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.