What Makes A Classic A Classic?

The question of what makes a classic a classic is one that has occupied literary theorists and literature lovers for centuries. From Homer’s The Iliad to the entire back-catalogue of Charles Dickens, none of us will escape encounters with the ‘classics’ of literary canon and the weighty prestige that this label carries. I am a self-proclaimed lover of classic novels. Nothing provokes my imagination quite like the unremittingly tempestuous moors of Wuthering Heights or the slow trudge of continual hardship with which John Steinbeck populates his novels. Needless to say, the question of what affords a novel the ‘classic’ label and its subsequent ascendancy into the despised curricula of every high school student, is something that has preoccupied me for a long time. I had assumed that the answer would remain beyond me – the domain of highbrow literary scholarship or otherwise the product of such abstract trends in preferences and social changes that any patterns would remain completely elusive. Then I read Italo Calvino’s reflections on the status of classic novels in his 1986 essay for the New York Review of Books, ‘Why Read the Classics?‘ (also distilled in a publication of the same name).

In his essay, Calvino reflects on 14 different criteria that might be applied to our recognition of a classic. He points to the fact that “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say,” as well as the way in which reading a classic will always carry contradictions of what we had come to expect from it: “The classics are books that we find all the more new, fresh, and unexpected upon reading, the more we thought we knew them from hearing them talked about.” Calvino’s list seems to emphasise two separate but essential dynamics at work in a ‘classic’ novel: (1) a transcendence from the place and time of writing; and, (2) the provocation of a particular kind of subjective reading experience. Much of what he talks about in his attempts to unpick the ‘classic’ label pivots back toward an insight into the way that these novels are removed from their own context:

“We use the word “classic” of a book that takes the form of an equivalent to the universe, on a level with the ancient talismans. With this definition we are approaching the idea of the “total book,” as Mallarmé conceived of it.”

Classics offer a token of the universal, in saying something about the human experience that moves beyond the time and space of their conception. Where Dickens offers an acute insight into the nature of struggle and Flaubert relates a remarkably accurate portrait of human yearning, the authors are able to transcend the boundaries and limitations of their own cultural and social contexts. Thus the classics are works that infect popular knowledge, that “exert a peculiar influence, both when they refuse to be eradicated from the mind and when they conceal themselves in the folds of memory.” This transcendency is obvious to any reader who has felt themselves relating to characters or situations so far outside of contemporary experience. For every moment of resonance felt in the dialogue and actions of Jane Eyre or Elizabeth Bennet, I have been acutely aware that classic novels offer a fascinatingly profound relatability that remains unconstricted by technology (or lack thereof), social strictures, or dialogue.

Beyond this ability to transcend their own historical contexts, classics also offer a particular kind of subjective experience for the reader. Calvino mentions the sense of a classic as a novel that “…relegate[s] the concerns of the moment to the status of background noise,” whilst simultaneously “…persist[ing] as a background noise even when the most incompatible momentary concerns are in control of the situation.” Classics are those books that occupy us totally in the moment but continue to infect our thoughts once the novel is closed. The emphasis that Calvino also places on the experience of reading classics as “treasured” by both those who are on their fifth re-read, as well as those reading for the first time, certainly speaks to the power of what these novels offer their readers. Yet these aspects of the ‘classic’ label also acknowledge the difference inherent in what we might each feel to be worthy of that status. Calvino himself concludes, after his lengthy distillation of the various criteria for classic novels, that “there is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.” Despite the universal transcendency that seems to unite classic novels, our own experiences of them – as well as those books that we are most inclined to defend – will vary enormously.

Perhaps nothing speaks to this more than the incredible disagreement that characterises what we all think about when we attempt to define and categorise classic literature. T.S. Eliot suggested that there is no real classic, other than Virgil. Clifton Fadiman – with one of my favourite ‘definitions’ of classics – supposed that, “when you re-read a classic you do not see in the book more than you did before. You see more in you than there was before.” This idea of exposition – the sense of something being revealed – is perhaps one of the most compelling ways to view and attempt to define classic literature. The notion that classic novels work a kind of revelation in us, leaving us understanding more of ourselves and our experience than we did before, is foundational to art as whole. That classic novels meet this weighty expectation successfully – by communicating something so fundamentally human that they inspire revelation, centuries outside of their own inception – truly accesses the heart of the prestige associated with the ‘classic’ label.

It is, therefore, both troubling and understandable that classic literature would find itself heavily associated with the most pervasive literary snobbery. Emerging largely from the sense that classics ‘should’ be read, we have all felt that incredible embarrassment that comes with someone taking it for granted that everyone has read Kafka’s entire collected works. To those of us who pride ourselves as avid readers – working to fit as many novels as we can into our already limited time – the feeling of not reading in a way that is sufficiently ‘educated’ can taint our understanding of our own literary habits and achievements. While I am always keen to encourage people to look outside of their traditional reading habits and explore, this a trend that should apply equally to those who restrict themselves solely to works of classic literature. Every genre has something peculiarly original to say about the human experience and thus carries with it its own category of classics – both old and new. The key here is to find appreciation for what Calvino describes of the humanising and enlightening effects of reading classic novels. This feeling – of discovering something new about ourselves and, through it, a sense of greater connection to our shared experiences – is what we are all seeking when we pick up our next novel. Whether we find that in Jane Eyre or J.K. Rowling is, to some extent, beside the point. That we understand what constitutes a ‘classic’ and celebrate this works is, however, incredibly important. Authors that have managed to access something so intrinsically human in their work – so human, in fact, that historical and cultural differences do not inhibit our recognition of these truths – must surely be recognised as amongst the most skilled literary voices in our history. Calvino posited that the classics assist us in figuring out “who we are and where we stand,” concluding:

“And if anyone objects that it is not worth taking so much trouble, then I will quote Cioran (who is not yet a classic, but will become one):

‘While they were preparing the hemlock, Socrates was learning a tune on the flute. “What good will it do you,” they asked, “to know this tune before you die?”‘ “

A loftier set of questions would, I think, be hard to find. Yet, the continued celebration of the classics as some of the most profound explorations of the human experience demonstrates just how effectively literature can serve our self-knowledge, in a way that moves beyond the borders of history and the obscurity of ever-changing enmities.

What do you think of these ‘criteria’ for classic novels? Do you have your own definitions? Be sure to share your thoughts in the comments below!

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