What Makes a Book a Classic?

What Makes a Book a “Classic”?

It is a common trend within the writing community to refer to a book as either a “contemporary” or a “classic” novel. These terms separate the likes of Stephanie Meyer and J. K. Rowling from Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf. Yet despite the commonplace nature of these terms, they seem to lack clear definitions, and this is because, within the world of academia, the term “classic” applies only to the periods of Ancient Greece and Rome. According to this principle, Homer’s The Odyssey is a “classic”, but Bram Stoker’s Dracula is most certainly not.

Instead, academics refer to books like Dracula by discussing them in relation to the time in which they were published. Dracula would be called a nineteenth-century text – not a “classic”. It’s worth drawing attention to the way academics use this term because this is also the way it was used traditionally. Yet in recent times, readers and writers have begun to use the word “classic” to refer to books that are: a) particularly old, and b) particularly prestigious. These aren’t exactly hard-fixed definitions, though, which is why we want to talk about what we think makes a book a “classic”.

How Old is the Book?

It is difficult not to be influenced by the writing community when it comes to the word “classic”; as a result, we tend to refer to older works of literature as “classics”. We rarely question this system; if we read a book from the Victorian period, we would call it a “classic”, and if we read a book published in 2016, we would call it a “contemporary” novel. Yet what happens when we read a book that was published in the 1960s, or, to give a specific example, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which was published in 1962? If this book was published in 1900, we would probably call it a “classic”, and if it had been published in 1980, we would be more likely to call it a “contemporary” work. Yet what about all the books that were published between these years?

When faced with this very problem, the Literary Edits team settled on calling Shirley Jackson’s We Have Lived in the Castle a “contemporary” work. We did some research and decided that it would be best to group modern literature with the most recent cultural movement of our time, which happens to be postmodernism. This made our decision a little easier, for although postmodernism is not always associated with a specific date, some critics argue that it began after the Second World War. This would mean that any book published after 1945 could be considered a “contemporary” novel – providing a clear-cut rule for working out which books should be called “classics”… but is this the right way of doing it? Does a book have to be of a certain age to be considered a “classic”, and, if it does, is settling on the mid-1900s the right decision to make?

What About Genre?

If we cannot use the age of a book to categorise it, then perhaps we should think about its genre. This is an interesting idea, and we certainly have some arguments to make here. For one, it can be argued that a “classic” has to be a fictional book. There are some truly fantastic works of non-fiction out there, but it is difficult to think of a single “classic” – out of those books which we ordinarily call “classics” that is non-fictional.

We could also argue that a “classic” has to do more than simply tell a story. Most of the “classics” we read tend to do other things, such as offer comments on the current state of society. Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, for example, tells a very exciting story. Yet the story isn’t the book’s main focus. Instead, the focus is on the improvements to transport and industry that were made during the Victorian period. They are what made the trip around the world possible, and Jules Verne spends a long time considering them, along with the different ways people regard them.

Yet a lot of books spend time considering the nature of society, and we don’t call all of them “classics”. Take, for example, Anna Burns’ Milkman, which considers the dark history of Ireland. We don’t call this book a “classic”: we call it “literary fiction”. In a few years, however, books such as Milkman may just earn the title of “classic”. This suggests that both time and genre must be called into question when we consider what makes a book a “classic”.

Does Reputation Matter?

It cannot be denied that, when we think of examples of “classic” books, we tend to think of extremely well-known books such as Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights. Yet is this because books have to be well known to be considered “classics”, or is it because we happen to be identifying particularly well-known books? This is quite a difficult question to answer, and it’s also extremely subjective. After all, a book may be well known to one person, while another may have never heard of it. There are quite a few books like this – lesser-known works that we would nevertheless call classics, including R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, H. Rider Haggard’s She, and Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday. These books our, in our minds, “classics”; they were all published before the twentieth century, all consider large, societal issues, and are all – within some circles – well known (even if they are not popular classics like Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights).

As a result, we would argue that a book’s reputation is the least important factor out of those we have been considering. The most important is probably the book’s genre; a young adult story about vampires, no matter how well it has been written, cannot – in our honest opinion – be considered a “classic”. We also believe time has a part to play in which books we consider to be “classics”. We may be unable to pin the divide between “classic” and “contemporary” novels to an exact date (such as 1945), but we believe the book has to be of a certain age in order for its content to become interesting from a critical point of view. After all, for a book to be a “classic”, it has to comment on societal issues and perhaps also reflect the time in which it was written. This becomes increasingly more important as the book becomes older, as it will be able to provide insights into the past. A work that was published in 2019, no matter how brilliant it is, and even if it falls into a genre like literary fiction, may struggle to do this.


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