see the Folio Society publish this with gorgeous illustrations!
2. Petronius’s Satyrica (often known as Satyricon). We have only fragments left of this risque Roman novel. Only one manuscript (in very bad shape) survived to the ninth century.
This irreverent, sometimes obscene, masterpiece was written by Petronius Arbiter, Nero’s arbiter of taste. It is probably (so scholars hazard) a Menippean satire (a long work of prose mixed with verse) of the first century A.D. (Some are not sure that Petronius the author is the same as Nero’s Petronius.) The longest chapter extant, “Trimalchio’s Dinner Party,” inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Fellini’s movie Satyricon. The Great Gatsby was originally entitled Trimalchio.
If you have time to read only a bit of this, I recommend “Trimalchio’s Dinner Party.” It requires the fewest footnotes. Trimalchio is a hilarious, kindly, vulgar millionaire, a freedman who started as an accountant. He pisses in gold chamber pots, washes his hands with wine, dries his hands in slaves’ hair, serves gourmet dishes shaped like the Signs of the Zodiac, and has acrobats jumping through flaming hoops during dinner. Yes, like Gatsby, he’s nouveau riche.
My favorite translation is by Frederic Raphael (only available through the Folio Society, and unfortunately out of print, but you can find used copies).
3. Nancy Hale’s The Prodigal Women. Imagine a fusion of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls, and you’ve got the readability index of this out-of-print novel. A few years ago Dover planned to reissue it: why they dropped it I don’t know.
Set between 1922 and 1940, this well-written novel vividly portrays three very different heroines. Leda March, the intellectual daughter of a well-to-do Boston family, is friendless and longs to fit in with other girls: she is victimized first at the Country Day School in Hampton and later at a girls’ schools in Boston. Her life changes when the Jekylls, a Southern family, move to Massachusetts because Mrs. Jekyll wants culture: the youngest daughter, Betsy, takes Leda under her wing, and both adore her lovely older sister, Maizie, who is surrounded by men.
In 2014 at The Toast, Caitlyn Keefe Moran wrote an essay about The Prodigal Women , “In Praise of Difficult Women: The Forgotten Work of Nancy Hale.”
And you can read my post on it here.
4. Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Helena trilogy, of which An Avenue of Stone is the brilliant centerpiece, shows Johnson at the height of her powers. The first book in the trilogy, Too Dear for My Possessing (1940), is a coming-of-age novel: Claud, the narrator, bickers with and competes against his beautiful, controlling, often wicked stepmother Helena, a former chorus girl. After his father’s death, his life is inextricably intertwined with Helen’s, for better or worse.The second and the third novels, An Avenue of Stone and A Summer to Decide, published in 1947 and 1948 respectively, continue the story.
You can read the rest of my post here!
5. In Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a fictional memoir published in 1968, the hero, also called Frederick Exley, cannot hold a job. Exley, an alcoholic, is in and out of mental hospitals, sponges off his parents, or lives at a bachelor friend’s apartment where flamboyant, sad characters drop in all day, including an Italian who sometimes believes he is a hit man. Exley wittily delineates and skewers the customs and hypocrisy of the American middle class in a brilliant narrative akin to Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road and Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife.
You can read the rest of my post here.
Cult classics or not? It’s all intuition. Let me know!
May I suggest Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It strikes me that cult classics tend to emerge from popular fiction, but then there are the Janites who have made Austen into a cult figure.
Yes, Philip K. Dick! And Jane Austen does have some dedicated fans who dress up, so I think you’re right: she has some cult fans as well as regular fans like me.
The Dollmaker? D.E. Stevenson? George R.R. Martin?
Yes, these books have their audiences. People who read them are so enthusiastic. (I wish I liked Martin more, because it would take care of my reading for a year.)