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 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.

The language

Also, the language a book is written may affect its chances for recognition. An easy way to find an illustration of this phenomenon is to look at some lists of "the Best novels of all the time" and related titles. If the list is published in a newspaper or website written in English, the novels written by English writers will almost for certain be over-represented.

Canon

The word canon is very close related to this discussion. It is a Greek word that could be translated to "standard". It is a term not exclusively used in literature–it is for example used in religion to describe the most important books. In literature and art in general, canon represent a body of works that is considered as a criterion for taste and works of a high level and of great importance. The canon is not fixed and new novels can be included to the traditional canon.

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

In some cases, the admiration for a highly praised writer becomes conventional. The reader knows in advance that the literature he is about to digest should be seen as great. This can prevent the reading experience from being neutral.

Examples of literary classics

If we 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.

Why read the classics?

So why should we read the classics? Just to be able to say afterwards that we have read certain books which are ranked high by a standard that may not be relevant to us? No, we should read the classic because they are great as literature and because they have made an impact to our culture.

Of course, where are among the classic literature works that may be less relevant to us today than other. Whereas William Shakespeare still fascinates many modern readers, John Milton may be mostly read by professors. Others classic works seems even more irrelevant to the common reader than John Milton. The Medieval epic poem Beowulf are normally something students read about or read a shorter excerpt from–seldom do any “regular” reader stumble upon this classic. The context in this case are mainly lost for modern readers, which couldn’t be said about, for example, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decamerone written some centuries later.

In others word, every classic may not be enjoyed even for the most avid reader.

One of the definition the Italian writer Italo Calvino gives are this: “The classics are book which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.“ 3

Notes

1. From The Merchant of Venice
2. From a foreword in The Sound of His Horn. 2013, p. 5
3. Why Read the Classics? Italo Calvino. 2014, p. 4