Any book lover knows what a classic is; they’re usually old, celebrated books that are often directly referred to as classics on the cover itself. But apart from a book’s age, it’s hard to understand what it is exactly that makes one book a classic, but not another. Most often, we’re told which books are classics so much that we don’t know how to spot one without it.
What Qualifies A Book As A Classic? (Modern/Old)
You’re not alone in trying to figure out what makes a classic. This question has been asked in every medium imaginable, from a blog post to literary critical theory. Authors like Mark Twain and T. S. Eliot are among many well-known names who have tried to answer this particularly elusive question. However, there are some characteristics that most classics share. So in this article, I’m going to list a few factors that contribute to a book achieving classic status.
1. A Classic Is Relatable Even To Later Generations
For any classic to have enduring appeal, there must be something even generations who are so removed from the context in which the book was written can still appreciate. Usually, this ‘something’ lies in the themes the book tackles or in its relatable characters. Shakespeare’s enduring popularity, despite being written almost 500 years ago, is thanks to the themes the play deal with – love, envy, pride, indecision, naiveté, ambition; these are all things we still struggle to understand about ourselves in the 21st century.
Characters like Hamlet have not only become fixtures of culture but continue to be relatable because we all know what it’s like to be overwhelmed by indecision when we’re in a difficult position. Similarly, we still love Jane Austen not because 19th-century aristocratic societies are still around, but we can relate to the way romance still feels like a carefully managed charade. Most classics are able to transcend time and lend themselves to reinterpretations.
Shakespeare’s Othello, for example, is not just a story about betrayal and poisonous jealousy. It’s a story about a distinguished general who is Black. When we revisit Othello, we can see how his race played a role in why he was so disliked by Caucasian members of his court. For a play that was written just when colonization and the infamous trans-Atlantic slave trading was getting started, it’s even more impressive that Shakespeare understood racial dynamics and the legacy of the colonial empire so early on.
So these classics stick around because the things they say still ring true, and their meanings can be read and understood in more and newer ways.
2. A Classic Is Canon
Writers are constantly influenced by the writers who come before them. Whether or not a book takes direct inspiration from a classic that came before it, chances are, it has been influenced all the same. Culture evolves across generations, but this evolution is usually premised upon adding to or improving existing norms, not totally reimagining what things like art or the novel means.
In his essay ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’, T.S Eliot explains that every literary work’s greatness depends on two things – how well it builds upon the traditions of the literary culture it comes from, as well as the author’s own personal contribution to the craft of writing. So without a pre-existing literary canon of classics, it’s hard for newer novels to have a frame of reference.
The literary canon refers to works that are unanimously considered classics. What is considered a part of the canon is often determined by literary critics, of that time and the contemporary age, who identify cultural zeitgeists that best represent the literature to come out of a certain age or identify pioneering authors. For example, in the aftermath of the YA-dystopian trend of the 2000s and the early 2010s, series like the Hunger Games and Harry Potter are credited to have kick-started that literary movement and are considered contemporary classics.
Being an older work helps a book acquire the ‘classic’ tag because it has simply been around long enough for it to have been recognized, studied, and well-circulated. When considering older books, we also have the benefit of hindsight; we know that Shakespeare continued to be popular for centuries, for example. Time becomes ‘proof’ the longer a book is around, which adds to its legitimacy as a classic.
3. A Classic Has Literary Merit
For any book to be considered a classic, it absolutely needs to be well-written. Regardless of its influence, or commercial success, if a book does not have literary merit, it will not be considered a classic. The way we define literary merit can get a little tricky – after all, the concept of literary merit implies that there are books that objectively don’t have any. And let’s face it, nobody likes being told that the book they enjoy is ‘bad’.
Contradictory to the popular phrase “art is subjective”, there is still some amount of technique and finesse that is needed to make ‘good art’. A book can have a very interesting story and still be badly written for a variety of reasons. Think of it this way: somebody paints a painting of the sea. The subject of the painting, the sea, is definitely magnificent. But if you look closer, and the strokes are shabby, or the clouds above are misshapen, you wouldn’t consider the painting to be a masterpiece.
It works somewhat similarly with literature – just the plot or the themes of a book alone cannot mean it has literary merit. For example, the plot must be well executed, the themes cannot be superficial, the characters have to be multi-dimensional, flawed people, and the world-building cannot have loopholes in it. The author’s writing style matters: do they seem to be able to narrate events visually in a fascinating way, or do they overly rely on certain phrases? Literary merit is a complex idea, and different people prioritize different aspects. But it exists, nevertheless.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. But for all the classic lovers out there who want to figure out why they love these old books so much, and for the classic haters who can’t fathom why we’re still reading all these old books, I hope these helped put things a little more into perspective. If you’re someone who wants to try reading classics, don’t be intimidated! At the end of the day, reading is not about getting your hands on the most famous books – it’s about finding joy in all kinds of books.
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