• Current Reads

      Life after Life Jill McCorkle
      This Is Your Captain Speaking Jon Methven
      The Starboard Sea Amber Dermont
      Snark David Denby
      Bring Up the Bodies Hilary Mantel
  • Popular Tags

  • Recent Reflections

  • Categories

  • Moleskine’s All-Time Favorites

  • Echoes

    The HKIA brings Hong… on [788] Island and Peninsula 島與半…
    Adamos on The Master and Margarita:…
    sumithra MAE on D.H. Lawrence’s Why the…
    To Kill a Mockingbir… on [35] To Kill A Mockingbird…
    Deanna Friel on [841] The Price of Salt (Carol…
    Minnie on [367] The Rouge of the North 怨…
  • Reminiscences

  • Blog Stats

    • 1,083,272 hits
  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,710 other followers

Posterity: What Makes a Classic?

Last week’s Booking Through Thursday question concerned the posterity issue in literature. It asked whether any of the modern authors can measure up to the caliber of Dickens, Austen, and Bronte. While I’m not sure what qualities the host thinks give these authors their status but I must say, from my humble and limited experience as a reader, the knack for telling an entertaining story with which readers resonate, the talent in achieving beautiful literary forms, and the sheer luck of earning fame and popularity, these authors have endured. Classics refers to something that is of the first rate. The matter can be very subjective because some of the works that are recognized as classics today received fairly poor reviews at the time they were published. In the same way, work that has merited the highest accolade like Growth of the Soil might not find favor in every reader (at least not me). The widely-accepted notion that a book has to achieve a level of critical and popular success that endures for many years can be a tricky standard to be rigid about. The length of time it takes for a book to achieve a classics status can also be disputable. Judging from how quickly they become popular and how widely they are perused, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee, Beloved by Toni Morrison, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro could be considered classics and that they would most likely endure.

Works of literature that delve in the large and unpredictable forces in life would more likely to achieve the classics status. Despite the enormous changes in society throughout history, the subject matter of human experience that writers explore in their work is often very similar. Evil, guilt, materialism, love, self-fulfillment, and violence are all perennial themes that writers over time and geographical barrier have cultivated in their writings. Crime and Punishment, Madame Bovary, Howards End, The Great Gatsby and A Tale of Two Cities all embrace a theme that is at large, addressing to the deep-core question of humanity (and its corruption), state of a nation, and morality. The ambitious scope of a work of fiction can eclipse the scarcity of forms and style: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston are prime examples. They address important issues of America at the time they were published and became instant hits. Still other classics have frighteningly specific contemporary relevance: 1984 by George Orwell and The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad. The latter deals with the threat of terrorism in London, which was an issue of great concern and panic that bomb plots targeted to London transport and monument in late 19th century. If prophecy is considered a criterion for classics, then Margaret Atwood will for sure endure.

Many a time readers are put off by classics, dismissing them as some outmoded, dusty works that fail to evolve with time and continue into future. While many classics titles are written in very formal prose and are meant for serious study, some classics are also enjoyable and humorous. Who knows what some of these classics have inspired our modern authors to write their bestsellers, with their seminal meanings rooted in the classics. When the definition of classics becomes blurry, I can only resort to the one criterion that never fails: is the book going to be re-read? A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say. A classic is a work of literature that, regardless of the style and forms, affords new meaning and interpretation every time it is read again.

11 Responses

  1. I think that’s one of the best definitions of a classic I have ever seen: “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” This is an excellent post 🙂

  2. Very nicely said! All of this hoopla over The Classics v. Popular Fiction has been interesting to read. Personally, I am a fan of both, but firmly believe that certain works, the classics, are more “literary” than others, and I primarily define this as works that “afford new meaning and interpretation every time [they are] read” and that tackle themes which are broad in scope, universal in nature. Excellent post!

  3. I like your definition of a classic being a book that has “never finished saying what it has to say”. I guess a classic is like beauty…it is in the eye of the beholder. I for one did not understand The Cathcher in the Rye being considered a “classic” since I don’t think there are that many meanings or interpretations one can have of it. That being said, I will have to reread it in the future to know for sure!

  4. For me I think I’m just intimidated by the classics and whether or not I will truly understand everything that I’ve read. I agree with you that some of Atwood’s books will be classics.

  5. I’ve ruminated on this more times that I can count and you’ve said everything I wanted to say and then some. I loved reading this!

  6. Hi, Matt! I would have to agree with you that books that are destined to become classics are those that can be re-read, with something wonderful being discovered at every reading. This topic was actually a huge discussion in our book club, with one side mentioning that classics can only refer to text written during the Greek and Roman periods and the other group taking a more lenient approach to assigning classical status to relatively recent books.

    I think that only time will tell whether a book will be destined to become a classic. For now, I’m taking a bet on Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, since the book succeeds in so many levels.

  7. Lovely response! I agree with your thoughts on themes. It does seem like books stand the test of time when they address those forces beyond our control.

  8. Thank you for an excellent meditation on what constitutes classic literature. Your summation at the end seems especially relevant to me. I’m not sure about other novels by Ishiguro, but The Remains of the Day might be one of the recent works to endure and attain classic status.

  9. […] Posterity: What Makes a Classic? […]

  10. […] Posterity: What Makes a Classic? […]

  11. Your last three lines sum it up nicely. I especially like “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: