What Makes a Book a “Classic”?


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?

Time (2).jpgI 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”.

Book Genres.jpg

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”.

Books.pngAs 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!


13 thoughts on “What Makes a Book a “Classic”?

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  1. Amazing discussion post, Emily. It is an interesting topic because the term ‘classic’ has not been clearly defined in literature.
    Most of the books I describe as classics are before 1900, but I do sometimes include the most famous 20th century novels.
    Loved reading your thoughts on this. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Stephen. It’s something that’s been bothering me for the past few weeks – that there’s not a clear definition for the word! I think a lot of people probably use the same system as you to describe them!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really great post! It’s a tricky one isn’t it. I think publishers like to market more recent books as classics because it will help to sell them. I sometimes think of a classic as a work that’s out of copyright, which would apply to everything up until the early 20th century.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yes, I have heard publishers calling new releases “classics”, but something about that doesn’t sit right with me.

      Thinking of “classics” as books out of copyright is a really good system; thanks for sharing!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. An interesting and very debatable subject which I enjoyed reading. I appreciate how in such a short piece you have raised lots of interesting points. I agree that terming a new release book of fiction as ‘classic’ is an abomination, since who has determined it as such. Until wider readership determines the story as a piece of established excellence of literature, popular or literary, how can anyone claim this accolade.
    Orlando by Virginia Woolf, for example, challenged the attitudes of sexuality in the 1920/30s and is still in print, Controversial at the time and did not sell very well. However, the theme resounds today and we wonder if anything has changed. It sells more copies now, but then again that might be because it is a set book in many academic course – ask yourself why?
    To me a true classic in literature contains a beautiful written story that captures the full gambit of human emotions and social interaction at a particular period in time, a historical element, yet has resounding relevance in many peoples’ lives. They can relate to all aspects of the story and be fascinated.

    Would you consider ‘Bernard Schlink’s book, Der Vorleser (available in English “The Reader”. Also a film with Kate Winslet as the lead character) as a modern Classic?

    I think it draws out the feelings of a nation in post war Germany.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for reading, James; I’m glad you enjoyed the post! You make a good point regarding “modern classics” – it can seem like publishers merely use the word “classic” in the hope of selling more copies of the book, when, in reality, they are not qualified to decide what is and what isn’t a “classic”.

      I very much like your idea of a “classic” being a story that focusses on human emotions, as well as commenting on particular societal issues/changes. I certainly think that a true “classic” should evoke our emotions!

      I’m afraid I don’t know very much about Der Vorleser, so I can’t really comment on that one, but I do think that historical fiction is perhaps the closest we can get to contemporary “classics”, as, after all, they reflect the time in which they were based.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. A thought-provoking post. I agree about time needed to establish a “classic” – but that just because the general opinion is needed on that or this book, and when it is a new book – not many people already formed an opinion on it. Since there is no general – universal – opinion yet – it cannot be a classic. I would just call it a “modern” classic, those books that I think deserve it, but were published in the last thirty years. For example, I will say “The God of Small Things” [1998] by Arundhati Roy is a modern classic.

    Liked by 1 person

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