Review of What Makes a Classic?


A spiral of colourful books on shelvesFrom Harry Potter to Hurrah for Gin, the current list of bestselling books is certainly eclectic. In an age when more books are published than ever before, how do we know or decide which will go on to become classics? Clare Blackstone-Barker went in search of answers at a Durham Book Festival debate.

Classics endlessly give
Cathy Rentzenbrink

Although this event brought together a panel of respected authors and critics, before an audience of no-doubt thoughtful readers, there was a strikingly wide range of views about what constitutes a classic. Possible definitions discussed by the panel included a book of their choice, which the reader should be forced to accept; a book that defines a generation; or, simply, a book that says ‘Penguin Classic’ on the spine.

Mid-talk, Kit de Waal asked, ‘Does an author have to be dead for the work to be classic?’ The question highlighted one possible piece of common ground shared by these various definitions, namely a feeling that time matters. Readers do not create and cannot fully identify what will be a classic, but we can know what is a classic from at least one hundred years ago. In Rentzenbrink’s words, the strongest assessment we can make of a modern work is simply that a book is good now; it is not possible to make claims for how it will fare next year. But if we do go hunting in the jungle of pages for the hallmarks of a classic, what might these be? Quality writing; a book that says something new about the world; a work that is often reactionary and divisive.

Illustration of a skeleton throwing a spear towards an author writing at a desk.

Death found an author writing his life [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Does an author have to be dead before his or her work can be considered a classic?

A deeply valuable take-away from this talk was, in the end, not the definition of a classic or a perfect awareness of what a classic is, but rather the importance and value of the reader – who should abide by two rules. First, don’t be lazy. As Rentzenbrink says, ‘There is value in the effort of reading a piece, but you don’t have to read anything.’ And second, as Andy Miller points out, you do not have to like a work of art, but you have to acknowledge that it is art. With years of reading behind me, I would strongly encourage this response. Finish reading a work and have an opinion. That opinion may be positive or negative, but either way you’ve entered the conversation.

What, then, were the panel’s contenders for classics? Kit de Waal advanced William Maxwell’s So Long, See you Tomorrow as having that one small moment that changes everything. Andy Miller suggested Anita Brookner’s A Start in Life, reading the opening lines ‘[She…]knew her life had been ruined by literature.’ Cathy Rentzenbrink offered Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger because it offers ‘what I hope for everyone—to be on our death bed, looking back with acceptance.’ Simon James suggested George Gissing’s New Grub Street for its portrayal of writing.

Photo credit: Clare Blackstone-Barker

Photo credit: Clare Blackstone-Barker

Anyone there may well have got a bit lost in the fast-paced exchange of authors and titles. To help you along, here are the ones I managed to write down: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, John Williams’s Stoner, Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, and Robert Aickman’s The Wine-Dark Sea. Authors (without specific titles) that were mentioned included Elizabeth Taylor, Barbara Cummings, and Sylvia Townsend Warner.

Are any of these deserving of the title of ‘classic’? What would you add to the list? Leave a comment below or tweet us @READEnglish with the hashtag #NewClassicBooks.

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