Separating the Chaff from the Grain: Part Four - What Makes a Classic?

>> Saturday, January 23, 2010

I know, I know, it's supposed to be a quote-a-thon, but my series isn't done and I do like things tidy. Plus I've been wrangling with someone on another blog so much I left in disgust. Something I'm not prone to do. (OK, I went back) I could go into it in detail, but then tomorrow's my day to bitch, so I'll leave it 'til then.

So, today, I want to talk about what makes a classic. And, in a disclaimer I didn't include on the others, but should have, I do not claim omniscience; these are just my opinions. I will add, too, as this is an area of expertise for several of my regular readers, I might very well be corrected in the comments. But this is what I think makes a classic.

Wait, didn't you discuss "crap" vs. "good stuff" in part 2? Yes, yes I did, but being "good stuff" doesn't necessarily make a classic. Something can be great without being timeless. Not every work, no matter how meticulously researched or cleverly worded, is destined to be taught in literature for years to come. So, how do you determine an "instant classic"?

First of all, I don't think anyone can say for sure. There are always people who think they can, of course, and make a living doing so. Yet, in hindsight, they have been wrong as often as they've been right. If not more so. As is so often true with experts (Studies have shown random guessing has a better track record than expert opinions when it comes to predictions). And, although most people can generally tell when something abysmally crafted, thoughtless, or incoherent is not going to be a classic, there have been exceptions to that as well. When it comes to something well crafted, even inspired, but not one's cup of tea, then it becomes considerably harder.

So how do you know?

Well, I think one of the most important ones is time. No matter how groundbreaking a novel or story might be, no matter how many loved it, if no one's heard of it 100 years later, it didn't make the cut.

So, what makes the cut?

Well, generally, "classics" are built with some measure of care, skill, an understanding of language and syntax, of characters and/or society. Many have meanings below the surface that make them commentaries on their time or address universal issues that are as fresh and timely today as they were then. Novels and books with an outdated outlook or an obsolete issue might fall to the wayside unless they are one of few books from an era, even if they are well crafted. The classics often demonstrate the pinnacle of this or that aspect of writing or form, like poem, story or novel.

Sometimes, classics involve a leap forward in imagination, like HG Wells or Jules Verne. Sometimes, they just capture the imagination with characters and setting so vivid as to breathe life into them. Often, a classic does something never done before or sets a standard, or perhaps represent a movement or an era in writing like romanticism or American Transcendentalism.

Sometimes, it represents the society so well that created it, it becomes our insight into that world. Sometimes, it represents a transition in audience, either in what they want to read or in who was reading. Sometimes, a novel or book is so far ahead of its time that it is ignored or villified by contemporaries only to awe the generations that follow.

Sometimes a book is still as powerful and insightful, as imaginative and compelling a hundred years after it was written as it was when it was first published. Now, that's classic.

Only thing is, you won't know for a hundred years. Today, no one will know for sure.

At least, that's what I think.


  • Jeff King

    You summed that up well, at least for me.
    I could not agree more... in fact I couldn’t find anything I disagreed with.

  • FishHawk

    "Rocket Scientist" has been included in this weeks A Sunday Drive. I hope this helps to attract even more new visitors here.

  • Stephanie B

    Thank you, Jeff.

    And thank you, FishHawk. I'm honored.

  • Relax Max

    Here is another long-winded comment, but I think this subject is important, so I have thought about it a lot. I don’t think any of the following conflicts with what you’ve said. You were very thoughtful.

    I agree with the main thrust of your thesis which (I think) is that an overriding factor in defining what is “classic” is that the work must stand the test of time. I just think there may be more to it than that. (Some of which you’ve also mentioned.)

    As writers, we all do our best to find just the right word when we are writing. Even when we are not writing, we have an interest in correct usage (most of us have even written posts about improper usage of words, and of things that drive us up a wall when we hear them. It is from this standpoint of trying to be as complete as possible that I dare to add a bit to your post, if you don’t mind.

    “Classic”, of course, as you have pointed out before, can apply to more than just literature. It can be other “art”; music, for example. It can refer to an automobile, even.

    “Classic” things not only stand the test of time as being “good”, they are (by definition) great examples of what a certain genre entails: “A classic example of science fiction”, for example. A “classic” is the description of, or standard of the breed, or so I've been taught, and therefore is more than simply something which is in general “good” and has stood the test of time.

    To be truly "classic" eople must also be able to refer to classic things in the acedemic sense - beyond simple subjective personal opinion - and be able to “use them as a guide” for what is “good” in that field.

    “David Copperfied” isn’t a classic simply because it is a great story which is incredibly interesting and which has satisfied the requirement of standing the test of time; it is a classic because it contains certain literary elements that embody the very definition of classic literature. (An interesting future post, if you are not already too tired of posting about writing, might be a discussion of what those “elements” are.)

    A classic is an archtype of something; one not only enjoys it, but one must be able to refer to it as a “model” to follow. True classics actually define excellence. Critics of other subsequent works use that definition to evaluate what is “good” or “in error or deviation from the classic” in an acedemic sense, in other literature or sculpture or music or paintings.

    One does not have to guess or speculate what “classic” means. David Copperfied is a classic. Beethoven’s fifth symphony is a classic. Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a classic. A ‘55 Chevy is a classic. It goes beyond simply a matter of personal opinion.

    A classic is that which against all other subsequent attempts are judged.

  • Stephanie B

    I think the term you used, "standard," is an excellent one.

    The only thing I would add to your comment (which is well-thought out) is that there may be more than one standard, because not everyone judges the works the same. Because writing, although having standards and rules and all that, is still a subjective medium, not everyone will be looking to the same literature as an example, though some will be referred to more than others.

  • The Mother

    I have been spending some time rereading classics lately; unfortunately, I often find myself being disappointed.

    While I agree with your points in general, I have to say that there are a lot of "classics" out there that really don't make the modern cut. I'm sure they were fantastic in their era.

    So I'm not sure what makes a modern classic. I think it needs more study.

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