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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