The Great Classics Debate – by Emily Oldfield

What makes a novel ‘a classic’? Is such a status a heady piece of recognition or grudgingly prescriptive prestige? Have your say…


What makes a text a ‘classic’ is a much debated topic. Although the assigning of ‘classic’ status is often received as due to the text possessing a particular quality of beauty or power- surely this is a subjective judgment? Indeed, if this is the case, who therefore has the power to dispense the ‘classic’ label? It is not necessarily even a positive attribute…


It could be argued that it is not people should not assign this status, but history. For example it could be considered that a ‘modern classic’ is at least a post WW1 publication as following a time of significant World change, whist previous to that time ‘classics’ existed only. Yet the time boundary between classics and modern classics for example appears uncertain (and frustrating!) – was there just a sudden change made? To picture one author gloating over their ‘classic’ whilst another five minutes later clutching the cover of their ‘modern classic’, appears absurd. Perhaps the ‘classic’ factor is the ability of the text to set its own history, and ask its own questions, as in the 1980’s Italo Calvino said in his essay “Why Read the Classics?” that “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say”. This could imply that the texts which are still studied today hold ‘classic status’’, but I am sure that many texts, even if largely unquestioned up to now, still have the capacity to be questioned. After all, aren’t we always free to question a piece of literature?


It is an uncomfortable stereotype in literature that ‘modern’ for example, in terms of ‘modern classics’ holds negativity and weakening of literary structure and styles. However, it is perhaps that our belief in modern/current writers is so weak that a person is actually fundamentally uncovered by such work – the sceptic. It is this human scepticism; the questioning of both oneself and others, inside and outside of the text, I believe not only gives a text philosophical relevance but relevance to be a ‘classic’ if such a label should be accepted. Perhaps then, it is the ‘classics’ label which stimulates the questions – somewhat unfair for the books that do not hold such? I think so.


We can also approach ‘classics’ from a critical aspect considering their relativity today. It was only in 2002 that the Pompidou Centre in Paris held a major exhibition to a literary critic: Roland Barthes – whose book ‘The Death of the Author’, the English translation of the French text, is highly inspirational in the field of post-modernist criticism. Does it appear fair that the novel should hold ‘classic’ status and not the author? Barthes argues that a text should be considered regardless of its author, but as so many aspects of criticism could also be regarded, such as the view that translation of a text loses its original meaning and hence lacks accuracy in terms to the socio-cultural factors displayed – the search for a single factor to evaluate ‘classics’ begins to unravel.


On asking opinions, some have responded with ‘popularity’ as a key factor. As many of the novels especially holding ‘classic’ status are over 100 years old, then it may seem appropriate that if such has held a significant readership at the time of publication then some kind of recognition is required. But let us consider the short-term, what about the recent flux of unavoidable, sweet-sticky ‘fan-fiction’ for example ‘The twilight saga’ – considering readership, would this be an acceptable ‘classic’? So many I know have scoffed at such a suggestion, especially considering the repetitive themes and motifs within the books.


Perhaps the assignation of ‘classic’ status is not in terms of scale of readership at the time then, but prevailing readership and deep-hearted affection, especially amongst literary circles. Take ‘The Canterbury Tales’ by Chaucer for example, an almost social replica of human debauchery and the crude (themes and motifs), yet still discussed as of relevance today. This signifies the potential importance of universal appeal and approach to the human conditions – especially the emotions.


It is also unfortunate that the possession of ‘classic’ status actually appears of negativity to some texts. It is so infuriatingly often that classics are confronted with the stereotype of ‘boring old books’. Age may be a factor, yes, but seeing many classics and the literary perception maturing over the age not only so we can consolidate our relationships with them but maintain a wise such relationship, I often wonder whether ‘classic’ status is necessary. If ‘classic’ is to note some respectable quality, then surely shouldn’t this be down to the subjective experience of individual reader, which is important? I have known far too many readers, including myself, feeling dismayed and inadequate at being unable to finish a ‘classic’ or finding it impenetrable.. One often feels somewhat disloyal to literature at even beginning to criticize what is termed a ‘classic’…


Yet when some novels, which are now termed as ‘classics’ were first published, there was even a state of uproar amongst critics. Considering Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, there were a number of criticisms, especially in the ‘Edinburgh Magazine/review’ making a number of severe points upon the book. So if many ‘classics’ were not necessarily appreciated at the time, why now?


Perhaps it is because we like the concept of ‘caring for something’, seeing the struggling novel or poetry and pulling it to safety. After reading a negative criticism, one may think that in order to validate such a strong opinion, one would have to read the book oneself and so on… so could it be considered that this love to form ‘classics’ as grown more out of hate? Perhaps, though it appears that the presiding factor here is the ability for the text to make an impression deep within the person, not just the memory.


It could be considered that texts with this rhetoric appeal – the interspersed semantic fields of what many would consider to be fundamental human emotions of sadness, love, anger, fear and to enthral the reader just as person may do so, is a ‘classic’ quality. Therefore it could be seen as the capacity for the text to have relativity to have anyone at any time is the true importance of a book, from which ‘meaning’ is absorbed. But this universalizability, although perhaps favoured by Kant, is an evident ideology rather than the truth. What are defined as ‘classics’ today generate positive and negative response, likes and dislikes. It could be considered therefore that what lies behind the ‘classic’ definition the ability to conjure opinion, emotion and thought. After-all, the physical novel may be the product of the writer, but the enthralling aspect is that the contents of the novel can become the product of anyone, with my perception of ‘Pip’ in Great Expectations so much different than yours.


Perhaps that is the key quality of the ‘classic’ then – the freedom we find within it, regardless of the label.


Are you a fan of the ‘classic’ definition or not?  What do you personally feel defines a piece of ‘classic’ literature? Do you think anything is a classic now, or will it be a classic of the future i.e. the questioning of whether ‘classic’ status is generated at the time, or after? Please leave your comments below.

6 Responses to “The Great Classics Debate – by Emily Oldfield”

  1. kev mcveigh says:

    Your point that many classic novels were not initially universally acclaimed is valid, but your example needs context. Frankenstein was dismissed by The Edinburgh Magazine, but that magazine and in particular Francis Jeffrey would attack any work they associated with London radicalism and the so-called Cockney School. Byron, the Shelleys, Hunt and Hazlitt all received savage condemnation on political not literary grounds. Frankenstein was published anonymously but was known to have links to the Byron circle.
    In relation to your main point though, this demonstrates another side. Those proclaiming a classic may have their own agenda.

  2. Lorna Smithers says:

    Hi Emily, I think the term ‘classic’ can be useful when looking for something to read, considering the growing amount of books out there (ie. knowing you can’t go far wrong with a classic) but this can also be limiting causing many good novels to be overlooked.

    I guess the status of any text can change over time. Pieces that aren’t well received later become central to the canon (like Blake). As you stated above, ‘universal’ standards change over time.

    What often frightens me is that the definition of what is a classic seems to depend on publishers, reviewers and academics rather than readers and writers. Although I guess this is changing now with the opportunity to review on Amazon, Good Reads etc. to make recommendations on Facebook and with the growing variety of forums and e-zines. A development that could lead to a new way of defining classics.

    Many of my favourite books are classics. Some aren’t. Those that line my shelves are those that ‘sing to my heart.’ Future classics- who knows?

  3. Emily Oldfield says:

    A good point, Kev, Thank-you.
    Yes, it is important to consider context and perhaps I should have included a little more on it – taking ‘The Edinburgh Magazine’ into account, the critics were often considering the bulk of the readership, and thus the possible hysteria of Shelley’s novel, which appeared to go against the accepted Christian values of the time.
    Considering your point on ‘own agenda’, yes, this does seem somewhat the case. As long as in my own thoughts, I have ‘my agenda’ of favourite literature, I think I will be satisfied.

  4. Emily Oldfield says:

    I love your point about ‘classic’ status often causing other novels to be overlooked, Lorna.
    Are there any such novels that you think have been overlooked? For me, ‘The Bell Jar’ by Sylvia Plath is often overlooked a novel of ‘teenage angst’, when I feel it contains some of the most beautiful imagery I have ever experienced.

  5. Lorna Smithers says:

    I’m not sure if it will make classic status but a fantasy novel I read recently called ‘The Shadow Cycles’ by Philip Emery got slated in a British Fantasy Society review as ‘reading like a first draft’ and sounding like a ‘quartz gem stone freak gone mad.’ I thought actually that sounds quite cool.

    It’s a haunting tale about a world being swallowed by shadow. The only people alive live on two ‘wyrms’ – a sky and sea worm. The sky wyrm is dead and has fossilised into a variety of gems leading to some beautiful descriptive writing. The sea wyrm is dying and people live within its flesh. Two sisters ‘steer’ the wyrms, one of them living in the heart chamber of the dying wyrm. Five ‘heroes’ are picked from five different worlds to ‘save the world’ during the apocalyptic event of the ‘ouroboros’ where the wyrms meet biting into one another’s tails. However the fate of the world is decided by the relationship between the sisters. Perhaps the reviewer was put off because it’s written in present tense and by the poetic language? I’d hate to see it overlooked because of a poor review (I ended up reviewing it on Amazon).

  6. Emily Oldfield says:

    I love the sound of the poetic language used and I agree with you that it is unfortunately often the case that such is undermimed by critics. I will definitely take a look at it Lorna!

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