Monthly Meme: A Topic Revisited: What Makes a Classic?

I know that the Classics Club has addressed this topic before, but it’s one that I’ve struggled with, first when I made up my first list, and more recently as I post our club reviews. That activity more than any other has convinced me that members must have different definitions of a classic.

I began this article by doing some research. What is the definition of a classic? Many definitions that I found online mentioned highest artistic quality, but since we explicitly state that a classic can be from any genre, and genre fiction is not always concerned with artistic quality, I think that’s too restrictive a definition for our purposes.

I looked at an earlier Classics Club article addressing the topic and was interested at some of the member definitions in the comments. One person said that as long as a book was 50 years old and the member could find it, it was a classic. But does the age of a book make it a classic? It certainly seems like it must be a factor, but does just being old make a book a classic? I would venture to say that it’s possible, even, that not every book by a recognized classic author is a classic, but maybe that’s just my background as a literature student.

Certainly, age must factor in, though, mustn’t it? Yet, some members submit very recent books. When I first made up my list and was looking for ideas, I saw that people were doing this and added a book onto my list that was new, thinking that I could tell it was going to be a classic. However, since then, hardly anyone has mentioned it, proving to me that my judgement isn’t so great and that maybe I need to wait for a test of time. So, I think age does factor in, not least because several of the definitions I looked up said something like “judged over a period of time to be . . . outstanding of its kind.” The ellipses is where I left out that troublesome “of highest artistic quality.” But what period of time? The member mentioned previously picked 50 years, but how arbitrary is that number? Could it be 30 years? 20? I don’t know. I have to admit that I incline more to 50 years or older, just like antiques.

One answer from the previous article that I liked at first glance was something like at least 50 years old and continuously in print. Okay, I thought, that sounds more like it. But then I started thinking about all the women authors from the past whose work was neglected because of the bias of the publishing industry and literary scholars. Now, a lot of that work is coming back into print because of the work of scholars like Elaine Showalter and a number of small publishing houses that have made this their mission, but how many other works are completely lost that we might have considered classics?

So, you can see I am personally in a dilemma about this. What do you think? I am guessing that belonging to this club, where we make our own lists and decide what is a classic book on our own, must have caused other members to struggle with this issue. What did you decide? I would love to hear your definitions and open a discussion on this topic.

What makes a book a classic? Why?

If you want to participate in the discussion, please leave a response on your blog any time in April, and post a link here.

48 thoughts on “Monthly Meme: A Topic Revisited: What Makes a Classic?

  1. I think a book is a classic based on artistic quality. James Joyce’s “Ulysses” stream of nature style is difficult to recreate. However, it can be put into another context. Amber has a song called “Yes” based on the passage within the book. It works due to the strength of Joyce’s writing.

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  2. A worthy question, but I believe the worth lies not in the answer, but in the dialogue.

    Because, the question is unanswerable, unless we are willing to elect some governing body the supreme keeper of literature. (Me? I’m not willing)

    So, if you ask me (and well…you did), I don’t believe timelessness is truly a criterion, but rather an evidence. But, I want to discuss timelessness for a few lines regardless, because it is perhaps the easiest way to recognize a Classic. If something is being widely read 50 years after it was published, then yes, it is probably safe to call it a Classic. But as has been pointed out, 50 is arbitrary. I think enduring for more than one generation is a better gauge – 30 years being a widely-accepted span of a generation. It’s still somewhat arbitrary, but I think spanning generations is more meaningful than 50 years merely because 50 is a nice round, pleasing number.

    I believe, in art, timelessness is only evidence of some other quality that causes something to endure.

    But what is that other quality? I believe it is the quality of evoking exalted thought and/or powerful emotion.

    But what if someone writes a thought provoking, emotion stimulating novel tomorrow? Is that a Classic?

    Nope.

    It does indeed still have to pass some “test of time” to be labeled classic, but it isn’t the timelessness that makes a Classic special; it’s just an easy way to identify it. It was special the day the author wrote it. It already had the qualities.

    That’s the Wanderer’s opinion anyway.

    Like you, my thoughts on the subject continue to evolve. Something I wrote along these lines a few years ago. https://100greatestnovelsofalltimequest.blogspot.com/2018/03/nova-this-week-greatest-novels.html

    Bearing in mind, there is a difference between a “great” book and a “classic”

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  3. There’s no easy answer to this but I do like the approach of Italio Calvino, an Italian author and journalist. He essentially said a classic was something that is treasured, that you can re-read and never lose that sense of freshness and which exert influence.

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    1. I like that, too, for our purposes, because it could mean any genre. Of course, when we are making our lists, we haven’t read the book so haven’t figured out what we personally would treasure.

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    2. I have tried to apply this test to my list of “classics” but then I keep adding books I want to read, which were published years ago but don’t seem to have that treasured quality. Sigh.

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  4. Someone already said it, so I will agree: a classic is a book that is timeless. It has endurance and ability to live through generations. It shares something common to all generations, giving insight into human nature, human instincts, or (as Jillian said) the human condition.

    Classics are bold stories that effectively help us to be empathetic. They force us to think and engage in conversation; at least we should engage back. It is almost as if the author is still alive, speaking to us, requiring an answer or reply or reaction.

    Also, Writing style is important to me for a book to be considered a classic. Mature, complex, and beautiful natural style is evidence of good writing. I believe people used to be better writers bc they learned from the masters. Not so much anymore.

    Oliver DeMille said that classics bring us face-to-face with greatness. If someone else’s story inspires you to become a better person, it probably is a classic.

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  5. Age and appeal definitely are considerations. I’ve come some older books that fit the age aspect but are no longer appealing. Stranger in a Strange Land by Heinlein is an example. Great concept but the stagnated sexist dialogues become tedious.

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  6. Ah, the eternal debate! Always worth having! I think the theory you mention a previous article advocating (“at least 50 years old and continuously in print”) is not one I agree with, not only for the very good reason you mentioned regarding female authors unjustly ignored, but also because some authors end up out of print for decades only to be rediscovered and celebrated at a much later date.

    Example: John Donne and some of the other metaphysical poets from the English renaissance. who fell very much out of fashion for a long time until T.S. Eliot started to champion Donne’s work again and brought it back to the attention of critics and scholars. I love Donne’s work, and I would argue that he was always a genius, always a classic, simply based on the outstanding literary quality of his work . . . the fact he wasn’t widely read or appreciated for a certain stretch of time didn’t make him any less of a classic even when he was being neglected, in my opinion. Fortune can be fickle, but a good work of art is a good work of art even if it ends up less known or appreciated than it deserves to be. This is why I always get excited when I hear a publisher announce the release of a “rediscovered” classic book or author — it’s like finding buried treasure!

    So for me, I tend to use the word “classic” as an aesthetic judgement, one that recognizes a book as having superb literary or thematic quality, regardless of how old it is or how consistently popular (or unpopular) it manages to be. Which leads us to the question, what makes a good work of art, then?! And that’s a whole other debate . . . ! 🙂

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  7. I think the age of a work of literature that is still around is a sign of its lasting importance, but the two aren’t necessarily the same. I like what was said in the main post about genres as well, since a work might not be a “classic” when measured against all of literature, but may certainly be a classic of the sci-fi genre or a classic of Latvian literature. The Divine Comedy of Dante, for example, is certainly a classic of Italian literature but also certainly a classic when all literature through the world and the ages is taken into account. Another author that I am reading, Ivo Andrić, may be considered up for dispute: As far as Serbo-Croatian or Yugoslav literature goes, his works are classics (his Bridge on the Drina was required reading for students in Yugoslavia, and he is the only writer of his tongue to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature), and yet only time will tell if his work makes a lasting influence on the literature of all times and places. Nevertheless, I think his place in the literature of his own people is sufficient to list his works among “classics” for the purposes of this sort of club.

    Though all his published works are over 50 years old at this point, I think he had enough prominence in his lifetime to consider his works classics even then. I feel comfortable putting contemporary writers on my list if they’ve won awards of international stature, such as Orhan Pamuk, who received the Nobel Prize (2006), and Ismail Kadare, who received the Man Booker International Prize (2005). They’ve attained a global status, even if it’s not known if their names will endure.

    One other definition of classics: Books in Latin and Greek. I considered going to a university to major in “classics”, and this would have meant little more studying the Greek and Latin languages, culture and literature. Though this is a meaning of classics, I don’t that’s what we mean as we put our lists together. I’m reading a 5th century Latin treatise on ecclesial life right now, but the author and title are so unknown, that I wouldn’t be quick to call it a classic. And though any work of Aristotle is right called a classic, what about the writings of his immediate disciple Theophrastus? Certainly worth studying, and certainly pertaining to “classics” in the Greek/Latin sense, but it’s probably not going to make my list.

    Definitely a good question to ask time to time!

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    1. I’m not going to argue about Nobel Prize winners! I am writing Ivo Andric’s name down, because I am interested in reading books that are considered classics in their countries. I’m afraid I’m mostly familiar with English-language classics and some of Western Europe, so I appreciate learning about others.

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  8. For me personally? A classic addresses the topic of the human condition in a MAKE YOU THINK AND BREAK YOUR BRAIN kind of way. It isn’t necessarily comfort reading, although Little Women is one of my favorites, is a super comfort read 🙂 and I would class it as old and lasting to the extreme. PS, I bow to the WONDERFUL latest adaptation which was spiffy. x

    But what I mean is, it isn’t a surface level story meant for quick entertainment. It’s going to GET INTO YOUR SOUL and destroy you in the best way. It contemplates the questions we have as humans. The potential we have, both great and terrifying. (The Invisible Man, 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale). It waves from the perimeter of the canon and says while you lot were having scones I was enduring slavery, and it bleeds onto the page with human experience. It changes your mind. It breaks open your perspective. It changes you.

    And sometimes it waits to really do that to you until you’ve tried it three times and called it dull and then it just jumps into you and slaps you and you emerge affected, changed, able to see just a bit more.

    I have a title from 1990 on my list: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I’d consider it a modern classic? I haven’t read it yet, but it seems like something that could potentially get into my brain and make me think in a high-powered way. Little Women does that too — it makes me contemplate the different ways women must cope with gender expectations, and how that affects them at the human level. As in, it addresses issues of the whole human race.

    Canonically? A TON has been missed. I blame the monocles and send them a half-hearted salute.

    Classically, I’d say we as humans determine individually what is classic to US. That’s sort of what we’re doing here in the club, I think — hunting down our own classics. Tossing some aside, claiing others, and determining our own definitions. On my personal canon? Testament of Youth, Little Women, Gone with the Wind, Jane Eyre, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Probably our desire for certain titles depends on the experiences we’ve had and would like to see addressed in a deeply impactful way. And as we grow in those, we come to find those other books, the ones that seem more difficult that we didn’t realize we needed, that enter our souls despite us and do a real transformation. If we have the guts to try them. ❤

    I read The Mysteries of Udolpho for one of my lists. I’m not sure I’d call that a classic, so much as a book that came early and defined its genre. I think it’s just an old scary book. 😆 But I loved it! Maybe it is a classic? It didn’t do anything to break my face, but possibly it has marked literature itself in some way, like an old bookish grandmother pioneer paving the way for Mary Shelley. For that reason I honor it as a classic because it is remembered and made waves.

    No idea of this answers your question. Here’s an interesting article on this topic written by a book blogger in 2017: THE CANON VS. THE CLASSICS: WHAT ARE THEY AND DO WE NEED THEM?.

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    1. I will read that article. I like your definition for the, hmm, how to I put this, the books that have generally been regarded as classics, but what about for genre fiction? I think some genre fiction could be said to make you think and break your brain, but, for example, I might consider many of Agatha Christie’s books to be classics, and the only way they break your brain is in trying to figure out who did it!

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      1. Yeah, I think that’s along the lines of what I said about The Mysteries of Udolpho. I’ve never read Agatha Christie (I hate the mystery genre), but it seems like her work is pioneering & therefore earns a place. According to my made-up definition. 😛

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    2. OK, that article was interesting, but I don’t know that it answers my questions. I’m sure there are some members who only consider the canon when they pick their list, though.

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  9. My general rule of thumb for a classic is that it is a work that has stood the test of time. Lest this seems a bit too vague let me qualify it in terms of publishing.

    First, many publishers have lists which they classify as classics (generally works form around a century or more ago) or as modern classics (variable, but mostly half a century or slightly less).

    Genre lists may be more flexible, for example, SFF authors who have been writing books for many years, or who may have recently died, frequently have their earlier titles classed as classics, even if they were published under thirty years ago.

    Another criterion may be decided by fans of a particular author when certain titles which are highly rated by them are out of print and only available secondhand. It may take a while for publishers to register this is so and rush out a new edition or a reprint.

    Despite the foregoing I have a gut feeling about whether something is a classic or not: my list goes from the 2000 yo Satyricon to Tove Jansson, so make of that what you will! A classic, like anyone’s age, is not just a number!

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      1. Hard to know precisely, but some books feel like ‘instant’ classics. I can imagine, say, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell being regarded favourably as a classic in decades to come, as I suspect it is now despite being published in the 21st century. There must be others, especially some award-winners — Wolf Hall maybe? (They don’t have to feel like historical fiction, by the way!)

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        1. Hmm, I enjoyed Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but I haven’t heard anything about it for years. I think it’s hard to know. I read a book by Elaine Showalter about women authors who had been extremely popular during their time and whose names we don’t know anymore.

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          1. I do know that there have been several authors, especially women, well-regarded in their lifetimes but no longer household names, but isn’t this always an ongoing process? I wonder how many libraries have now junked copies of books by popular women authors that I remember issuing in the 70s when I was a library assistant?

            By the way, Susanna Clarke’s new book set in the world of JS&MN is due out this autumn — I think she may have something like chronic fatigue syndrome that means it takes her ages to complete a novel.

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