I guess we all have a vague notion of what a classic is. When I hear the word, I think of an excellent piece of literature that has stood the test of time. I think of Austen, Dickens, Shakespeare, Woolf, or Brontë. But what precisely makes the works of these authors to classics? What actually defines a classic and who gets to determine it?

According to many critics, a classic is a book that meets the following criteria:

It stands the test of time. This is probably the most important criterion and one most people would agree on. A book needs longevity to be considered a “classic.” Modern or contemporary books are never considered “classics” because they haven’t yet stood the test of time to deserve the title ‘classic’.

It addresses universal human concerns. Classics touch upon timeless, universal themes that are important to readers of all centuries and backgrounds. They speak to everyone. They transcend time and culture. They express universal human emotions that appeal to past and present readers alike.  As Italo Calvino so famously put it:

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

It expresses artistic quality. A classic must be of high artistic quality. It’s beautifully written, its setting is vivid and its characters are complex and memorable. A classic often has its protagonist(s) overcome hardships and acquire a broader understanding of their worlds to challenge its readers’ perceptions.

It influences subsequent works. A classic inspires writers not only of its own time but also those of the following decades and centuries. Classics are, in other words, influential. They inspire and are themselves inspired by other authors.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it? I still have questions. Like I totally get that a classic needs to convince several generations of readers, but how ‘old’ does a book have to be labelled a classic? Where do we draw the line between classic and contemporary? Can books like Fahrenheit 451 (1953),  To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), or The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) be called classics? Or are they ‘modern classics’? Personally, I would call at least the first three classics, but does my estimation alone make them to classics?

To return to my initial question, then, who actually decides what constitutes a classic? Readers? Critics? Publishers? It’s remarkable that most of the works we consider classics today are written by white male authors. Books by women or black authors are often overlooked. Might that reveal something about who decides what makes a classic? Can we, as readers, make the selection of classics more diverse? I think we can. If enough readers promote and recommend these works, publishers will respond to the demands of readers and expand their catalogue. So to answer my own question, I’d say it’s all of the above- mentioned groups that influence what we see as a classic. What do you think?

All in all, I think classics is a fuzzy term and concept that needs a bit of reevaluation. It’s an old debate, and probably one that will never be settled. And that’s a good thing.

Let’s Discuss! What do you think makes a classic? Who gets to decide it? What novels do you think will be considered classics in the future? Let me know in the comments!


22 thoughts on “What Makes a Classic?

  1. I loved the Italo Calvino’s quote!
    On my personal point of view I consider as classic also books such as Agatha Christie’s ones since it is universal known that a lot of people liked them, despite they don’t belong to the common sense of literature.
    Off course I understand your speech which goes into a deep and accurate analysis and I think you are right!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Those are pretty good criteria! I personally consider anything old (like, pre-1950) a classic, even if it’s basically forgotten. But I think what you are referring to are books that have made it into the literary canon, books that people *study*. Which is also a fine definition for classic, but then what would you call a less read older novel?

    As for who decides it, it’s actually not much of a secret. Literary professors (mostly) publish writings about the books, and books that have lots of writings published about them make their way into the canon, and books that don’t get written about … don’t. Also, what they assign as reading to their literature students has an influence. It’s not like the canon is written down somewhere, it’s kind of a nebulous idea, and all those academics just kind of have it in their consciousness from years of thinking and talking about it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s actually a good question. When I think of classics, I somehow always think of well-known titles or at least titles that ring a bell, yet they don’t necessarily have to be part of the canon (which I totally agree is a nebulous idea anyway). But maybe you’re right and I’m mixing up categories here.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re right and the good thing about discussions is that it makes you reconsider your own perspective. I think you’ve made a fair point and it really made me rethink my definition of classics, which is what this post was supposed to be about 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. There is also the question of literacy. Many ‘classics’ come from the 19th century when only those who had enough money for an education could read and write. Educational institutions will also serve a large role in keeping certain books in print and discussion. It’s a good question!

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  4. Really good post. It’s interesting trying to work out classics. I think standing the test of time is important, but therefore as a rule, means we can’t really include modern classics. I’d look at it in terms of will it stand the test of time, and in the case of Mockingbird and The Handmaid’s Tale, I’d have to imagine yes. Definitely classics for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I like that the lines are a bit blurred when it comes to classics. It means that books that some people would not consider a stereotypical classics work their way in and also allows people to have their own classics! It’s literature so, bye bye restrictions!!!! Xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This question is such a hard one to answer as what I might think is a classic someone else might not. I usually go by the first two points that you made, that is stands the test of time and address universal human concerns. Technically anything old could be considered a classic, but to me a classic is a book that while written in the 1700s can still send a message to readers today. I think classics are determined by a mix of factors. One, being readers continuing to love the story, two being publishers continuing to publish the book, and three being schools and professors teaching the novel. Many books have been lost to the ages, but those ones with staying power continue to be published, read and taught in classrooms across the world. – Amber

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I totally agree with you. I think it’s important to see that there’s no one single definition of a classic, but that a conglomeration of factors play a part. As you said, readers, publishers and educational institutions all have a say in what books we come to accept as classics. Your comment sums this up perfectly 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. these are such amazing points!! i think everyone can have a different perception of a classic, and you’re definitely right when you say the definition is fuzzy – because who exactly decides when a book turns into a classic!? i feel like to kill a mockingbird and farenheit 51 should be considered as classics, but that’s just a personal opinion!! i loved reading this post ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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