What makes a Classic


classic booksI love thinking outside the box, and I love throwing ideas onto the internet which get others thinking, talking, or, to throw  a brick through my bedroom window. It is true that the final option; unless  applied  metaphorically would be chilly, alarming, and expensive to rectify, but if it meant that my words had sent someone on a new tangential mental voyage of discovery then I’d be a happy man indeed

With such rationales in mind I would like to pose  a couple of questions as regards the written or spoken word

  1. What makes a classic
  2. In our acceptance of orthodoxy do we ever think of a classic in it’s original form

I suspect that trying to pin down the exact definition of a classic is akin to trying to create a universal length of a piece of string, but after a bit on on-line research-an example of which can be accessed here-a quick summary of possible or generally accepted values can be drawn up as follows.

  • It generally explores or expresses some artistic quality
  • It stands the test of time
  • It has  a universal appeal as it often explores thoughts and emotions with are relevant or recognisable for or to us all i.e love, life, death etc
  • It connects, directly or indirectly, to other great works of literature, thereby enhancing the reader’s enjoyment and mind

There you go, a pretty standard summation for the common man of classic literature; but what if such a collection of thoughts only scraped the surface, the surface of a deeper structure or matrix which had an entirely different nature or form.

What if the above statements are all missing the simple word of “can”, and what if, in each statement, such a word should immediately follow the word “It”. How would such definitions in stone look then. They would still hold true for certain works of literature, especially works of a scientific or technical nature where certain truths or wondrous revelations are laid before our eyes; but what of other so called classics that we have all been brought up to believe in and enjoy?

What of the likes of Sir Walter Scott, Anthony Trollope, Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charlotte Bronte, and Jane Austin.

Moving forwards what of the modern classics. Authors such as George Orwell, Joseph Heller, Vladimir Nabokov, John Steinbeck, Albert Camus, Truman Capote, and a whole host of other luminaries

And then of course we have the potential classics of the future. Here we might see such authors  as Roth, McCarthy, Pynchon, and DF Wallace entering such a hall of fame

Finally what of authors such as Geoffrey Archer, Danielle Steele, or Barbara Cartland. We do not know, and we cannot know, whether they will stand the test of time, as such times are inevitably beyond our comprehension, but in all other aspects it might be said they meet all other stated requirements to the full.

  • if  artistic quality is  a reflection of life around us they certainly have a degree of “artistic ” quality
  • They certainly have a broad appeal, or as universal appeal as most other works of literature
  • As common themes are explored within such Literature it might be said that they certainly do connect with other great or certainly well recognised works of literature.

Is it possible that all such authors, are bound by rather more mundane rules of Literature. If we ignore, for the sake of this discussion, artists of any ilk who express themselves because they have to, or because they have the funds to purely express themselves  as a hobby, might most manuscripts and their Authors have to satisfy the following pragmatic rules

To bring an adequate financial return for the author the book, or whatever, it must be, at the time of sale and production

  • marketable
  • publishable  and saleable
  • In touch with an acceptable readership sector and
  • Unless  a one off work is being considered, the work  must be self sustainable and generate interest, and sales, in and of new work to come.

Brutal I grant you, and as an assessment of Literary style and quality, thoroughly sobering, but what is even more uncomfortable is to relate such values to so many of our beloved classics over time

How come Dickens was a dedicated serialist, and why, in many of his novels,  did he pander to a broad readership, with his writing style, his characterisation of “goodies” and “baddies”, and his reflections of social values of the time

Why was Pride and Prejudice written in the form that we all recognise today. Is it a reflection of real life in the Georgian Period, as many have claimed, and what of the romantic and then marital alliance between Ms Bennett and Mr Darcy. Lady Catherine De Burgh states, quite correctly, that no such alliance could have ever taken place, and that no amount of love could cross a divisional boundary that was  as long as it was wide.

In both cases I am going to put my head above the parapet and shout out money, potential readership, and market sector a claim.

By accepted technical standards,  Jane Austen and Charles Dickens may well be great authors, and they may well have written classics, but maybe, just maybe we should all be  a little more wary about how we regard the classics, and re-evaluate such a concept to really see what it means.

p.s just for fun, when you meet an “Austin-ite”, or a “Dickens-ite”, tell them that P & P was a romantic pot boiler, or that Dickens was incorrigible serialist. I have asked both questions in my time, and you should have heard the scream, let alone seen the steam!

Happy reading folks, and don’t forget the damp cloth or duster as you reach for the classics; most of the beggars have been sitting on the shelf for years-see poll below

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