What is classic literature? This is an essential question in literary criticism, but also in the daily lives of ordinary readers. In order to answer it, these additional questions must also be considered:
1. Are classic and classical literature the same thing?
Not usually. Classical literature is exactly what its name implies: literature of the Classical Period. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, classical literature is “the literature of ancient Greece and Rome” as well as “the literature of any language in a period notable for the excellence and enduring quality of its writers’ works”. Classical literature is therefore defined by its age or resemblance to ancient Greek and Roman works. On the other hand, classic literature—based on its adjective alone—includes distinguished or notable works, even from the Classical Period.
2. What is the canon?
“Required reading” lists often include canonical works. The established prestige of this intricate, historical topic, however, is the source of recent controversy. In his article “What Is Literature? In defense of the canon,” Arthur Krystal of Harper’s Magazine reveals that this word comes from the Greek canon, meaning “measuring stick” or “rule” and was originally intended to serve as such. He further describes that the canon “pitted cutting-edge seventeenth-century authors against the Greek and Latin poets…to create new ancients closer to one’s own time”. Therefore, the canon was created in an effort to identify quality works from which contemporary readers could learn.
The permanence of these original canonical works is the primary cause of dispute. Exclusion has always been an important part of the canon, though, for good reason. Krystal describes, “Although exclusionary by nature, [the canon] was originally intended to impart a sense of unity… [by creating] a national literature”. Despite its good intentions, the canon currently faces conflict due to the limited diversity of its selected authors. This is a reasonable argument. Readers should be exposed to the works of writers from more than a single demographic. In an article for Slate, however, Katy Waldman makes an excellent point in support of the canon when she suggests that, to learn about literature, we must “[linger] in the slipstreams of certain foundational figures, who also happen to be (alas) both white and male”. The canon is limited in its diversity; nevertheless, it has had a profound effect on literature throughout history—a history we cannot change. It is integral to note, though, that although they are closely related, classic literature is not necessarily equivalent to the canon.
3. Can popular books be considered classics?
Yes. The classics are more closely tied to cult and popular fiction—literary genres often associated with pleasure reading—than you may expect. To define the two, popular fiction includes the books on bestseller lists, while cult fiction, according to scholar Marije Takens, derives from the Latin cultus—meaning “adoration” or “care”—and includes works that generate a “worshipful following” among a particular group of people (11). Despite their differences, these two categories are not mutually exclusive: cult fiction can become popular fiction and vice-versa. Furthermore, either of these types of literature can become classics.
This transformation from popular to prestigious has been demonstrated by works including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Takens 33), J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (41); their merit was once noted only by common readers, but over time, these works have also become celebrated in academic settings. Consequently, the classics can be both officially recognized in a scholastic, canonical sense and widely enjoyed and/or followed by a devoted audience of everyday readers. This process demonstrates that a work’s current literary classification or perceived merit has little implication of its future worth.
4. Who defines the classics?
Although scholars and literary experts may have the ability to more “officially” name the classics, individual definitions of classic literature can also play a vital role in characterizing these texts. In his speech to the Virgil Society in 1944, T.S. Eliot declared, “It is only by hindsight, and in historical perspective, that a classic can be known as such” (qtd. in Mukherjee 10). This definition suggests that, while certain modern works may be celebrated by readers and literary critics alike, they cannot—currently—be considered classics. This does not affect the merit of such works, though.
Italo Calvino, the Italian author, also provides valuable insight into classic literature with fourteen specific attributes, which were originally published in his book Why Read the Classics. These traits suggest that the classics are books which endure throughout time, are reread, create experiences, have endless meaning, and are both forged by and indicative of culture. Most importantly, though, Calvino suggests that classics are defined by the individual, who uses them to shape his or her own identity (qtd. in Popova). This is an important differentiation from the canon: classic literature may include the canon, but its classification is dependent on more than positive scholarly reviews.
Despite the relevance of the individual in defining the classics, shared value is also particularly important. In her discussion of children’s literature, columnist Lucy Mangan describes classic literature as appealing to diverse audiences: the children’s book, for example, must engage both children and adults. To be officially established as a classic, a piece of literature must therefore be acclaimed by both everyday readers and scholars, who together can attribute—according to Ankhi Mukherjee, College University Fellow lecturer at Oxford University—the “social and literary rank” (1030) which distinguish these works from others.
Readers of all academic and cultural backgrounds each have their own opinion on the classics. In fact, the various definitions of these works are, at times, contradictory: while some may equate classic literature to the regulated canon, others emphasize the preference of individual readers. Nevertheless, the continued use of the adjective “classic” suggests that these works—whether determined by an individual, a society, or a group of literary experts—are those which have an enduring influence on the human experience.
Krystal, Arthur. “What Is Literature? In defense of the canon.” Harper’s Magazine, Mar. 2014, https://harpers.org/archive/2014/03/what-is-literature/.
Mangan, Lucy. “What makes a classic?” The Guardian, 20 Oct. 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/oct/20/enduring-love.
Mukherjee, Ankhi. “‘What Is a Classic?’: International Literary Criticism and the Classic Question.” PMLA, vol. 125, no. 4, Oct. 2010, pp. 1026–1042. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41058302.
Popova, Maria. “Italo Calvino’s 14 Definitions of What Makes a Classic.” The Atlantic, 7 July 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/07/italo-calvinos-14-definitions-of-what-makes-a-classic/259529/.
Takens, Marije. “Cult Fiction: a Definition, a Concise History and an Analysis of its Place in Literature.” Utrecht University Repository, May 2007, https://dspace.library.uu.nl/handle/1874/21846.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Classical literature.” Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d., https://www.britannica.com/art/classical-literature.
Waldman, Katy. “The Canon Is Sexist, Racist, Colonialist, and Totally Gross. Yes, You Have to Read It Anyway.” Slate, 24 May 2016, http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/05/24/yale_students_want_to_remake_the_english_major_requirements_but_there_s.html.