What Makes A Classic?

I was recently at a chain bookseller and came across what they term their “classics” collection. The usual offerings with their arty covers peaked out: Anna Karenina, Wuthering Heights, Lolita, The Great Gatsby, 1984, Lord of the Flies, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn . . . all those classroom staples that have also usually done some time on the challenged book list as well.

My creative writing students probably want to punch me in the face as I constantly harp on the necessity of reading these classic books to give them a foundation in the trappings of the novel. The question this begs, however, is what defines a classic? Longevity? Notoriety? Imitation? Do all so-called classics deserve the title bestowed upon them?

To the latter, I would say that some titles are questionable. The prime example that comes to mind is James Joyce’s Ulysses. Often topping lists of best novels ever written, Joyce’s tome is the prime example of modernism with stream of conscious narration, Greek influence, game play, and humor. It is the bridge between the modern and postmodern period. It is also nearly impossible for most readers to get past the first 100 pages. I will admit that while I have read the work, it has been in bits and fragments over a series of years. Which brings me back to the question of my title: what makes a classic?

Ulysses is considered Joyce’s most important work. It contributes to the structure and history of the novel, providing influence and breaking ground for a new view of what it means to construct narrative. Despite these weighty accomplishments, it’s difficult to read and lacks the accessibility of say, The Dubliners, a collection of stories that to me are much more deserving of the classic label. This is not to dismiss the value of Ulysses; it is to question if a classic must appeal to the non-literati to maintain that title.

Another question is how does a book become a classic? Will there come a point when Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex will find its way to that list? John Gardner’s Grendel? Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood?

This week I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five again. The deserved title of classic is evident in Vonnegut’s complex themes, structure, and style:

“There are no characters in this story and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters.”

I turn the question to you, readers. What makes a classic? What has the title that shouldn’t? What books will or should become classics?

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Categories: Life and Other Nonsense | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “What Makes A Classic?

  1. Kelly W

    Interesting question! I’ll speak up and say Anna Karenina should fall off…that one had me dozing off on every page! (Maybe I am just bitter because I read it as part a school summer reading list and as the ONLY student who read it they dropped the exam they had prepared for it) It seems just like movie critics today, what is the most popular among the general public does not make their must-see lists. I doubt we’ll every find a shelf of classics with Fifty Shades, Twilight or Hunger Games! 🙂

    • Good for you for actually reading the assignment! I heart those students. I agree that sometimes public opinion doesn’t mesh with critical accolades, although books like Dicken’s Bleak House, which was like plodding through the mud in high heels for me, was hugely popular when it was published in serialized form. Excellent point about movies–I know when Oscar nods come out there are always one or two that I have never heard of.

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