>> 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 Novels and books with an outdated outlook or an obsolete issue might fall to the wayside unless they are one of few books from an era, even if they are well crafted.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.