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!