What Makes a Book a “Classic”?

What Makes a Book a Classic?

What Makes a Book a “Classic”?

It is a common trend within the book 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 period 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 the way it has traditionally been used. Yet in recent times, readers 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, so I want to talk a little bit about what I think makes a book a “classic”.

How Old is the Book?

I have been heavily influenced by the book community when it comes to the use of the word “classic”; as a result, I tend to refer to older works of literature as “classics”. Up until recently, I never questioned this system. If I read a book from the Victorian period, I would call it a “classic”, and if I read a book that was published in 2016, I would call it a “contemporary” novel. Yet my system was recently tested when I finished reading Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This gothic thriller was published in 1962, and it is actually one of the only books I have read that was published in the mid-twentieth century. This really made me think; if it had been published in 1910, I would call it a “classic”, and if it had been published in 1980, I would call it a “contemporary” work. We Have Always Lived in the Castle fell in between my two categories.

In the end, I settled on calling it a “contemporary” work. I did a little bit of research, and decided that it would make sense to group modern literature with the most recent cultural movement of our time, which happens to be postmodernism. This made my decision a little easier, for although postmodernism is not always associated with a certain 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 considered “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?

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 I have had some thoughts. For one, I would argue that a “classic” has to be fictional. I know there are some truly fantastic works of non-fiction out there, but I cannot think of a single “classic” – out of those which we ordinarily call “classics” – that is non-fictional.

I would also argue that a “classic” book has to do more than simply tell a story. Most of the “classics” I read tend to do other things, such as offer comments on the current state of society. I recently finished reading Around the World in Eighty Days, which 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 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 works. I, for example, think of Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights. Yet is this because these books have to be well-known to be considered “classics”, or is it because I 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, whereas another may have never heard of it. There are quite a few books like this – lesser-known works that I 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 are, in my mind, “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”).

As a result, I would argue that a book’s reputation is the least important factor out of those that I 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 my opinion – be considered a “classic”. I also believe that time has a part to play in which books we consider “classics”. We may be unable to pin the divide between “classic” and “contemporary” novels to an exact date (such as 1945), but I believe that 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 an insight into the past. A work that was published last year, no matter how brilliant it is, and even if it falls into the category of literary fiction, will struggle to do this.

11 thoughts on “What Makes a Book a “Classic”?

  1. I love this discussion. I’ve struggled with explaining this to my not so literary boyfriend when he asked me about my filing system for my books. And I really did struggle because of so many of these points!

    1. We’re glad you enjoyed this post! You make an interesting comparison to cars; it is strange that such different rules apply to books – perhaps it is because books have been around for longer than cars?

  2. Interesting discussion! This is quite a strict definition, for example, would you then classify The Handmaid’s Tale as a classic?

    1. Thank you for reading our post! We are glad you found it interesting. The Handmaid’s Tale is a tricky book to place; it was published in 1985, and so, like We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is in between the years that we would usually associate with “classics” and “contemporary novels”. It contains a lot of elements and styles of the books we normally call “classics”, but then Margaret Atwood is still very much a contemporary writer. A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale is even being published this year, which suggests it is not a “classic”. Thanks for raising this question; it is an interesting one to consider.

  3. This is a really interesting post and raises lots of discussion. When does a modern classic stop being a modern one and become a classic? Surely classics are changing the whole time. Who decides which novels are classics? It’s a minefied

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