What Is a Cult Classic? Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land & Other Favorites

This 1961 SF novel is a cult classic.

What exactly is a “cult classic”?

My brain tells me this saucy subgenre includes offbeat books like Sue Kaufman’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (a 1960s feminist comedy)  and Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet (a quartet of poetic sexy novels about a group of exotic writers, artists, mystics, expatriates, and a femme fatale in Alexandria, Egypt).  My brain tells me such books are appreciated by a limited audience.

If you peruse lists of cult classics, and there are hundreds, there is nothing very offbeat about the majority of the books.  They showcase mainstream classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye, and Jane Eyre.  And this is why we don’t trust categories.  I don’t want to snap my chewing gum in public and say “I told you so,”but are these cult classics?  You’ll find these on your high school English syllabi.  Yes, I agree that Naked Lunch and A Confederacy of Dunces belong, but Pride and Prejudice is not really a cult classic, is it?

So how do the dictionaries define the phrase?  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 more specific Collins dictionary struck a chord with me: ” 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 uncut version!

This summer, instead of perusing a huge tome like Tale of Genji, I plan to enjoy one or more cult classics.  I am thinking about cult classics because I have been reading Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel, Stranger in a Strange Land,  which is my first Heinlein, and was the first science fiction book to make the New York Times Best-Seller list. It is  literally a cult classic, in the sense that the hero, Valentine Michael Smith, a man from Mars, founds a church/cult on Earth based on a ’60s-style philosophy of brotherhood and free love. It actually influenced the counterculture philosophy of the ’60s.

Far-out, yes?  Are you in the groove?  The hero, Mike, a human raised by Martians on Mars, has returned with human astronauts to Earth, supposedly  as a Martian ambassador.  He is an innocent unused to Earth’s gravity who can barely walk and he knows very little English. He often shuts his body down for hours and is mistaken for dead, in order to process, or “grok” what is happening.  (Heinlein’s word “grok” is in  dictionaries and means “to understand profoundly, intuitively, or by empathy.”)  Mike takes everything literally and trusts everyone:  if you share a glass of water with him, you become his lifelong “water brother,” which is more binding that the relation of “blood brother.”

But Mike is in danger.  Ben, a journalist investigating the legality of the sequestration of the alien,  disappears, and his panicked girlfriend Jill, a nurse, takes his warnings seriously and breaks Mike out of the hospital and flees with him to the estate of Ben’s friend, Jubal Harshaw, an eccentric, rich, wily lawyer, doctor, and  writer of pop fiction, who manages through his contacts and experience to cut deals to ensure the freedom of Mike and Ben.

Neil Gaiman,  in his introduction to the lovely hardcover Penguin Galaxy edition, explains that this underground best-seller had “an enormous effect on the 1960s.”

Gaiman writes,

Stranger fed the counterculture.  People tried to put Heinlein’s precepts into action, with mixed results.  (The claims that Stranger is a book that inspired the Manson family seem entirely without basis, but the book certainly inspired its share of communes, and at least one church.)

I am fascinated by the premise of the stranger and his perceptions of our world, though, truth to tell, am bored by the orgy scenes. And there is an uncut version, published by Ace in 1991, which I would like to read, because he developed the characters more thoroughly in the original:  he had to cut 60,000 words to get it published.  (Does this remind you of Trollope’s The Duke’s Children? Which to read?  The original, or the uncut?)

Inspired by Heinlein, I plan to read more cult classics, if I “grok” what they are.  Any suggestions?   Somewhere  we have a book by Kathy Acker. I am quite sure it counts as a cult classic, because I find the postmodern Ms. Acker unreadable! Still,  this will be the summer I “grok” Acker.  I am looking at the cover of her Great Expectations and “grok” it. And a  stranger recommended a romance novel called Stormswept, which might be a bracing post-post-modern follow-up!

Do recommend some cult classics!