Definition of a classic How a literary work earns classic status

A work of art doesn’t become a classic because it fits a certain formula, neither because it corresponds with a set of rules. It becomes a classic because it has a long-lived freshness that has stood the time and owns the power to communicate with newer generations. 

Being an art work of the highest class is one part, another is the ability in a work of art to serve as a model. For instance, Montaigne’s Essays are not only celebrated for its many interesting philosophical subjects, but also as a creation of a new genre, the essay. In similar fashion would Boccaccio with The Decameron, besides from writing a collection of excellent stories, create a new genre: the short-story.

There are nevertheless some exceptions from the rule, some literary works remain classics because they have earned a high status in the literary corpus and other by different reasons: the author is of general high culture significance or the work was of true importance of the development of the art in that time. This holds to be true about Julie, or the New Heloise by Rousseau which remains a classic, but read by very few.

The way to earn classic status is often both through critics and readers. Without doubt are their literary works which supposed qualities among critics have been questioned by the reader audience and vice versa.

The conception of a standard

The word classic has far wider connotations than merely quality or status. As in the literary movement classicism, it is rather about some rules of standards, decorum, which an artist should follow. The French classicism in the 17th century had strict rules about how a drama would look like.

Whereas the word classic refers to a value or standard in a broader sense, the word classical refers to certain things and most often the epoch of the Greek and Roman antique. The words are further blended by the fact that many art works from the period is called classic. Although not all works from that era can be considered classics by any means, they do belong to an era which itself has set standards for many art forms.

The value of seminal elements

Many classics are considered so partly due to their once seminal merits, in the way they have influenced tons of later works of literature. William Shakespeare, for example, is believed to have coined lots of phrases that have been included in the English language.  One of the phrases attributed to Shakespeare is, for example “All that glitters is not gold“.1

This is of course one reason to celebrate the writer in question, but in what degree is the reader going to appreciate the fact that the writer happens to be an innovator? There are some problematic circumstances of “old“ originality. Since we, in most cases, no longer recognize it, neither always appreciate it. Even if we do, the originality is merely as a knowledge, and we can not feel it when reading. For that reason we are sometimes doomed to bump into originality in literature without taking notice.

The commercial aspects

It could, in addition, be stated that commercial incitements sometimes is weighted in this subject. If a book on the cover or in a description text can be referred to as “a classic“ it definitely could influence its selling performance. A “classic“ has after all the “something-that-should-be-read“-implication and from that perspective commercial interest may invoke a more liberal view on which book getting attributed a classic.

Subjective and objective taste

The taste, that to some degree must remain subjective, is another inevitable factor in estimation of a literary work. Kingsley Amis once wrote that “We can be pretty certain that our literary tastes are arrived at not so much by conscious choice as in response to the less-than-concious demands of our temperament“. 2

Examples of literary classics

If we only concentrate on novels, these are some works that definitely are considering classics: Don Quixote (1612) by Miguel de Cervantes, Gulliver's Travels (1726) by Jonathan Swift, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain, Crime and Punishment (Prestupleniye i nakazaniye, 1886) by Fyodor Dostoevsky, In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu, 1913-1927) by Marcel Proust, The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger, The Old Man and the Sea (1952) by Ernest Hemingway.

These are just a few examples from the history of world literature.


1. From The Merchant of Venice
2. From a foreword in The Sound of His Horn. 2013, p. 5