At a recent book club meeting, one of our members remarked that because the club had such mixed feelings about the novel Exit West, it likely wouldn’t become a classic. “A classic,” he said, “has to have good writing, characters we care about, a good story, and a deeper meaning.” Since we couldn’t agree about the characters or the writing, Exit West fell short.
A lot of scholars, writers, editors, and others in the literary world have defined “classic literature,” and doing a little research on the subject, I found that most of the definitions are similar to what my book club member suggested. Mark Twain had the most succinct definition—“a book which people praise and don’t read”—but assuming novels are read, I think the true standard for classic is that the novel has stood the test of time. People are still reading and praising it decades after it was written.
If being a classic requires longevity, then what do we call recently written novels that fulfill the other criteria? The word great comes to mind, especially since I’ve been watching with interest The Great American Read on PBS. Although the basis of the TV series was more of a popularity contest than a true evaluation of the novels involved, the producers devoted an entire episode to asking readers what they thought made the books they voted for great. Their answers were personal, yet closely connected to the more formal criteria for classic literature.
“You have to live there,” one reader said.
Another said, “You feel an emptiness at the end of the book. You don’t want to read anything else for a while. You just want to stay in that book.”
In other words, the story has to pull you in and hold you, resonate at your core with universal themes such as love, hate, life, death, faith, and betrayal. Along those lines, it should also give you a deeper meaning to think about long after you read the last page.
Regarding writing, a reader on the show said, “You have to do something interesting and new with the language.” I agree the language has to be interesting, but not necessarily new. To Kill A Mockingbird, the novel that garnered the most votes at the beginning of The Great American Read and was still on top at the end, is written beautifully, but simply, in a traditional way.
A strong sentiment in The Great American Read discussion was “you have to feel personally connected to the people.” Readers need to feel empathy, which to me means not necessarily liking a character but understanding why the character behaves the way he or she does. When Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series of books, which placed second in The Great American Read, was asked on the show what she thinks makes a novel great, she said, “It all comes down to characters.”
So, if a novel has the right characters—people we understand and care about—and a strong representation of the other characteristics scholars and readers say are required, will it become a classic? Or will it be thought of as great for only a limited period of time? I would venture to guess that some of the novels in The Great American Read top 100 list (you can read it here: https://www.pbs.org/the-great-american-read/books/#/ ) will not be read 50 years from now.
There is a quality that separates classic books from great ones, a quality that makes their appeal everlasting, a quality that I’m not sure can be explained. I’ve never seen it put into words, but I like what intellectual, author, and editor Clifton Fadiman had to say about it. “When you reread a classic,” he said, “you do not see more in the book than you did before, you see more in you than there was before.”