Thursday, April 3, 2014

[OM] On what makes a classic (Literature)

What makes a classic book? Now even the experts disagree, so perhaps I should rephrase the question as: What kind of book do I consider to be a classic (or is it Literature)? Indeed, I have issues with some books considered classics today. So take what follows with this in mind (though, to be fair, I do differentiate between classics I merely don't like but can see why they're revered, versus ones I like, versus ones I have no clue why people like): in the end, reading is a very personal affair that occurs between the reader and the author.

Also, in my mind, this discussion is intertwined with the argument of what makes a great book today? But it seems to me that the criteria one uses to say a book is a classic should be applied to modern books and that in of itself will allow you to predict which books in the contemporary era will make it.

Yes, what posterity thinks matters (and who knows what styles they'll find amazing in the future, or which book will prove to be the most influential), but there does seem to be certain things that run true through all the classics which end up standing to the test of time.

Nevertheless, let's discuss the first issue. Permanence. That a book can last decades in the minds of a people (or resurface only to last) makes for the ultimate proof. I don't think anyone will argue that a book must last, but that doesn't help us in trying to define whether a book from today is any good.

A few years later are people still talking about it? Does it ring in the back of your head? Do the themes cause you to look at life in a different manner, to wonder about certain things (well into adulthood); do they seem to creep up (over time) when you look at the world around you or just cause cogitation? These things matter and certainly do help play into what future generations will see in a book.

Prose, or form. For me this is a point of contention as many modern books aim for form over style (something I care not for). But I think that though there may be a diverse range from Ulysses to 1984, we can still say that some level of thought must have been given to the language and not just to the story. That's not clear a definition either, though. The concept of voice must also be considered. How strong is it (can it completely enclose you in the story, or can it allow you a wry grin every now and then)? Does it lend itself to the story? With translations this can definitely be lost, but it should still be considered.

So language and voice must combine to hum to more than one person's ears. It must hum to a group of people's. How to apply such a variable to today's writing? That it speaks to your ear. That once the hype around a book subsides (one must take out the influence of whipped up frenzy) it still should sing to one's ear (a combination of a voice and prose). This, again, is subjective, but more important than having some trick to the prose or having such complicated words one is forced to look at the dictionary over and over.

Story. Some might say that this is what relegates a book to genre. But I disagree. I'm not saying there has to be a page turning story here, but that it should ring with some truth (though to be fair many of today's page turners are based on old classics) and originality. I would think that a book that uses the exact same formula as all other books in X-genre use, wouldn't really clear this hurdle today. But it's definitely possible. And though I'm a fan of books that leave certain things unanswered (like in life) that's not a prerequisite. The story must simply be interesting enough to shuttle us from one end of the book to the other. It must also be strong enough to highlight aspects of life in a way that it sheds light on the cause and effect workings of our world.

Lord of the Rings: Should this be considered a classic literature book?

Some would say that it has lasted long enough to merit its inclusion in any classics list.

Characters. More important than ever. They must be strong. They must stir up feelings inside (hate or love) us. We must be allowed to delve deep (usually through a view at their psychology, but it can be through their actions) into their minds. We must live their lives on the pages like they were our own.

Questions. The book must speak to some philosophical questions that arise on this rock. As we see it, of course. This does not have to be overtly done (usually it's better that it's not), but the book should at least point to the (moral?) issues that we have in modern life. Or perhaps shed light on them in a new way.

In the end, all of the above need to work together in perfect conjunction. It's usually not enough to have merely one to survive. But classics don't have all as strengths. They have weaknesses, but overcome them by doing one thing very well (usually that serves to highlight something else). Also, the emotions caused by some parts, like story, tend to be less long lasting as those caused by characters, or the questions asked. Nevertheless, I stand by the statement that it's a symphony of all these things put together.

Like with most of my series of OM (odd musings), this one has the caveat of being a live discussion (I also understand the extreme weakness and non-objective nature of these definitions, or measuring sticks with which I would measure all modern books), and I will update this post as things progress and more information is gained. For now, you can look at my current attempt to apply this post to what will be the classics of the future from this century.

The Road: Will it be considered a classic in the future?

I'll end with another point: that there is another aspect of an item lasting a long time (though this has less to do with being able to judge anything from today than with something to note) is that there are several levels of readers to consider. There's the MFA system which has now mushroomed into a beast that can contain its own eco system of writing. This system, in our country at least, tends to have 'literary fiction' as its trademark and it tends to value things like voice and prose over other matters (like what I listed above). Therefore if a book gains traction within this system (there are, thousands of these programs these days) for it's voice, or whatever other reason, it will most likely stick around for this reason alone (and who knows, eventually its merits will be known to the wider reading public).

Another, associated with the ivory tower, is the matter of English departments (which shouldn't be conflated with MFAs).  They too look at literature and serve as gatekeepers to young minds and what they read. Something they find to be of importance will likely stay in the fringes of our society, but eventually it too will have a chance at making it big with the greater reading public.

We can also consider that some books will just be discovered on their own, or rediscovered after having been lost. Like Stoner. This too is hard to factor in, but I believe that it is more in line with what I mentioned above. The colleges and what they hold does seem like a separate factor, but an important one nonetheless. In a way it reminds me of Canticle of Leibowitz's monks, though I'd like to think of myself as something other than ignorant.

UPDATE (05Apr2014): So a few more things to add to all this: one person on reddit, mentioned that rereading would be a big factor. Any book that can't stand the scrutiny on one or two or more readings, will surely die over time. I agree, and usually it's an indication that a book has a deeper meaning/story/questions, and proper prose. This could be added, within a few years, for our contemporary works.

Second, someone more eloquent than I has added much to this subject here. Move to 9:30 for a discussion directly affecting the definitions of a classic. But the claim that it will stand the test of time still stands (and I don't disagree with this), though I still think it worthy to think of ways to predict which books right now will stand the test of time (Professor Brenzel chooses to say nothing can be said until we find out that they will stand the test of time... His conclusion is that we get the most bang for buck with the classics. I don't disagree with that, but looking at today's books isn't something I can cut out completely).
Watch the whole video, but here's a tldr for what makes a classic (can be applied to literature) :
-Addresses permanent universal human concerns
-A game changer, in that it shifts the perspective of the time
-Influences other great works
-Respected by the experts over time
-Challenging yet rewarding.

Update (April 2014): There is another aspect to the whole Literature thing: in that it is normally conflated with literary fiction (this Guardian article forced me to think on this aspect of the debate. Go ahead and read it, it's quite well stated, especially in the beginning where the fact that any genre that's 'good' or 'long-lasting' gets thrown into the lit-fic category. That doesn't 'smell right' to be fair, and those who would accompany it with claims of elitism might be right too. Indeed, the article does go on to say that fiction being weighty should also be a weakness, but I disagree with that aspect). Again, I think there is a place for permanent, or 'weighty' fiction. That there is a literary fiction genre isn't wrong, it's simply one that either needs sub genres (to help it absorb all the books it tends to take in, as well as to help people find what they want, which is ultimately the point of such things as genres) or better definitions as to what it is. Indeed, if it is meant to be more serious fiction that lasts (one definition of literary fiction, though others lean towards saying it's more about prose or voice than the story, and therefore meaning the idea of how to review/rate a book could be of more use), then why aren't books that didn't survive the ravages of time knocked off the genre?

The Guardian article does seem to hit the nail on the head by calling it a simple marketing ploy that is meant to encompass what some set of 'elites' think is proper. Plenty to discuss on that front.

Update (further): I wanted to bring to light this article  and a professor who is bringing data analysis into the realm of judging what books make it in the long term:
"And one of the most fascinating assertions you make is that, when it comes to the canon or the books that survive or which are considered great and worth reading for generations to come, it’s not scholars or critics or other authority figures who decide what gets in. It’s the market.
Absolutely. I think those choices, for almost the entirety of the history of literature, have been made not by critics but by readers. It’s audiences that have made Aeschylus and Sophocles and Shakespeare and Racine and Ibsen the pillars of the dramatic tradition. The same goes for the novel, all the way at least until modernism and the avant garde, when things changed a bit. But by and large it’s readers and audiences who manage, by these word-of-mouth cascades, to learn about books and to select them — to use the Darwinian term."

That is something to think on. Indeed, I too had some notion that it's the experts who might hold some books in great esteem, even when most people eschew them, and when the timing is right, these books survive as the expert shows the people what's been missing. Perhaps it's merely a smaller variable in an overall equation or model.

Update(20JUL2014 [warning what follows here is very much an exercise in thinking out loud]): So, when it comes to this latest bit of information, that it's the market and nothing else (not, as I previously posited, the experts toiling away in academic towers, or MFA workshops) that decides what makes a classic, I am forced to take, to place more credence to social currency. This is what we're talking about (as much as I may reach for, and perhaps look for a singular truth or prose representation of that truth that makes a classic) when we say that a book has maintained (or magically come out of obscurity to become famous again) its popularity over time. It may be social currency over a long period of time, but it's still that which we're talking about.

So is everything I mentioned (along with a description of what kind of reality a piece of prose fiction must cut through) to be thrown out? Should we merely accept this as truth, there are still levels of what markets care for over time. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that these things (the parts of a book that speak to the human condition etc) are very important in defining a book's potential for classic-status.

One need only look over the bestselling books of the past, and know that most have been forgotten. In fact, it seems that of the ones that last, they may never have even been accepted on a bestseller list, or even by the 'experts' on a prize short list. I would actually like to see what the makeup is for each of these categories (how well one book does, then how well it does with the critics and so forth). Indeed, if it's merely a matter of the mysterious "Word of mouth" that leaves it to live on as a book and idea, then I dare say that it would be impossible to find out how exactly this happens (though I"m sure the NSA is working on that—that being contagious ideas that spread beneath the radar).

I will admit, that I still have some disgust for this method, of market over time deciding a classic (indeed, what will people of the future have—besides perspective on our time, not theirs—that makes them so much better that we should take their choice as bestowing the classic status? Though I should point out that very rarely will classic books come back up into bestseller lists (only minor ones, I assume).

Indeed, when I think of this, I think on one book: The Alchemist. This book has been on bestseller books throughout the world for around 10 years. I find this inexplicable (and I'm sure the word means what I think it does). Would this be a classic? I would say no. But it has won over the hearts and minds of countless people from all over the world (it must give them some measure of comfort). Yes, all around the world. This is no mere provincial phenom. But will it last into the future? 100 years from now, will it be worth anything? I'm not sure it will. I would like to think that it offers nothing new in any respect. But is that the only thing that matters? The markets have spoken, and they have said that this book is indeed impressive. So if I am to add the market into this equation, how can I dismiss this book?

I'm not sure I have any more incisive of an answer than what I already wrote. I'm afraid that even for me this seems lacking. How to deal with the idea of a market deciding? Well, perhaps it lies with the fact that looking at bestseller lists isn't the way. Indeed, that social currency may only be good for a short time (the chasing of wind that isn't anything more than the superficial). What matters are the points I made about the larger questions that seem to keep on creeping up in most people's lives.

And so if one looks at the market, or the networks by which books maintain their relevancy, one can see that in the short term (and for this, I will include anything that is even talked about for ten years—thus conveniently dismissing the alchemist... a very alchemist move... I'll see myself out) there are several levels whereby people chase what's hot, such as on the bestseller lists (50 shades of gray may only last a little as a classic, though it may speak to what values, hidden they may be, that our current society cares for) or those books that make the bestseller list with minimal marketing (50 shades being one of this). I think this even applies for books that are the critics favorites. These books can and will be on other bestseller lists (the nytimes bestseller list is massaged so that the 'right' books get in) or they will at the least be discussed in certain circles. 

But this will not get a book anything more than sales (one hopes, of course). But there are books that simmer. That take can be talked about in different channels. These books, with the properties I mentioned, will make few lists. But over time they gain currency. I'm sure that these books, if they ever make it big, will at least maintain cult status; whereby a small amount of people will be dedicated to it. That they are dedicated to it will allow for the book to be spoken about and live on.

All this is nice, you say, but were are the specifics. I'm afraid I'm not up to task with regards to this. I will revisit this topic, to be certain, but if anyone out there can point out to where its been done better, or can do better themselves, please do. 

Note: My hatred for Alchemist comes from it being a revamped/elongated Arabian Nights story (of course, being as minor a writer as is possible, I should take note that minor artists copy, great ones steal), as well as being one filled with platitudes that I couldn't get over.

Update Aug2014:
And here's a great article mentioning that there are but a few things that make a classic what it is (and that even amongst those that are considered classics, there are some which remain at the forefront of what people enjoy). Check it out.

Update Sep2014: Here's a great article on the social function of a novel. In other words, that it becomes big enough to be in the national conversation (though I would doubt that this is something of a perfect solution to seeing what is loved by posterity). Read it here.

Update Oct2014: Has it been done better before? Here is an article on what makes a classic by Calvino. As well as Borges.

Update Apr2015: Some thoughts on prizes (a factor, I would hope, in picking a classic, though it ends up being anything but that): The recent controversy at the Hugo awards has forced me to think again on the matter. What is a prize for. Surely it's not just to reaffirm the most popular book of the day. And it's odd to hear people say that it should (that doing that, that picking from the bestsellers in a genre, would allow more people to enjoy a genre seems to defy the point of any award. Perhaps there could be a bestsellers award section). That a book popular in a singular time and place does not necessarily mean it will ever resonate again, seems to be a time honored fact (and yet there are exceptions, aren't there?).

Of course, we get into the whole idea of what books a community should value, and what the word value means. I lean towards timelessness, and think that awards should too. But there's something to be said for a book that captures the moment, right? Well, this is certainly a subjective matter, but I have the inkling that those who claim to want more current popularity aren't being honest about what usually evokes that (or even that prizes were ever about value, that they were never susceptible to other political factors, to include being a bestseller, or for the intellectual elites)

For another source of my cogitation was the Nytimes article on Morrison. The comments, that is. Thing is, Morrison was already a world famous author, and had yet to win any prizes. A letter from a collective of black intellectuals (possibly) resulted in Toni Morrison winning the Pulitzer and then the Nobel. The letter also lamented James Baldwin having not won anything, though it was much too late for him. Some of the comments lamented that Morrison would ever win under such dubious circumstances. Again, I'm not sure if these people understand how human behavior works: that the letter was simply trying to counteract the unsaid biases of such prizes. (again, we're talking about value, and I think timeless value matters the most, not popularity. Mind you that I'm speaking of the kind of popularity that one finds in the elitist circles that are still extremely biased, but actually embrace their biases—to include their tokenism—as some sort of untouchable asset of literature)

That James Baldwin received nothing for all his excellent writing seems to be the most obvious red flag to a fan like myself. Elitists in the literary circles of these prizes may disagree, but in my opinion it just goes to show why such prizes will matter less and less in the future. Very few seem to pick anything worthwhile, and I know I certainly don't buy books based on whether or not they win these prizes [1]. Again, it could be that these prizes could help pick a good writer we might not normally hear, or that is truly a treasure, but time and again it's been shown that this isn't the most important factor for elitists in the arena.

[1] Note that this also goes for the Nobel Prize of literature, that international one that eludes American writers over and over. Though one of the committee claimed that American literature was insular (the kind that wins prizes here, I assume), that seems like the pot calling the kettle black. The amount of insular Europeans who have won that prize only goes to highlight its own weaknesses (while avoiding whole continents of writers). That's not to say that other continents shouldn't be held accountable for not starting their own international prizes and mainly picking from their own stables.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can contact me at if you have any questions or wish to discuss something or just to say hi. Look forward to hearing from you.  


Here are some articles you might be interested in reading:
# List of the 5 best international novels out there
# 5 Best scifi novels
# Best books of the 21st century
# Best books of the 20th century
# A review of the Diary of a Man in Despair

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  1. You have a few good points. Social Currency (sc) is just that. So what we have is sc=(limit —>0) for popular works, while sc=(limit —>infinity) for classics. Surely that's not what you're saying? perhaps it's that as sc>0 for t>0 is maximized, we should care more, or it's a classic. Is there space there for any other factors? I think not.

    1. I agree with what you're saying: that social currency is just that, and that the currency of one generation means nothing to another. So perhaps when I mention time as a factor, it doesn't merely mean another generation but rather multiple generations.

      Now even in this line of thinking, one cannot exactly extend the time frame forever (thought that's exactly what I'm saying in theory, the feasibility is a weakness) and thus there could come a time—let's assume limited resources, let's assume a worsening environment, and then perhaps what we care for in high-minded lit will never be the same again, or not even close to what has mattered for the past 100 years, or 500 years—when everything changes. One cannot predict this, and yet I think one should try to aim for some predictive wagers.

  2. Nice thoughts, and I think that it would be great to take on such a bet, though who will? That is one way to bet, but at the end of the day, aren't things like "that which speaks to humanity" simply ideals (ideologies even, which are in turn the tools for keeping the status quo and keeping the rulers in power) that are meant to make everything seem all right, to make the march that we are all walking seem to make sense?
    Maybe I'm not making sense. But even time (and why 50 years? why not 500?) isn't a true measure of a classic. Basically, a classic is what it is because that's what we (at any given time) decide to say about it. What happens when it's all random?

    Or what if literature (and thus the idea of a classic) was a historical fad? Then, if time is the only true judge here, we should look to books that humanity has said matter... namely religious texts (the other classics, in the Greek use of the word here, may also matter too)? Would you be willing to admit that?

    1. Historical fad? That is all that art (and thus lit) was ever. I have issues with the idea that lit can be something more than aesthetic. Perhaps it can become that, but it was never meant to be that.

      Let's think about this carefully: what did lit come from? It came from myths (and possibly as an informational source, such as where are the caribou, but that doesn't seem likely). What are myths? They are a way to deal with death. In other words even the most primitive human saw that there was nothing but death and randomness in the world, didn't like it, and looked to things like myths to ease the edge of nothingness some.

      Right there you have your answer. It's there to be entertaining, perhaps to be a little informative, but mainly to take away the hollowness inside. Such is how life is. Therefore the most recent trend towards (post modern) complex writing is only good for those who get off on good prose. Nothing wrong with that, but neither can they say things like genre, or the latest thriller is bad. That too has its place as literature.

      What Lowhim is trying to do here is commendable. But it's a little misplaced. Perhaps he's trying to do too much with his writing, or hope too much from his writing. But he should see it for what it is: not to make people feel bad, or see the real world, but to merely allow them a respite so that they can move forward in this life. Nothing wrong with that.

      Perhaps the only thing I will concede is that writing needs an audience. It must have it and it must have it to survive. Therefore if genre has a bigger audience, it wins.

    2. If it is a fad, then so be it. It does seem like art has been a factor in our species, and so has narratives (one can extend the definition of lit to include all narratives). Thus books may not matter, but I wager that narratives always will

  3. Interesting post. That one should be willing to make a bet on certain books is commendable. But certainly close to impossible.
    Couple things here: that by saying there should be a canon, or literature with a capital L or that books will last throughout time for some reason greater than pure subjectivity is not wrong, but very hard to prove.
    BEcause at the end of the day, that is what it comes down to: one cannot even disprove the subjectivity of history, and thus of narratives, itself. Hard to say that one piece of the canon is certain, that anything could ever be objective in a field that is essentially subjective
    You mention time as one of the main factors to defining a book as a classic (the strainer for it, if you will), but is it so certain? After all, what we're doing is substituting one generation's subjectivity (with all its needs for pleasing certain groups; read politics, and being too immersed in its own history to never be able to pull back and make that objective view) for a few or a couple.
    What I'm saying is that even Shakespeare is up in the air. Who knows what will happen in 500 years? And who knows what reasons will be used to find another author-hero of the moment?
    To claim that one has a proper method of prediction is to claim that all narratives in history that have won out are the correct ones. This may seem to be true, but it is not TRUE in the perfect sense of that word.
    That's all I'm adding to this topic. Keep calm and carry on.

  4. Kind of a long read, some good points made in there and yet it cannot be refuted that this article is claiming to be able to map popular opinion over time and from that be able to say that popular opinion matters. And yet if that is the truth, why not count popular opinion as the defining factor, not what academics say? Because when one says the elite should have much say, one is saying that what is taught in college etc is what is a classic, while what is read is not? Seems counter to the democratic appeal of this blog. Discuss

    1. Such a subject requires length. Here's a shorter one:
      Popular opinion is also subject to multiple factors like marketing and so on. I do think that classics will expand view points. But like I mentioned above, if energy becomes a crisis, perhaps future generations will look to minimize their viewpoints.


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