What Makes a Classic a Classic?

Each year as we prepare for Bas Bleu’s Tournament of Classics, we ask ourselves: What, exactly, constitutes a classic book? Laura Miller recently posed the question in her column at Salon, admitting the issue is “one of the most acrimonious, endless and irresolvable discussions in the literary world.” We don’t disagree, but for those of us who spend our days surrounded by books, we believe it’s still a question worth asking.

Let’s begin with age: Perhaps it is most common to define a classic novel as one that’s been around long enough for successive generations to laud its merits. But if there’s an age requirement, what is it exactly? And does it date from the book’s publication or from its admission into the academic sphere? Jane Austen’s novels were popular during her lifetime, but they didn’t garner academic consideration until the early twentieth century. Herman Melville was already a successful author when he published Moby-Dick in 1851, yet the novel was poorly reviewed by British critics and largely ignored by American readers until after World War I. On the other hand, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is less than twenty years old, yet it’s had an enormous influence on popular culture, and the books continue to shape the reading habits of millions. Granted, Rowling’s prose may not be on par with Austen’s or Melville’s, but it’s already part of the curriculum at Swarthmore, Yale, Georgetown, and the University of Texas. Is that evidence enough to render Rowling’s books modern classics? Or do we need to wait another century to see just how well the boy wizard holds up?

Conversely, you may argue theme is more important than age, that a novel is a classic only when it reflects a topic as enormous as, say, mankind’s struggle with faith or the triumphs and struggles of everyday life in America. But can a single book truly reflect the diversity of life experiences in a world of seven billion people? Maybe it’s better to say a classic embodies a specific era: Fitzgerald’s and Hemingway’s novels epitomize the Lost Generation, while Leo Tolstoy’s novels all but cornered the market on nineteenth-century Russia.

Perhaps a book’s status and longevity should rely less on subject matter than on the writing itself. Many a reader has slogged through James Joyce’s Ulysses or Finnegans Wake, staples of modernist literature in large part because of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness prose and experimental style. But is a revolutionary writing style enough to keep a difficult—and, by some accounts, dull—book upon its pedestal? And what of the writers themselves? If one or two of a novelist’s books are widely regarded as classics, should her entire canon earn the designation by default? If a bookstore clerk shelves Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon in the classics section, does Jazz also belong there?

Sigh. It would be so much simpler if we had a formula to apply: book age + number of classroom assignments x author notoriety in life/author notoriety in death = yep, it’s a classic. (We’re kidding. Because that’s how we should choose what we read? Math?)

We went searching for answers to the question of what makes a classic book a classic. Instead, we only found more questions. (Half of which, to take mercy on you, we didn’t include in this post.) Maybe a definition doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s subjective, dependent upon the taste and needs and life experience of each individual reader. Like Miller, we’re partial to Italo Calvino’s explanation, that a classic is “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” The beauty of books is that even after we turn the final page, they never stop talking. So it’s up to us, dear bluestockings, to never stop listening.

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