What Is a Classic?

Through the years I have joined several reading groups which concentrate on the classics. They go by many names but they all promise a valuable experience reading the classics. What I have also found is they all tend to have little regard for what makes a book a classic. Inevitably I complain that a novel written four years ago is hardly a classic no matter what the publisher says, and the idea of an “instant classic” is abhorrent hype. I usually don’t last too long in these reading groups where the owner or moderator is more concerned with pleasing the members than with sticking to the reason the group was created in the first place.

I usually suggest that a classic should be in the public domain. This automatically places the work before the mid-1920s and does a good job of differentiating classic literature from contemporary literature. I really don’t believe that there is a firm line, but in these reading groups, it’s better to be precise (even then it is common to see the restrictions trampled on:  in a 19th century group a book was selected that was written and published in the early 1950s). A good historical break occurs at the end of World War II. This was an important historical dividing line, but also a significant demarkation in the literature world. But even here there are many readers that can’t relate that far back. When pressured for a firm date, I offer 3 February 1959 as the true break from classical to contemporary literature.

I have often used this guideline from the internet site About.com. I will reprint it below and you can explore further at ThoughtCo: What Makes a Book a Classic.

What Is a Classic?

The definition of a “classic” can be a hotly debated topic. Depending on what you read, or the experience of the person you question on the topic, you may receive a wide range of answers. So, what is a “classic”—in the context of books and literature?

  • A classic usually expresses some artistic quality—an expression of life, truth, and beauty.
  • A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written; and the work merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, the work is not a classic.
  • A classic has a certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch us to our very core beings—partly because they integrate themes that are understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses.
  • A classic makes connections. You can study a classic and discover influences from other writers and other great works of literature. Of course, this is partly related to the universal appeal of a classic. But, the classic also is informed by the history of ideas and literature—whether unconsciously or specifically worked into the plot of the text.

Now for the pop quiz:  is Harry Potter a classic?

9 thoughts on “What Is a Classic?

  1. J.K. Rowling has, no doubt, already inspired a generation of future authors. That alone, I would think, guarantees her work staying power for the long haul.

    I agree with Beverly. The Potter series will be considered classic literature in the future. It’s impact on popular culture–and the way it got countless kids to actually open a book–can’t be dismissed.

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  2. No. At least not yet. I predict it will be eventually be thought of like “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” which is well on its way to becoming a part of the canon, though “LOR” fares better as adult or children’s literature, while “Harry Potter” remains pretty starkly in the children’s or young adult’s category.

    I’ll never forget sitting in a reading group, hearing a woman argue that Nicholas Sparks was classic literature. Needless to say, I left.

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    1. The Lord of the Rings passes my 3 February 1959 deadline so I suppose it should be considered a classic, but here it is a complex issue. Tolkien was a very classical scholar (in college we used his edition of Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight) and he wrote his fantasies as if they were ancient texts and inspired by events in the prehistory of our civilization. When I read LOTR in the early 1960s, it seemed like classical literature. But then, I was a medievalist so it figures.

      This is how I see it: The Faerie Queene is a genuine classic, under any definition; The Lord of the Rings may seem more of a classic than it is but it’s a close match so we’ll consider it a classic; Harry Potter, however, is at best a classic bore and utterly derivative, not to mention being about as classic as The Celery Stalks At Midnight.

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      1. Yes, but here once again you arguing for merit. I have no complaints with Tokien or Spenser being considered classic authors (as they clearly are). But “Harry Potter”, whether you found it utterly derivative or not (a point on which I agree with you), doesn’t keep it from becoming classic literature; I assure you it will be remembered as such.

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      2. In the late 1950s we were assured that the Western, be it in literature, in movies, or on the television, was the classical American narrative and would always define our culture. Unfortunately, three or four years later, the Western was dead as a cultural vehicle and even the Buntline Special couldn’t save its television glory.

        There have been periods in literary history where fantasy has not been well received. Given the inherent lack of literary value in Harry Potter, is it possible that a future society will dismiss it as quaint kiddie-lit that might not stay in print?

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  3. Well, I wouldn’t say you can’t have a classic after the mid-1920s. Take “East of Eden”, “Grapes of Wrath”, and “Of Mice and Men” . . . those are certainly classics, I would argue. If we’re going by your firm date of February 3, 1959, I would still venture to say there have been classics published after that date. “To Kill a Mocking Bird” comes to mind, as does “Slaughterhouse Five”, “In Cold Blood”, and “Catch-22” . . .

    Hey, this is a pretty fun discussion!

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    1. It’s better not to confuse the quality and value of a book with the idea of classical literature. A book written last year may exhibit all the attributes we look for in literature except one—the test of time. The argument isn’t over how important a book is to its generation, but rather that it remains important after many generations and through great changes in the society that reveres it.

      The mistake is in somehow equating classical with quality and making contemporary stand for something less desirable. Turn the argument around: what if there is a group called Contemporary Literature and it selects Pride and Prejudice as its next reading selection? Pride and Prejudice, no matter how great a book it may be, is just not contemporary literature. On the other hand, if the selection was something by Stephen King, it might be crap but at least it is contemporary.

      Classical literature is not better that contemporary literature, it’s just older. I think The Remains of the Day is an almost perfect novel but that doesn’t make it classical literature.

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      1. Great point Mike. But then would you consider every work written say, pre-1920 classic literature? Even a piece by an obscure author, with a small publication? I think you are correct — all older works are classic literature — but that becomes a hard line to defend when you aren’t merely claiming lesser known works by famous authors are classics (for example “The Custom of the Country” by Edith Wharton), but also works no one has ever heard of before. Couldn’t classic also mean Canonical literature?

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      2. I prefer to think in terms of classical authors who have written one or more classical books, but I don’t insist that everything an author writes is defined by one or two successes. My example here is George Eliot.

        Eliot is a classical author that wrote one of the great novels of English literature, Middlemarch. However, because of this status, all of her novels are all considered classical. Eliot is one of those authors where you can see her ability to craft a novel grow with every piece she writes; however, those early pieces, like The Mill on the Floss, would have been deemed dreadful and forgotten if Eliot had not gone on to write the likes of Middlemarch.

        I’m of two opinions when I consider canonical literature: I see the works included in the canon as important and valuable to the civilization that created them, but I also see the canon as indicative of the way thought, and therefore people, have been controlled for the last several centuries. The Western Canon provides an excellent reading list for anyone looking to be well-read, but it also tells you what you should read and what you should think. Furthermore, it is probably more dangerous for what it leaves out than for what it includes.

        But, Yes: much of the literature we consider classical is included in the canon.

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