The term classic is widely considered an honour, one bestowed only in the rarest of circumstances and coming heavily loaded with inference about a book’s inherent worth. Yet even those who agree with this sense of honour can still feel foreboding about having to pick one up. The classics are often perceived as vast, gloom-laden tomes, inaccessible, linguistically challenging and requiring the reader to dissect their many meanings rather than kick back and enjoy the literary ride. A recent survey by UK newspaper The Telegraph found that 62% of Brits had lied about reading a classic to sound more intelligent. The message is clear: we think they’re important but we’d rather steer away.
So what makes a book a classic and is it fair to call them important but difficult, or even dull?
The most common answer given about what defines a classic revolves around a novel’s ability to endure. A classic is a book that has stood the test of time. Generations have returned to read and reread it and gained as much knowledge, understanding and pleasure from doing so as those for whom it was first intended. With this in mind, some people argue that only books written before the start of the 20th century can truly qualify, and dispute the ‘modern classic’ status of works such as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. These must survive the ravages of time before they can be upgraded, so they say.
Putting aside the argument of whether modern classic is an oxymoron, (and who has the right to decide what’s worthy, anyway), there’s far more to being a classic than just being old, and age alone certainly has no baring on worth. In order for a book to capture and maintain the attention of readers across generations, it is also frequently argued that it must have substantial literary merit - that it must be a work of such profound quality that it advances our literary culture in some significant way. Determining literary merit is even more pointlessly unanswerable that defining what’s classic, however, dependent as it so is on personal opinion. At any rate, there are plenty of old and well-written novels for whom that classic status still remains out of reach.
Perhaps the answer is knotted to historical contribution, instead. There are books that record and examine a period of time or a group of people in a way that furthers our knowledge of whatever it is better than any other text that attempts the same task. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales is held up as the definitive English-language work of the 14th century for example, and the novels of Charles Dickens are the gold standard for understanding Victorian Britain.
There are those classics, too, that have earned their status for the impact they had on the course of history itself, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Upon publication in 1851, this novel depicting the horrors of slavery allegedly tipped an unstable America into civil war and prompted Abraham Lincoln to comment when meeting Stowe: “So you’re the little woman who started this great war.” Even the most ardent critics of the existence of modern classics would struggle to deny that George Orwell’s dystopian foretelling 1984 fulfils this vital classic criteria, with it’s themes around surveillance, truth and censorship continually contributing to major social and political discussions. Few other works of fiction have produced so many terms and concepts that have transcended the novel itself and become a part of common culture.
Yet, whilst time, quality and historical contribution are important elements in the classic concoction, there’s another magic ingredient too, one that when absent renders a novel indisputably transient: we need to consider the impact a book has on individual readers as well as the value it provides to us en masse. True classics are emotionally sticky. They capture the universal human experience unlike other books, distilling the feelings we all have into a character or group of characters to whom we can all relate, that we can root for or rally against regardless of how different they may first appear. These novels provoke genuine emotional responses, both positive and repugnant, but ones that are felt at the most primeval level. No matter how society changes through the years, no matter what era or part of the world we live in and what challenges we face, no matter how complicated or old fashioned the language we use to tell our stories, people - at their core - are fundamentally the same. True classics tap into these universal experiences that make us human. They make us care.
But if being a classic is so dependent on our individual emotional responses, changeable as these can be as well as universal, can permanent status ever really be held?
Of course there are many exceptions (from the Bronte sisters to Solomon Northup to Frederick Douglass) but more often than not, the classics have been written by ‘dead white men’ who viewed their subjects from positions of great and sometimes distasteful privilege. All novels will date to varying degrees, but when too much in society has changed that it renders their content redundant, or even offensive, is it right to relegate them? Respect for art can be tricky to reconcile with expired social values. The racism of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, for example, or the sexism in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, leaves more than a hint of a bitter taste. There are arguments that allowance for context is important in all reading, regardless of whether the content is currently socially problematic, and indeed we can learn about more than just the novel itself by looking at the era in which it rose to prestige. Yet whilst its impossible to separate a novel from it’s context, it’s impossible to separate readers from their context too. Outdated language and opinions are likely to impact that crucial emotional stickiness, and leave the classic status on edge.
In Italo Calvino's famous essay, Why Read the Classics?, he defines a classic as one “that has never finished saying what it has to say.” With this in mind, perhaps the most fitting definition of a classic is a tidal one. With the passing of time, the sea rolls inwards and outwards, sweeping with it grains of sand, picking up pebbles and seashells and driftwood, sometimes replacing them almost where they started, sometimes casting them forever from sight. But the shore and the waters are more constant than the pebbles. The shore and the waters remain essentially unchanged.
A classic is a book that says something worth listening to. Whether we enjoy them seems to be less important than whether they provoke a profound reaction, and how profound our reaction is at any time - en masse or individually - will be coloured by our context. The principles of the genre will remain the same regardless, but whether we think a classic is worthy depends what we need to hear most when we hold the seashell to our ear.