What makes a ‘classic’? Is it a certain style of writing? Or is it something else? Literary critics, readers and scholars disagree on what books are classics. It’s not strange for two individuals to have different perspectives on what makes a classic.
In this post, you will discover the ten factors that determine whether a book is a ‘classic.’ Not all ‘classic’ books will tick all ten boxes. This is because classics come in different time periods and styles.
Although all classic books share excellence, they are magnificent in their own way. All books mentioned as examples are fiction.
This post does not contain spoilers, but recommendations for those interested in reading the classics. The factors are divided in two categories.
For the first category, books are not disqualified from being classics if they do not meet the given criteria. However, ‘classics’ must meet the criteria in the second category.
‘Classic’ novels will not necessarily fulfil every single factor below. However, these factors are important. They assist readers in finding ‘future’ classics.
The criteria should demonstrate what a ‘classic’ novel looks like. Even if a book meets the standards below, that is not enough for the book to have ‘classic’ status.
Factor One: A ‘Classic’ Novel May Have Sophisticated Prose
One of the essential joys of reading is the discovery of beautiful language. The best prose:
- Provokes Profound Thinking In The Reader
- Has Aesthetic Merit
- Engages The Reader Emotionally On A Non-Shallow Level
A great example of a ‘classic’ novel that has fantastic prose is ‘Lolita’ by Vladimir Nabokov. Think about the captivating open language to Nabokov’s masterpiece:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.
Within a few sentences, Nabokov juxtaposes visual imagery together to create a unique portrait of a protagonist fixated with ‘Lolita’. His language has a poetic flair to it, where every word is chosen for maximum effectiveness. And, like the very best poetry, beautiful language is used for even the ugliest of topics.
Throughout the novel, Nabokov plays with language and distorted character worldviews. The end result is a brilliant novel about sexuality, exile, memory, obsession and American life.
Sophisticated prose helps readers ‘accept’ difficult subject matter as well. If it weren’t for Jeffrey Eugendies’ captivating take on boyhood and the suicidal lives of teenage girls, I don’t think The Virgin Suicides would’ve worked.
Factor Two: A ‘Classic’ Novel May Have Well-Drawn Characters
We all disagree on what a ‘well-drawn’ character is. Some may argue for backstories or moral ambiguity. Others look for traditional adherence to Jungian archetypes and classic storytelling tropes.
For the sake of this article, a ‘classic’ novel may have interesting characters. Sure, you could loathe or love them. But for a character to accomplish stirred reactions from viewers, they have to be interesting.
“Please, sir, I want some more.” The master was a fat, healthy man; but he turned very pale. He gazed in stupefied astonishment on the small rebel for some seconds, and then clung for support to the copper. The assistants were paralysed with wonder; the boys with fear.
And who is better at crafting interesting characters than Charles Dickens? Throughout his writing career, he wrote some of the most deplorable and loveable characters. Sure, you could argue that the cast of Oliver Twist were caricatures. But were they boring? No! From David Copperfield to A Christmas Carol, you can trust Dickens to write characters that provoke all sorts of reactions.
Which is, of course, one of the joys of literature: that we read books that impact us.
Factor Three: A ‘Classic’ Novel May Have An Interesting Philosophy
The term ‘philosophy’ refers to many things. For this case, I am referring to novels that present philosophical arguments, or discuss topics common in philosophy.
A well-known example, although recent, is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. In the novel, he argues for ‘New Sincerity.’ He does that by giving us characters who evolve and care, which differs from the ‘postmodern’ approach of cynicism. During his life, Wallace would campaign for ‘sincerity’, which could mean believing in someone, even when it seems ‘uncool.’
There’s a great quote by DFW on cynicism:
Postmodern irony and cynicism’s become an end in itself, a measure of hip sophistication and literary savvy. Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving. There’s some great essay somewhere that has a line about irony being the song of the prisoner who’s come to love his cage… The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years.
We enter a spiritual puberty where we snap to the fact that the great transcendent horror is loneliness, excluded encagement in the self. Once we’ve hit this age, we will now give or take anything, wear any mask, to fit, be part-of, not be Alone, we young. The U.S. arts are our guide to inclusion. A how-to. We are shown how to fashion masks of ennui and jaded irony at a young age where the face is fictile enough to assume the shape of whatever it wears. And then it’s stuck there, the weary cynicism that saves us from gooey sentiment and unsophisticated naïveté. Sentiment equals naïveté on this continent.
Although not a literary example, the album OK Computer by Radiohead is considered a classic in music circles. Certain songs like ‘Paranoid Android’ depict postmodern life, and its consequences.
Factor Four: A ‘Classic’ Novel May Be Linked To A Nation’s Identity
Classic literature appeals to a variety of people, regardless of nationality. However, there are some classic authors whose works are considered part of a nation’s soul. When you visit these countries, you may find statues, named libraries, and even museums dedicated to particular authors.
Although literature is surely a global event, it is also heavily national. After all, there is a concept of ‘the great American novel’ or a ‘British way of writing comedy.’ These notions may seem outdated to some, but still hold relevance today. When looking at what novels are classics, we must consider how nations construct their own identity, and what literary works help paint that picture.
It is clear to me now that, owing to my unbounded vanity and to the high standard I set for myself, I often looked at myself with furious discontent, which verged on loathing, and so I inwardly attributed the same feeling to everyone.
Notes From The Underground
A fantastic example is Fyodor Dostoevsky. He is considered a landmark of not just Russian literature, but Russian history. In his speech regarding Pushkin, he considers the Russian identity, and what it means to be a Russian. You can read the speech here (English). Or in the original Russian.
The reception of the speech is legendary, leading many scholars to perceive Dostoevsky as an embodiment of Russia. And certainly, when one considers his novels, such as Notes From The Underground, you could argue that only Russia could produce such literature.
However, you do not need to be Russian to ‘understand’ or ‘appreciate’ Dostoevsky. Part of the beauty of national literature is that it reminds readers, no matter where they live, of universal life. On the other hand, national literature can argue for a profound connection between countrymen and patriots.
Either way, classic literature brings people together.
Factor Five: A ‘Classic’ Novel May Be Popular And Well-Liked
This a controversial point. Many book readers are quick to point out that a book’s popularity is no indicator of its success. An example given is that of Fifty Shades of Grey, the blockbuster franchise of erotica. And although it is important for a nuanced reading of popularity, this argument is valid.
Readers can like trashy books that have no discernable literary quality. That’s not because readers are stupid or anything like that, but because not every reader aims to discover ‘classic literature.’ Because of that, the factor about popularity is one of many criteria for ‘classic literature.’ A book having popularity is not enough for it to be a classic.
However, if a book is popular and beloved over a period of significant time (well over fifty years), then you could argue that the book in question is a classic. Although that argument will need more examples of literary excellence, the popularity and reception of a novel does matter to ‘the literary canon.’
When looking for ‘classic novels’, it is vital to consider enduring popularity. Although not a novelist, the plays of Shakespeare are certainly considered classics. This is mostly because of the influential legacy they have. You can find the signatures of Shakespeare in Akira Kurosawa films to the Star Wars prequel trilogy. The plays are frequently adapted and quoted. Think of the line in Macbeth: Something Wicked This Way Comes.
By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.
Not only is that a terrific Ray Bradbury novel, but it is also a line in the third Harry Potter film. This is a testament to the influence of Shakespeare ideals and language, particularly in the Anglosphere.
Although popularity is not the only thing that matters in classical literature, it does matter.
‘Classic’ novels must meet all five of the criteria below. The factors distinguish between great literature and good books. Of course, you could argue that the examples given do not reach the ‘classic’ standard. Some terminology here, such as ‘eternal relevance’ will provoke debate. That is not a negative. Literature, especially ‘the canon’, should give rise to arguments and analysis. We are not meant to have the same opinion on literature, and if we did, the classics would not possess the artistic merit that we adore.
Factor Six: A ‘Classic’ Novel Must Take Risks
‘Risks’ take many forms. They may appear as ‘creative risks’, where the author experiments with dialogue and narrative. Or, they may look like ‘moral risks’ where the author presents potentially ‘dangerous’ or unsettling ideas.
All ‘classic’ novels must create new ground in the field of literature. They must do something that hasn’t been done before. Whilst it is certainly okay for a ‘classic’ book to borrow ideas from other authors, they must present them in an original way. View risks as authors doing things that haven’t been done before.
A great example of a ‘risk-taking’ author that produced classic literature is George Orwell with Animal Farm and 1984. These books feature developments in moral thinking, political philosophy and the English language. Orwell’s willingness to condemn Stalin and communist modes of thinking is absolutely remarkable. His blunt style of writing is not for everyone, but those who read his books will understand the power of language and politics.
“Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them.”
Sometimes, to break ground in literature, you have to make people uneasy. Orwell did that by reminding us of the lurking evil that is communist totalitarianism.
Factor Seven: A ‘Classic’ Novel Is The Product Of An Author’s Passion
Books express the passions and interests of their authors. Such is the case of The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. Here, Eco combines his expertise in medievalism with detective literature. The end result is a gripping mystery of death and faith. Rightfully considered one of the best moments in ‘postmodern literature’, Umberto Eco argues that our medieval past is still within us today. His catalogue of fiction (see Foucault’s Pendulum) is also impressive and contains sophisticated scholarship in regards to history and the human person.
However, an author must have passion to produce a classic. But what does passion mean? Well, there are many interpretations. For the sake of brevity, passion refers to the distinct voice of an author. The writer must insert himself into his work and show some degree of commitment. In the case of Eco, his writing is cautious. Every word or image is perfectly selected to perfection.
“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”
The Name of the Rose
This is because having passion for writing means putting effort into it. A writer that is dedicated to research, literary prose, or thematic development will fare better than a writer that merely types.
Of course, a downside of this criteria is that some ‘classic’ novels are written for money. Another concern is that ‘effort’ and ‘passion’ have different meanings for different authors. That’s why factor seven calls for a liberal application to literature.
Factor Eight: A ‘Classic’ Novel Is Evidence That Humanity Can Accomplish Remarkable Deeds
During the Renaissance, artists such as Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci reached almost divine heights in visual arts. From the stunning ceiling of the Sistine Chapel to the Last Supper fresco in Milan, the Italian Renaissance is proof that humans can reach striking heights.
A ‘classic’ novel is similar. No matter how bleak the subject matter, classic literature inspires the reader to achieve more in their lives. This is because the author has already accomplished that, and because the author and the reader are both human, the reader must realise that they too, can achieve greatness.
“I am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way into eternal pain,
I am the way to go among the lost.
Justice caused my high architect to move,
Divine omnipotence created me,
The highest wisdom, and the primal love.
Before me there were no created things
But those that last forever—as do I.
Abandon all hope you who enter here.”
The Divine Comedy
Great literature does not minimise the attributes of humanity. It exemplifies them. In times of great strife, we look at the classics to remind us that we are not doomed to mediocrity. That’s why a classic novel is fundamentally inspiring.
That’s why the recommendation for this factor is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Through heaven, hell and purgatory, Dante tells a captivating allegory, that is still embraced by readers today. His conception of Inferno in particular is striking, because of how real it seems.
The Divine Comedy reminds the reader that heaven, hell and purgatory are shaping forces of human behaviour. Dante’s meditation on history and theology is magnificent, and even if you do not agree, there is no denying its beauty.
Factor Nine: A ‘Classic’ Novel Has Eternal Relevance
A book has ‘eternal relevance’ when it speaks to generation after generation, and offers wisdom for future problems. This is certainly true of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Like The Divine Comedy, Tolkien uses universal themes of death, mercy, friendship, history and faith within his works. Although The Lord of the Rings is less than a hundred years old, it already has a timeless legacy.
Classic books aren’t classics because they are fashionable, or fit into orthodox modes of thinking. No, a classic novel must go through the metamorphosis of history. As everything in the world changes, the classic novel remains with its eternal relevance. In a thousand years time, the classic novel will teach children and adults alike on topics such as life and death.
“What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’
Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.”
The Lord of the Rings
A book is ‘relevant’ when it speaks to not just to politics or culture of a society. No. True, eternal relevance is when a classic novel speaks to the soul of the world. What do I mean? Well, classical literature is not just a product of its times. Rather, a classic understands the fears and desires that bewitch every human.
Another example worth considering is ‘The Iliad‘ by Homer.
Factor Ten: A ‘Classic’ Novel Contains The Truth
Classic novels do not lie to the reader. Sure, characters may deceive, and the narration may play tricks on the reader. (See: Agatha Christie’s work). All of these are permitted in classical literature. However, classical literature never paints a false or an inauthentic picture on what it means to be a human being. When you search for ‘truth’ in literature, you are not looking for the ‘right’ answer. Instead, you are looking for honest reflections on the anxieties of life.
Sometimes, you will not agree with what a classic book has to say on a topic. The authors worldview seems paradoxical and unappealing. But if the novel is genuine in its sentiments, then it has ‘truth’ in it. Although Leo Tolstoy’s musings on life in Anna Karenina are not easily understood by everyone, they are an authentic representation of Tolstoy himself. Another example is Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. That novel acknowledges suffering, but also goodness, innocence and redemption.
“It is nothing to die. It is frightful not to live.”
Because of that, classic literature is born from the quest of authenticity. A classic novel reveals a truth about human nature that may not sound easy. But the very best literature helps us see the truth: whether that is in ourselves, our loved ones or in our enemies.
In conclusion, ‘classic’ literature helps us. It’s the candlestick we hold onto while we walk down a dark corridor. It’s the map that guides us. Not only that, but the classics teach us about ourselves, even when we believe that we already know everything.
What are your thoughts? Comment below!