Just like fashion, everything classic comes round again in literature.
The big publishing companies are making the most of a hunger for enduring tales that have kept readers riveted across the years by creating cool new covers in easily recognisable ranges.
Henry Eliot, creative editor of Penguin Classics, says the appetite for them has never been greater.
“It’s partly due to innovative publishing in recent years, but it also reflects a wider cultural trend. Recent screen adaptations of The Night Manager, War & Peace and Twelve Years a Slave have all been hugely popular.”
While the timelessness of Penguin Classics books is unquestioned, the reason for their staying power is a mysterious thing.
“They might capture universal truths, helping us understand what it means to be human, or they may simply be hugely enjoyable to read,” Eliot says.
“As George Orwell wrote, a great book is one that can, ‘become part of the furniture of one’s mind and alter one’s whole attitude to life’.”
Readers of all ages trust the more than 70-year-old company and will give old books a go on that basis, Eliot says. “When you see a Penguin Classics cover, you know there’s an excellent text inside.”
John Steinbeck, George Orwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen are amongst the best sellers.
“Titles such as Of Mice and Men, Nineteen Eighty-Four, The Great Gatsby and Pride and Prejudice all tell exceptionally compelling stories, with situations and characters that remain with you for life,” Eliot says.
“They’re portals through which readers step into a brighter and richer world, forever, and anyone who has had that experience will encourage others to follow them through.”
Text Publishing have just released the 100th book in their Text Classics range, Mena Calthorpe’s 1950’s Sydney-set The Dyehouse. Originally published in 1961, it has a new introduction by best-selling author of The Night Guest Fiona McFarlane.
David Winter, a senior editor at Text Publishing, says the company has championed lost Australian books for two decades, so the Classic range was a formalisation of the process.
“In some respects, resurrecting forgotten classics is as important as getting new books to readers, because it’s all on a continuum: if you bring back Elizabeth Harrower, you make explicit the connections between her and Helen Garner, Joan London or Fiona McFarlane. No writing occurs in a vacuum.”
In four years, Text Classics has accrued almost 200,000 sales, with Winter saying the low price point is part of the appeal, as are the canary yellow-framed covers designed by W.H. Chong.
“Any series has to have a distinctive look, and the bar is set high with the iconic orange and white stripes of the Popular Penguins and the more serious, elegant approach of the New York Review of Books Classics. Chong, who is a genius, came up with the yellow livery and then found a hundred different ways to play with it.”
Harrower’s The Watch Tower has been the biggest hit, with The Women in Black by Madeleine St John, recently adapted into a successful musical, and Kenneth Cook’s outback horror-turned-film Wake in Fright not far behind.
“They’re extremely evocative, exceptionally well-written books, Exemplars of their kind,” Winter says.