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Can lit prof Nick Mount on what makes a classic a classic

For the Twisting Titles Twitter Challenge we asked you to paint a scene incorporating one or more titles of famous novel. Whether it is Catcher in the Rye or Moby Dick, it was all about the word play.

But it wasn't all fun and games! The best tweet had the chance to win a prize and we gave a book away every hour. In order to judge all your witty tweets, we reached out to nationally recognized student and professor of Canadian literature, Professor Nick Mount! 

Meet our Twitter challenge judge below!
You teach a class called Literature for Our Time where you focus on writers who continue to produce works today. In your opinion, which authors of today are going to become classics tomorrow?
I’ll stick to Canadian writers, since I know them best. Even so, predicting future taste is a fool’s game. (In 1967, people genuinely thought Engelbert Humperdinck would be remembered as the musician of the year.) Still, if I had to pick Canadian writers who have emerged in the last 20 years who I think we’ll still be reading in fifty years, I’d probably start the list with Newfoundland’s Lisa Moore. Anne Carson’s place already seems secure, even if she’s not always to my taste.  Barbara Gowdy, maybe. Karen Solie. There are many other writers I like, and some better, but those are the ones I’d be willing to put money on. 

Is there such thing as a key feature for a work to be considered a classic?
As I think Frye said, a classic is a book you can grow up within without ever becoming aware of its limits. Put another way, a classic is a book that expands to meet you. Sort of like my pants.

How do you connect your students to classic novels? 
I actually spend very little time trying to connect students to books, at least consciously. I try to show them what I find compelling about the books I teach, and leave it up to the students to find their own connections. I think it’s generally a mistake to approach art for its relevance to me, and no less to them. That said, I do tend to set aside a few minutes on each book to ask ourselves if it continues to be relevant to our time and place: not just one of us, but many of us. The way to do that is to look for legacies and influences. 

How do you choose new material for your students?
By reading a lot and widely. As a teacher, I’m looking for books that will fit within the narrative I want the course to tell in a particular year, as well as good books, and more practical considerations, like books the students can afford, or books short enough that they can read in the time we have.

What classic novel do you wish you wrote? Or, which classic novel do you never want to read again?
I’m not a novelist, nor was meant to be. Besides, the world has far too many writers, and far too few readers. As for classics I’d love the time to re-read all of them, but at least in my memory, I’d want to start with something fat by Dickens, or maybe Vanity Fair. Pretty much anything by Twain. I’ve tried Ulysses three times now, and never made it all the way through. I think it’s a good time to give up.

Nick Mount is a nationally recognized student and teacher of Canadian literature. He is currently Associate Professor and Associate Chair of the University of Toronto's English Department, responsible for the courses and programs of some 3,000 English undergraduates. Besides courses in Canadian literature, he teaches the Department’s popular first-year course, ENG140 Literature for Our Time. His lectures for this class have been broadcast and podcast on TVO’s Big Ideas and used in other courses across Canada

Photo by Derek Shapton

Did you miss our Twisted Title Twitter Challenge with #CanadaWrites? Check out the reader favourites and stay tuned for the winning tweet!


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