Question for the Club: What constitutes a classic?

Hi all,

I was just checking our recent comments (which come to us via email) and I saw one with a question that I’d like to put to the group:

What constitutes a Classic?

There are countless articles and essays that attempt to answer this question, but I don’t believe there exists a definitive answer.  Is it age?  Is it related to awards or honors?  Is it purely decided in the heart of its reader?

It seems that we had made an attempt to answer this question at some point in time.  However, our link is now broken and I can’t find the post!  So, let’s start a new one!  Tell us, how would you answer that question?

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20 thoughts on “Question for the Club: What constitutes a classic?

  1. I go purely off the age of the book, my arbitrary cut off being about 1970, which I admit does seem a bit simple. I figure if a book has somehow made it into my hands after being in the world for over fifty years, it’s earned the title.

    I feel like reading is a very personal act, so objectively basing a book’s ‘classic’ status on something as subjective as the quality of writing or its impact on the reader seems a bit odd to me.

    Although, this system does seem a bit silly when you’re reading an author like Muriel Spark or Graham Greene, whose writing spans over fifty years and across my imaginary cut-off date.

    It’s a tricky one, for sure.

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  2. This is a tough one for me since I only read classics in university and am just getting back into them now, so I’m just getting familiar with classics that are outside of what most people talk about (basically anything by old white dudes). For me, I feel like a classic is something that has stood the test of time, something that keeps getting published, bought, reissued, etc. I think it’s any book that you can read and finish, and then feel like you need to read it again and again to get the subtle nuances throughout the story, maybe the clues the author left that give hints of the outcome, or something new about favourite characters. I also feel like a classic is something that leaves me thinking about what I read, the symbolism throughout the story, what the story means to humankind. I’ve seen people say that anything over 50 years old is a classic, but there are still books that were published in the late 20th century and even in the past decade or so that I can see as classics one hundred years from now.

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  3. Simply put, quality writing that has something to say about humanity or the world, and which endures. I suppose, by implication, anything written more recently than 25 years hasn’t had a chance to become ‘classic’, though I certainly wouldn’t want to apply that rule rigorously.

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  4. For the purposes of the Classics Club, I decided to count any book over fifty years old. In my mind though, I added two riders – they should have been consistently in print* (not just Gutenberg etc, but actual books that people are willing to still pay money for) and the all-important one – that the blurbs should appeal to me! If I was taking the question more seriously though, I’d say it should be a book that either is superbly written (and generally recognised as such), or says something significant about either its time of writing or the ‘human condition’, and perhaps has influenced future writers – preferably all of these to be considered truly great. Maybe also that it has passed into the general culture so that even people who’ve never read it use references to it, maybe without even being aware of it – like “Bah! Humbug!”. Sometimes with the really great classics I find myself thinking I’ve read them before when in actual fact I may just have seen films and adaptations or picked up the story from other people talking or writing about them, and then when I settle down for a “re-read” I’ll discover to my surprise that I haven’t actually read it at all – to me, that’s one sign of a classic.

    * I quickly discovered that due to English cultural dominance in Britain, many Scottish classics have been allowed to go out of print and, because they were rarely taught in schools or universities, have drifted out of the public consciousness almost entirely. Part of my Classics Club list is an attempt to redress that, so I have in fact included some out of print books.

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  5. Italo Calvino “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

    I often wonder about books deemed as modern classics. They may seem so today but don’t they have to pass some time test, say fifty years, at least? But that puts us back only as far as the 1960s…Hmm.

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    • This is the best definition that I’ve seen so far, love it! However, it does exclude many genre titles that have no pretensions to greatness but are fun to read per se. Agatha Christie, I’d imagine, comes in that category for example — good at what she does but can it say much that is new on a second or seventh reading? (I write as someone who has only ever read two or at most three AC titles, so don’t shoot me down!)

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      • I like “never finished saying what it has to say”. Although that definition seems to exclude readers/humans. Could another way of saying that be “A book must have something relevant to say to people, generation after generation”? I think that some degree of continuous popularity is relevant.

        An interesting thing about Agatha Christie is that her books aren’t read once only, despite the reader knowing the “whodunit”, they famously get reread over and over. There must be something else in there that brings people back. Perhaps we can say that she writes classics within her genre? Some are almost one hundred years old now. Plus estimated 2-4 billion sales. I’ve only read two AC’s myself (recently reviewed MOTOE). The BBC are planning to put lots on TV.

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        • A subtle shift in perception but yes, books have to remain relevant to readers when all’s said and done.

          As for dramatised Agatha Christie’s I do enjoy those television productions, from those wonderful ‘classic’ Miss Marple BBC episodes starring Joan Hickson to more recent one-offs that both the BBC and ITV have shown.

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  6. This was my response from 2012 when The Club first posed the question.
    http://bronasbooks.blogspot.com.au/search?q=what+is+a+classic

    I was pleased to see that I had addressed the issue of forgotten classics or stories by women, slaves and the dispossessed as I’m becoming more and more aware that the books we read as classics have often been declared so by men.
    A whole swathe of brilliant Australian women writers from the early years of white settlement have been out of print for decades and decades because the white male literary world deemed them not worthy enough. Fortunately Text Publishing came along about 10 yrs ago and started rectifying this glaring oversight. I’m sure it has been an issue in other countries too.

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    • Excellent points about forgotten classics! Personally, it is a pet peeve of mine when I look at classics challenges or the like and there is (what feels to me like) an arbitrary minimum date set for what “counts” as a classic. I think there is more to it than just a publication date — and others have commented more eloquently in that vein. There is also more to it than just what has *always* been considered “canon.” The publishers who are working to bring back into print books that were written by under-recognized writers that fit the bill of all those wonderful quotes in your post (speaking to new generations, etc.) is wonderful. I love that the Classics Club doesn’t have a strict definition and that it is an ongoing conversation rather than a foregone conclusion 🙂

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  7. I think that there are many kinds of classics – all genres have classics. I know that traditionally ‘classics’ are 50 years old or older, but I recently joined the Classics Club and I defined my choices as ‘classics’ for me. I mostly read in the mystery/thriller/Gothic/crime genres and I wanted to read and reread some books that I felt were ‘classics’ and ‘modern classics’ with my favorite themes. I also don’t want authors that I loved as a teenager and young adult to be forgotten. So, authors like Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels and Phyllis A. Whitney and Tony Hillerman are on my list. Guess I say all that to say – a classic is what the reader says it is – what has struck a chord in them and taught them something. And I used books all the way up to 1988. For me, the books on my list are ‘classics’ and I’ll enjoy reading them.

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  8. For me a key characteristic of a Classic would be their ability to leave a trace in the reader and/or culture at large. Influencing people, later works or even language itself. Thus a work could be a classic if it substantially influenced later works, even if the original work itself is outdated by now. So if a works influences culture in a way that goes beyond a short-term trend I would call it a classic. Alternatively if it influences people to the point where it is passed down from one generation to the next (and not read at the same time, I’m thinking of works I would recommend to my hypothetical children when they reach the age I was when I first read it). Both would require some minimum time to pass before it can be evaluated. Of course, then the difficulty comes to determine between major and minor classics, perhaps anything that is at all remembered after 50 years should be considered a minor classic?

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  9. A classic has the power of endurance. Older books are more obviously classics because they have stood the test of time. Awards in the present may be indicators of a classic, but only time will tell. There are several Nobel winners from a century ago that are no longer read.

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    • Yep, many Nobel winners are now rarely read. And think of all the “classic” writers that didn’t win the Nobel Prize for Literature, it doesn’t inspire much confidence … no prize for Leo Tolstoy, Henry James, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Lawrence Durrell, Virginia Woolf, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, J.W.W. Tolkien, W.H. Auden, Primo Levi, Chinua Achebe, E.M. Forster, John Updike, Robert Frost and Graham Greene (to name a few). Time is a better judge, as you say.

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  10. I think it is about age in principal. When a book is well written and tells a good story, and it is read even 200 or more years later. For me the criteria for a classic it that it is read many years after it was written. I am just reading Lancelot by Chrétien de Troyes and find it very interesting, and easy to read. I could never imagine that I would like it so much. But the writing is wonderful and it is not difficult at all. The same for ‘Candide’ that I just read. What a wonderful book. Definitely a classic! Like a fine wine, it has to age well to be called a classic.

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  11. What constitutes a Classic? I don’t think it has anything to do with literary prizes. Having worked in the book/publishing world, there is far too much in the way of shenanigans, horse-trading, politics, ideology, personal vendettas, fashion etc to mean much. Much of it is arbitrary/ luck (various strange rules – “x” is allowed, “z” is not … and publishers are limited as to the number of entries allowed). And, of course, it isn’t God making the decision, it’s three or four time-pressed people (with vested interests) having to read hundreds of books to impossible deadlines. Prizes are a lot of fun at the time, but don’t mean much longer term.

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  12. This is one of those words, like vintage or antique, which seem to sit on shifting sands! From being something that related to the classical period it shifted to become a label for serious or ‘art’ music, for example, and now to anything that (a) has stood the test of time (whatever that test consists of) and/or (b) is held in high regard by a group of people.

    In other words, pop music from the 50s, 60s or 70s qualify, for example (or any other example from popular culture you care to name) just as much as a Brahms symphony or an aria by Mozart.

    In literature those two criteria I mentioned above seem to me to collectively a good means to judge a classic novel. Joseph Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent’ is one (helpfully more than a century old); Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ must also count (although considerably younger) because so many readers rate it as a groundbreaking reading experience.

    Genre is no barrier either to ‘classic’ status: I’d happily name and recommend several titles in the children’s, YA, fantasy, crime, SF, thriller or other category (can’t speak for romance though, sorry!) as modern or historic classics. But you may be disagree with me on my choices!

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