What Makes a Book Classic Literature?

What does a book have to have to be “classic literature”?

Age? Does the author have to be dead? Dead for a certain number of years?

Acceptable content? Can the unfortunately racist Gone with the Wind ever be considered a classic?

Still read by the general public? What makes The Sound and the Fury a classic while something not read anymore like Ramona is not?

Is Rebecca a classic? Does the famous movie made from it make it a classic?

Is Treasure Island a classic even if it’s geared toward younger readers? Will Harry Potter be classics once JK Rowling is gone? Or are they classics now?

Does a classic have to be fiction? Is Common Sense classic literature? Does a non-fiction book have to have an impact on history to be considered a classic?

I know these are a lot of questions. Reading Lolita in Tehran set me thinking about this stuff.

I was always taught that a classic was a work that is still appreciated and valued years after its time.

I think of “classic literature” as works that have “passed the test of time”: books that are still read and appreciated by a significant number of people long after they were published. But I can’t quatify how many a “significant number” is nor how long “long after” is.

I’d say yes (even though it’s not a personal favorite of mine). “Children’s classics” is a thing.

Certainly, there exist works of nonfiction that are considered “classics.” They may or may not be considered “literature.” (“Literature” is not just confined to fiction.) But it takes more than just historical importance or influence to make something “classic literature.” I haven’t read Common Sense, so I can’t opine on how it should be classified.

There are some books, including novels (Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Jungle, In His Steps), that, while they may have some literary value, are still read today at least partly for their historical importance and the influence they have had, that goes far beyond their value as literature.

It’s “classic” when it can be inflicted on generations of reluctant students, regardless of how unreadable it may be for modern audiences.

According to a lot of people, Gone with the Wind already IS a recognized classic. I tend to agree. as for the racist content, considering that a good book will inevitably be shaped by its own times, that ought not to be a bar to considering something a “Classic”, but ought to be expected.

Question for discussion – IS Gone with the Wind racist? It tells the story of the Civil War from the point of view of a privileged woman from the slave-holding class. If it presents a picture of slaves as happy and content with their station, and as infantilized, isn’t that exactly what you would expect of someone with that mindset? I don’t know if Margaret Mitchell herself suffered under such assumptions.

Oh, I’m sure she did. As the omniscient narrator, it’s clear what her opinions are. The ever present question is should we judge previous generations by current standards? I’ve always felt we should not.

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” - Mark Twain

An additional factor is that character(s) or situations from a work enter the general culture in their own right as somehow typical examples.

Common Sense is not so much classic literature as it is a classic political thought. The standards used to determine what qualifies as a classic in philosophy and political science differ considerably from that used to determine what qualifies as a classic in literature.

I’ve long thought that a classic generally has to be public domain. Lots of them are not necessarily all that good, but they are necessarily free. So they show up textbooks, and generations of students learn about them, and that becomes the baseline for what makes a good story.

And then there are some stories that are just that good.

No, but it helps.

Kidding aside, I think that relevance beyond the time of writing is what defines a classic. Therefore, decades at least or centuries preferably must pass before this can be assessed. The authors are usually dead by then.

Acceptable to whom ? To our times ? A classic is still a classic if some of its message rings true to this day, even if parts of it appear dated or offensive to our sensibilities. A “classic” that has absolutely no redeeming value anymore stops being a classic. These things are fluid, too.

Perhaps not read but at least known. I like the Mark Twain quote, by the way.

A classic of literature, or any other art, stands on its own. It doesn’t need crutches from other media, although in some cases, adaptations surpass the source material, e.g. Shakespeare, who only wrote 2 original plots.

Harry Potter may be on its way to becoming a classic.

As pointed out above, some non-fiction books are classics in every field. Here’s one.

Which rules out most science fiction and fantasy, including The Lord of the Rings, Foundation, I, Robot, Dune, Rendezvous With Rama, Stranger in a Strange Land, and pretty much anything else written after the death of H.P. Lovecraft.

Mitchell objected to having black women in any of her classes at Smith College, where she went to for a year:

There is no such thing as a precise definition of “classic literature”. Like many words and phrases, it is just a vague term like those that many people use. Their definitions of the words overlap but aren’t remotely the same. You might want to read the book Surfaces and Essences by Hofstadter and Sander. Many words in all languages don’t have precise definitions that allow you to say whether a thing clearly fits the definition of the word.

I am dubious. As far as I can remember my own school days, the textbooks and things we read included plenty of works recent enough that they would not have been in the public domain at the time.

But even if we grant that being in the public domain is a necessary condition for a book to be considered “classic literature,” it is certainly not a sufficient condition. There are huge numbers of works that are in the public domain but are today completely forgotten.

And I suspect that there are very few works old enough to be in the public domain that are considered classics, that weren’t already well on their way to being considered classics before they entered the public domain.

And also most of Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, and Willa Cather. Ralph Ellison and Harper Lee. Lolita, Catch-22, The Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse-5. Public domain is a very poor criterion.

Even 50 years is stretching it. Gravity’s Rainbow wouldn’t make it until next year.

Potter Stewart said it best about classic literature: “I know it when I see it.” Oops. He was talking about porn. Oh well, eye of the beholder and all that.

A lot of people do consider the Ramona series to be classics. They are still read a lot. If your distinction is that children’s books can’t be classics, there are a lot of people who disagree with you.

Pornography is another example of what I was talking about. Like a lot of words, it doesn’t have an exact definition. People’s definition of the word overlaps a lot, but it’s unlikely that two people using the word will agree on what exactly is and isn’t pornography.

Perhaps @Two_Many_Cats2 was referring to this Ramona?

I admit, I wasn’t thinking of either of these. I vaguely imagined that Ramona was an older novel along the lines of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Henry Fielding’s Amelia, and I may also have been thinking of George Eliot’s novel Romola.

Does that raise the question of just who among those previous generations is being counted as representative? On the question of slavery, might lots of enslaved people and John Brown might well be used to judge Margaret Mitchell?