One’s definition of what makes a classic novel will undoubtedly be influenced by a person’s background. After all, one person’s great read is all too often another’s empty bore. For instance, many books considered classics are not necessarily books that would make many must read lists.Growing up, I decided to be an exception to that rule, and I read everything from Dr. Seuss to Goethe aloud simply because I loved the magic created by lines I could not yet fully appreciate.
To catapult a book from being classified as a great read into being labeled as a classic piece of literature generally implies the work demonstrates high quality and lasting value. It sets a standard for measuring similar works that come after it. In that regard, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath will forever stand as the book I measure all others against.
Yet, who decides?
Classic novels typically belong to the literary canon, and yet literary canons constantly flux as books considered representative of a period or place shift over time. Inclusion to the canon stems from the opinions of respected scholars and critics. A book can then achieve a certain level of status or reputation for continuing to influence trends for years to come. How many times will Shakespeare’s plays be reinterpreted or Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein beget new monster tales?
How a piece of literature will weather the test of time and perhaps enter the canon faces challenges in our modern age. The wildly popular Fifty Shades erotica series by E. L. James will never be able to compete with Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence, and yet, some readers thought E. L. James had created a new genre. It often feels like the power of marketing brings less than stellar books before the reading public simply because the publisher knows the writer’s name will sell books. Jean M. Auel’s final book in the Clan of the Cave Bear series contained dreadful writing, yet sold millions of copies. Even more intriguing, albeit in its infancy, is how the world of self-publishing will tie into traditional criteria for what makes a book classic.
Another way of defining classic literature would be to detail what it is not. Classic literature generally is not found in supermarket check-out aisles. More and more often, it seems popular books will get labeled as new classics so long as it makes the reader’s pulse pound. Generally speaking, classic literature also does not encompass genre literature. Not that such guidelines are set in stone, as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series will certainly stand the test of time as it represents genre literature with literary elements.
Plus, classic literature need not be fiction, though fiction certainly snags its share of glory. Edward Abbey’s memoir Desert Solitaire will certainly hold up to scrutiny over the years as well as Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. The free verse poetry of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass stands the test of time as well. For me, I suppose it all boils down to whether or not a book makes me think, or in some way enlarges my understanding of humanity and the world. Sorry kiddos, Twilight doesn’t do that for me, but Dracula can.
I hope you’ll add your thoughts below and then make sure to visit some of the others who are taking part in the Classic Reads Blog Hop. Happy reading!
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What makes a classic novel to you?
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Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2013.