What Makes Classic Literature Classic?

Introduction

According to Dictionary.com, the definition of the adjective classic is "an author or literary work of the first rank, especially one of demonstrably enduring quality."

How many times have you finished a great new book and told your friends that it was classic? How many times have you sat down with them to discuss Shakespeare only to have them shake their heads in disbelief at your saying that the writing was classic?

In the same manner, these friends will tell you about a classic book they have just read, and you react as though they cannot be more wrong.

The point is this: if we all like different books and styles, if we all have different senses and sensibilities, then what makes classic literature "classic"? What makes it a work of the first rank – with a kind of quality that is "demonstrably enduring"?

The classic says something about the human condition

One of the most important things to remember is that "classic" does not necessarily translate to "favorite" or "bestselling". Literature is instead considered classic when it has stood the test of time; and it stands the test of time when the artistic quality it expresses – be it an expression of life, truth, beauty, or anything about the universal human condition – continues to be relevant, and continues to inspire emotional responses, no matter the period in which the work was written.

Indeed, classic literature is considered as such regardless of book sales or public popularity. That said, classic literature usually merits lasting recognition – from critics and other people in a position to influence such decisions – and has a universal appeal. And, while effective use of language – as well as technical excellence – is a must, not everything that is well-written or is characterized by technical achievement or critical acclaim will automatically be considered a classic. Conversely, works that have not been acknowledged or received positively by the writer's contemporaries or critics can still be considered as classics.

The classic implies continuance and consistence

A classic might also find its way to the reading list of schools, libraries, and academic and learning institutions. This isn't to say that works are classic because they are being studied by students in an academic setting; but a status of "classic" implies continuance and consistence, transmitted from generation to generation in order to enrich the human mind. Not only do classic works of literature become part of the history of ideas; they also influence this history, enabling readers to make connections, discover the influences of other writers, and gain a deeper understanding of the foundation of knowledge on which the work was built.

The classic is also elastic

Jonathan Jones of The Guardian also asserts that "elasticity is a key component of what makes a classic": elastic enough to make it suitable for modern interpretation. "It can be stretched and pummeled and it will always return to its original shape," Mr. Jones says. "The classics are classics because they are foolproof. Plagiarism enhances them. Satire strengthens them." A classic, therefore, sustains its impact over time – and regardless of the ways and forms in which it is or might be adapted.

Examples of classic literature include:

  • Don Quixote Miguel De Cervantes
  • Robinson Crusoe Daniel Defoe
  • Gulliver's Travels Jonathan Swift
  • Emma Jane Austen
  • Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte
  • The Way We Live Now Anthony Trollope
  • Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde
  • Ulysses James Joyce
  • Lord of the Flies William Golding
  • Catch-22 Joseph Heller

Additional Writing Resources