What Makes A Classic?

This post is about classics, but it’s also about what kind of books I’m reading right now.

This past year, I’ve been trying to read, among other things, classic literature written by women. “Classic” can have a lot of different meanings, and for my own purposes, I’ve been pretty liberal with the definition. Most people tend to think of classics as old books that have literary value that have stood the test of time. It sounds simple, but the definition can get hairy pretty quickly.

How old is old enough? I’ve had books written in the 1980s recommended to me as “modern classics,” or books published within the past ten years marketed to me as “instant classics.” They’re good books, but there’s an oxymoron in calling them classic. They haven’t had the chance to stand the test of time yet. Even as we reach backward through time, how far is far enough? Fifty years, eighty years, one hundred?

Literary value is even more subjective. At least with time, we can draw a line in the sand. Books like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Atlas Shrugged aren’t considered by most people to be literary masterpieces (although for almost any book, there are a few out there who would say so), but their ideas are influential enough to land them frequently on lists of classics, whether you agree with those lists or not. Even titans of literature like Les Misérables are widely considered to be in need of a heavy-handed editor, for all of their beautiful prose.

Standing the test of time is the measure that I like least of all. Ideally, standing the test of time would mean that a book’s themes endure, that they speak to the human condition in a way that crosses boundaries of time, culture, and even language. It would mean a book that, for the most part, leaves something of value with any reader who goes in with an open mind. More often, this criterion means something totally different. It’s a popularity contest. Was the book popular in its time? Among whom, the general public or critics? If it was the public or it wasn’t popular, then is there some later group of critics that decided to legitimize it? In my search for classics written by women, I’ve found a plethora of books that won’t be found on the typical list of classics. Some are very old. Some are very well-written. Some are both old and well-written, but they still don’t make the cut. The problem only compounds when looking for non-Western and non-white classics.

One classic book I’ve read within the past year (somewhat old, extremely well-written) is A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf. She outlines the problem in far clearer and more persuasive terms than I ever could. A major takeaway from it is that as much as history has been written by men, so has been that odd amoeba of literature called the Canon. People with money, time, and space write. Having power doesn’t hurt, either. And so, looking into times and places where women have lacked the resources to produce what are now called classics, we find scraps.

I’m interested in scraps. I’m interested in filling in gaps, or at least figuring out where the gaps are. The past six months have been fascinating to me in connecting the dots, seeing the gradual blooming of female authorship over the course of history, taking into account not only gender but also nationality, race, sexuality, and wealth.

In the end, I’m not actually all that interested in the nebulous and arbitrary division between “classics” and plain old books. I’m interested in reading as broadly and as deeply and as well as I can.

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3 thoughts on “What Makes A Classic?

  1. When I hear the word “classic”, I would go before the 1900s. The likes of Dickens, Hugo and even Cervantes. I do not automatically think of modern classics as “classics”.I think “classic” means something different to everyone. I would go before 1900s in my opinion: stories that are well-known that are universal that still speak to people.

    For fun, I have read Don Quixote, Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, Hunchback of Notre Dame, and my personal favorite Les Misérables. I am currently reading Nicholas Nickleby.

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  2. That’s exactly it– classic means something different to everyone. Out of the books you’ve mentioned, I’ve also read and enjoyed A Christmas Carol, Great Expectations, and Les Misérables. Les Misérables is one of my favorite books of all time.

    One thing that I tried to get across in this post is that when you look at what is traditionally considered “classic,” the majority of those books are by white male European or American authors. These are excellent books and they have earned their titles, but it raises the question of where the classic books by other authors are– female authors, non-white authors, or authors from different continents, for example. The book I mentioned, A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, gives a lot of insight into that question. She explains why we have barely any English literature written by women before the 1800s. Based on that, she makes the argument that to write professionally and fully express oneself creatively, a writer needs money, time, and space for writing–things that many women throughout history have not had. When those things are lacking, only a few very exceptional people will be able to write regardless of the circumstances. This book was published in 1929, so perhaps it’s not a “classic” by your standard, but nonetheless I think it’s an important book. It’s short, too, so if you are interested in this topic, I would strongly recommend it.

    Off topic, but I see you’re a big fan of musicals! I am, too. It was the musical that made me interested in Les Misérables. The musical seemed complicated the first time I saw it, but when I read the book I realized just how much it was simplified to be put on stage! It’s truly both a great book and a great musical.

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    1. Les Misérables is a very complex musical and book. Everything fits together that everything feels like it belongs. The first time I saw the movie (that was my first full experience of Les Mis), I did not know what to think: I did think it was depressing at first, but started researching the musical anyways: gave the movie a 2nd chance March 2013, and that was when I was able to calm down and got so much more out of Les Mis. Summer 2013 hit and I was officially obsessed with Les Mis. The musical is why I have a passion for musicals.

      Saw the stage show of Les Mis 5 times.

      November 2013- community college 3x- once with family and twice as an usher

      July 2015- West End

      November 2017- US Touring Production in Greenville

      So Les Mis is such a meaningful musical. Such brilliant, epic, powerful, highly emotional and passionate music. So complex and believable characters whose lives are so interconnected that they directly and indirectly impact each others lives. Such a heartbreaking, but inspiring story of love, hope, compassion, forgiveness, sacrifice, humanity and redemption. It is hard to put into words how meaningful Les Mis is to me and why I love it so much.

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