It is a common trend within the book community to refer to a book as either a “contemporary” or a “classic”. These terms separate the likes of Stephenie Meyer and J. K. Rowling from Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf. Yet despite the commonplace nature of these terms, they seem to lack clear definitions, and this is because, within the world of academia, the term “classic” applies only to the Classical period of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. According to this principle, The Odyssey is “a classic”, but Great Expectations is most certainly not.
Instead, academics tend to refer to “classics” by referring the time in which these books were published. For example, Great Expectations would be known as a nineteenth-century text – not a “classic”. I’m drawing attention to the way academics use this term because this is the way it has traditionally been used. Yet in recent times, readers have begun to use the word “classic” to refer to any book that is a) particularly old, and b) particularly prestigious. These aren’t exactly hard-fixed definitions, though, so I want to talk a little bit about what makes a book a “classic”.
How Old is the Book?
I have been heavily influenced by the book community when it comes to the use of the word “classic”; as a result, I tend to refer to older works of literature as “classics”. Up until recently, I never questioned this system. If I read a book from the Victorian period, I would call it a “classic”, and if I read a book that was published in 2016, I would call it a “contemporary” novel. Yet my system was recently tested when I finished reading Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This gothic thriller was published in 1962, and it is actually one of the only books I have read that was published in the mid-twentieth century. This really made me think; if it had been published in 1910, I would call it a “classic”, and if it had been published in 1980, I would call it a “contemporary” work. We Have Always Lived in the Castle fell in between my two categories.
If you’re wondering, I settled on calling it a “contemporary” work. I did a little bit of research, and decided that it would make sense to group modern literature with the most recent cultural movement of our time, which happens to be postmodernism. This made my decision a little easier, for although postmodernism is not always associated with a certain date, it can be said that it began after World War Two. This would mean that any book published after 1945 could be called a “contemporary” novel, which provides a clear-cut rule for working out which books could be considered “classics”, but is it the right way of doing it? Does a book have to be of a certain age to be considered a classic, and, if it does, is settling on the year 1945 the right decision?
Is it a Question of Genre?
If we cannot use the age of a book to categorise it, then perhaps we should think about its genre. This is an interesting idea, and I have had some thoughts. For one, I would argue that a “classic” has to be fictional. I know there are some truly fantastic works of non-fiction out there, but I cannot think of a single “classic” – out of those which we ordinarily call classics – that is non-fictional.
I would also argue that a “classic” book has to do more than simply tell a story. Most of the “classics” I read tend to do other things, such as offer comments on the current state of society. I recently finished Around the World in Eighty Days, which tells a very exciting story. Yet the story isn’t the book’s main focus; instead, the focus is on the improvements to transport and industry made during the Victorian period. They are what made the trip around the world possible, and Jules Verne spends a long time considering them, along with the ways in which people regard them.
Yet a lot of books spend time considering the nature of society, and we don’t call all of them “classics”. Take, for example, Anna Burns’ Milkman, which considers the dark history of Ireland. We don’t call this book a “classic”: we call it “literary fiction”. Yet I can imagine that a book such as Milkman, in a few years’ time, may just earn the title of a “classic”. This suggests that both time and genre must be called into a question when we consider what makes a book a “classic”.
What about Reputation?
It cannot be denied that, when we think of examples of “classic” books, we tend to think of books that are extremely well-known. I, for example, think of Great Expectations and Dracula. Yet is this because classics have to be well-known to be considered “classics”, or is it because I happen to be identifying particularly well-known books? This is quite a difficult question to answer, and it’s also extremely subjective. After all, a book may be well-known to one person, whereas another may have never heard of it. There are quite a few books like this – lesser-known works that I would nevertheless call “classics”, including Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday, R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, and H. Rider Haggard’s She. These books are, in my mind, “classics”; they were published quite a few years ago, consider large societal issues, and, within some circles, are well known – even if they are not popular “classics”.
As a result, I would argue that a book’s reputation is the least important factor out of those that I have been considering. The most important is probably the book’s genre; a YA story about vampires, no matter how well it has been written, cannot – in my opinion – be considered a “classic”. I also believe that age has a factor to play in which books we consider to be “classics”. We may be unable to pin the divide between “classics” and “contemporaries” to an exact date (such as 1945), but I believe that the book has to be of a certain age in order for the genre to become relevant. After all, for a book to be a “classic” it has to comment on societal issues, and perhaps reflect the time in which it was published. This becomes increasingly more important as the book becomes older, as the book will be able to provide an insight into the past. A work that was published last year, no matter how brilliant it is, and even if it falls into the category of “literary fiction”, will struggle to do this.
What do you think? Do you agree with my reasoning? Or do you think other factors come into play when we consider what makes a book a “classic”? Let me know in the comments below!