When Does a Book Become a Classic?

[it's old... so is it a classic? source]

My husband and I recently had a conversation about when a book becomes a classic. Be definition, a classic is something that "has lasting significance or worth; enduring." There is such a grey area between "classic" and "contemporary," that makes it hard to categorize certain titles. What are some potential factors?

Quantity/Total copies sold
Pro: The more copies sold, the more people reached. Millions of books can lead to a widespread, global impact.
Con: There are a lot of copies sold of really horrible books. Are Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight or The Fault in Our Stars "classic" eligible? I think not.

Pro: Classics should be of merit or some sort of level, especially if they are to have "worth." A Kia Spectra is never going to be a classic car. 
Con: Who determines quality? And does our definition of quality in terms of literature change?

Author's Place in the Literary Community
Pro: An author's reputation is probably established for a good reason.
Con: Some authors are recluses, some publish post-mortem, and some are just plain assholes.

Author's Death
Pro: "Must be dead" is a really easy, clear-cut marking point.
Con: Some authors live for a really, really long time.

Academic Presence
Pro: A text repeatedly taught at the collegiate level is probably being done so for a good reason.
Con: Some books fall through the cracks, some professors eat out the hands of publishers, and some programs are resistant to freshening up their curriculum.

Time Constraints
Pro: It would be so easy to say that once a book is fifty years old it is a classic.
Con: So if we're looking at the sixties, books like To Kill a Mockingbird, Where the Red Fern Grows, Rabbit Run and The Outsiders were published. Are those quite classics yet?

Obviously, it doesn't really matter, but, then again, does half of the stuff we spend out time thinking about? 

Weigh in!

1 comment:

  1. Such a good question! I definitely feel like it's a combination of these factors rather than a strict definition. To use book blogging challenges as an example, I think it's interesting to see the different approaches -- for The Classics Club, they are very open and let participants decide for themselves what a classic is and while I've seen a few surprising picks, I can almost always see why someone would consider a particular book a classic if I look into it a but further. Other challenges have a strict 50 year rule which I don't fully agree with because I don't think just because a book is old that makes it a classic -- though if we still know about it 50+ years later (and it's still in print), I suppose it must have some sort of staying power. I think relatively newer books could be considered classics or "modern classics" if they are of high quality and literary/academic merit. But as always, these are imperfect indicators. Then of course you have the difference between literary classics and the classics of various genres -- a classic mystery or a classic science fiction title -- which many wouldn't consider to be classics in a more general sense. In the end it doesn't really matter, as you say, but as a reader who would like to read more classics, it's definitely something I have thought about.