Discussion: What Makes a Classic?

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, on and off since college.  Over the years I have taken note how College Literature programs have attempted to diversify, but it’s slow. Side note: If you didn’t already know, I was a literature major.

Recently, I started thinking about it again when I posted my Classics Club Spin list. When I went through the list of books/authors I wanted to read for Classics Club, I came across a startling revelation that most of the authors were white men. So, for the past week or so I’ve scoured the interwebs to try to add a little more diversity to my classics list. And let me tell you it hasn’t been easy.

Why? It’s simple really. 1) most of the classics I own were written by white men and 2) When you go to any major “noteworthy” publication the majority of the classics listed are written by white men.

In order for me curate a well-rounded and diversified list of male/female, straight/LGBTQ+, white/POC, etc. I had to redefine what classics are using the standard Classic Literature definition.

So, what is the definition of Classic Literature. It is. . .

Literature of any language or period (Victorian, Renaissance, Modernism, etc.) notable for the excellence and enduring quality of its writers’ works.

Encyclopedia Britannica

Okay, I’ve defined Classic Literature; but I also need to know the characteristics of “What makes a book a classic” and how can I use that to curate a new Classics Club list?

The four most common characteristics are:

  1. Addresses universal human concerns
  2. Shifts people’s views on life
  3. Influences later works
  4. Merit, which is continually respected and examined by experts and critics throughout the years

So, let’s just say for sake of saying  a novel written in 2017 has met numbers 1-3 and working on number 4, can that book be considered a classic in 5 or 10 years?

Lots of literature has come out in recent years that meet at least 3 of the 4 “criteria” for becoming a classics. One that sticks out in my mind is Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (THUG). It meets the first three requirements of becoming a classic and the fourth is well under way.

  • The novel addresses the universal human concerns of injustice – the murder of an unarmed black teenage boy by a police officer
  • THUG has shed light on this pervasive issue and has helped shift people’s views on social injustice
  • Perhaps there is some influence here or maybe publisher’s took note of THUG’s popularity and decided more books like it. Like Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, Mark Oshiro’s Anger is a Gift and Jay Coles’s Tyler Johnson Was Here. Even if it’s the latter, I think it can safely be said that there was some influence.
  • And critics have talked about it and praising it for over a year, so how long will it take to be considered a classic? Or will it ever be considered. After all it is YA, which is consistently overlooked in the literary canon.

Will Young Adult literature ever be added to classics canon? What about romance? or Contemporary?

I came across this quote and thought it pretty àpropos.

A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.

~~Italo Calvino, “Why Read the Classics”
The New York Review of Books

We read the classics not necessarily because the writing is outstanding, but because on some level it speaks to us. It insights us to want to do better. Case in point. We read Dickens because he hit hard at what’s wrong with society.

  • child abuse/welfare
  • child labor
  • wealthy v. poor
  • tension between the social classes

We see all of what Dickens wrote about in Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol in today’s society and because of that it makes him relevant today.

A challenge. Should you choose to accept it.

What writers (non-white men) have brought attention to the same issues as Dickens? And to make it a little more challenging let’s start with post 1900 literature. There are 195 countries in the world, so there have to be a few writers out there. Right? And do you think they should be added to the literary canon?


This post is brought to you as part of the 2018 Discussion Challenge.

6 thoughts on “Discussion: What Makes a Classic?

  1. I think the difficulty with classics is that there are “classics” and then things like “children’s classics” and “fantasy classics.” I could see The Hate U Give becoming a children’s classic (or YA classic, if that becomes a term eventually). However, when an adjective is added in front of “classic,” it feels a little like it’s not being afforded quite the same status as a plain old “classic.” And children’s literature still doesn’t receive as much respect as it deserves.

    Interestingly, the criterion that a book influences later works could potentially make works such as Twilight and The Hunger Games classics (or, probably, children’s classics) down the road! I can definitely see Twilight being taught in vampire lit college courses and being taught in academic settings is one of the best ways to become enshrined as a classic. You achieve some level of legitimacy that way and then other people begin putting the work into their courses, thus giving it longevity it might not otherwise have gained.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love your requirements for what makes a classic, particularly #2.
    Your final question is a great one, & I’m on the watch. I’d suggest Toni Morrison? I haven’t read much by her yet, but she springs to mind. Also Zora Neale Hurston. Vera Brittain (who wrote non-fiction primarily). Winifred Holtby (I haven’t actually read a novel by her, so I’m tossing the name out on a hunch.) Rebecca West (Black Lamb & Grey Falcon, also non-fiction.) Chinua Achebe? (I have not yet read him.)
    I read once that women tended to try to specialize in short stories for a long while, because that was a space where men weren’t so frequent. Perhaps we can find some universality in the short story genre, as well. Kate Chopin?
    Totally tossing out names without much foundation here, but absolutely. Add ’em to the canon. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jillian, Morrison, Hurston, Achabe & West are already in the the canon. I remember reading them in college for various classes. Hmm Brittain and Holtby seem a interesting. I did a little Google search and found that they were friends and that Testament of Friendship is partly about their friendship. I’m intrigued because apparently in 1960 a censored edition of correspondences was published, so I’m curious.

      I’ve never seen that women wrote short stories because men weren’t prevalent there. I wouldn’t doubt it, but I wonder if they were more relegated to writing short stories because publishers/editors didn’t think they could write novels. Hence, why there were so many women writing novels under male pseudonyms. I have to admit that a lot of the short stories written by women, that made it into the canon, are some of my favorites. So, if women were relegated to short stories they certainly did it better than men.

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      • I’m a lit student (undergrad) & I still have trouble understanding what exactly the canon is. Is it works discussed in academia? or works prized by the world and called “classic”? I don’t get it. I’ve seen Morrison & Hurston in classes as well, but I didn’t realize that meant they were in the canon. I’ve seen Achebe in school as well but was never assigned him. Having him assigned means he’s in the canon?

        My personal feeling is that there are several canons with different criteria and that’s why I get confused. I have no idea what the ultimate canon is, but I’m all for getting more piping good writers in there.

        I’ve never seen West anywhere! I want to read Black Lamb because it was recommended to me by a fellow blogger. I’m glad to realize she’s fairly known! She was an acquaintance of Vera Brittain & Winifred Holtby, & for that reason I’m piping interested. I believe she was also the lover of H.G. Wells who (I had no idea!) was a suffragist and a feminist! I’m just learning all this by my private reading and am MIGHTY intrigued. 😀

        I read Brittain’s Testament of Youth and Testament of Friendship a couple months ago. Absolutely and utterly powerful — both books. The latter focuses on female friendship in a way I haven’t seen anywhere in literature. (Though I’m not don’t reading literature & may find it elsewhere described.) ❤

        I strongly, strongly recommend them both.

        I remember where I heard that about women & short stories: a lit class about the fin-de-siecle. It was during that era specifically that my professor suggested women (perhaps just in American) thrived in the short story, because they could write more feminist arguments within the short story medium at that time, for magazines that gave their work more circulation than the novel might. Men were focusing more then on novels, and short stories (before the Great War) became a space for women to flex their revolutionary chops & do some experimental thinking.

        Cheers. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hi, Jillian! 🙂 The canon is the body of works determined (by…someone) to be influential in shaping Western culture/influencing later works of literature. So it’s like classics with an elevated status. The difficulty is that you are correct in stating that there are different canons because there’s actually no official list. Two of the more famous versions of the canon are the 1909 Harvard Classics and Harold Bloom’s 1994 The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. But they’re just some people’s ideas of what’s important.

        There is a sort of general consensus on who’s in and who’s out. Socrates, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, and Joyce are canonical probably by anyone’s standards. Jane Austen, George Eliot, Emily Dickinson, and Charlotte Brontë are possibly the only women, along with the newly entered Toni Morrison, who would be generally considered canonical. But you could find people arguing for the inclusion of different names. (The canon has changed over the years, even though we pretend it’s a static thing determined by the “timeless” quality of a work.)

        And, yes, I’m going to be contrary here and say that while I could see Hurston as now being accepted in the canon, I’m not sure that the other names suggested are generally agreed upon yet. It’s not that they shouldn’t be. It’s just that change is slow and painful.

        People have also discussed creating things like the Black canon and the women’s canon. (So I would argue that some names are in these categories, but they have not been accepted into the general canon yet. Like maybe Kate Chopin’s in the women’s canon, but she’s not really canonical.) But some don’t like creating separate canons because it seems to give them a lesser status than the main canon. Plus, these works might then be relegated to a separate Black authors or female writers class, instead of being integrated into the general or required courses in a literature major. So not everyone would read them like (just about) everyone has to read Shakespeare.

        You’re also correct in wondering if being taught means a work is in the canon. Sort of. Being taught is one way to get a book into the canon. Being taught gives a book legitimacy and it gives it staying power. Teachers of the future add books to their syllabi that they were taught, making sure it stays in print/is studied and written about. So not every book taught is canonical, but it’s a good place for a book to be if you want to see it in the canon one day.

        Liked by 1 person

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