Thursday, November 25, 2010

Book Blog Hop - Turning Modern Into Classic

Literary Blog Hop
When I started teaching Advanced English, one of the other English teachers, helping me with my lesson plans, gave me a list of “classic” novels that our students could choose from for a book report. The list was a strange conglomeration of novels from the last two hundred years – everything from Little Women to Tropic of Cancer. It made me think about what constitutes a classic novel. (By the way, I ended up slimming down the options on the list. I eliminated some books that I thought too mature for my thirteen-year-olds, such as Tropic of Cancer, some that were too long for them to read in a seven week period, such as War and Peace, and I also limited it to nineteenth century novels, which I felt they would never read otherwise. I did not make those decisions, however, based on what I believed to be the definition of “classic” novel.)

There is, I believe, only one way for a contemporary novel to become a classic. It must enter into the conversation of literate people – not necessarily critics, or bloggers, or academia, but others as well. Even certain people I know who do not read novels had heard of Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. There was so much discussion about the novel and the author’s relationship with Oprah, not to mention his Time cover or how many times people remarked that it had not been nominated for a National Book Award, that the novel has become infamous. The implication is that many books that are classics have not necessarily been read by those that discuss them. How many people could name a Shakespeare play without having read one?

A book must be part of conversation, otherwise its energy dies when its cover is closed. Not all “classics” are good – they are merely known and discussed. If you think about your reading history, the books that are considered classics, no matter at which point in history they were “contemporary” are probably taught in high school or college classes somewhere., thereby expanding the conversation beyond people who would read them no matter what. Their Eyes Were Watching God was not considered a “classic” and in fact was out of print until 1971 – thirty-four years after its publication – when Alice Walker picked it up to teach it at Wellesley. Now, it is considered part of the canon. A more recent example is Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi. Only published in 2001, it is already being taught in high schools around the country, including the high school my middle school feeds into. Many of my former students can discuss or reference the novel years after they read it.

Of course, the most important factor is time, which makes this question difficult. I don’t believe that we can accurately predict which modern novels will become classics. Winning an award helps, being taught in schools or receiving good reviews helps, but there are so many novels published a year and many good ones by independent publishers that will unfortunately not reach a wider audience. Not all classics are good novels, and not all good novels become classics.


  1. I have pondered a lot about the time factor in the making of a classic, and I'm still not sure. Life Of Pi as you gave for example has already entered the mechanism of the academy. That's pretty much a one way ticket to become a classic.

    That's why so many pretentious bastards write for the academy only.

  2. That's a very intriguing argument. I agree that to become a classic, a book has to keep offering material for people to discuss, despite changing times and changing ideas. And that means in consequence, it manages to keep its place in intellectual conversations. It may not be the only factor in the making of a modern classic, but I'm glad you've drawn attention to it, as it's an interesting way to view the problem.

  3. great answer. I agree that not all classics are "good," just discussed. ... do you think Twilight will become a classic? -shudder-

  4. I do agree that classics are the books that were experienced by a larger portion of society, and I love how you wrote your post about it. It's kind of depressing to me that Life of Pi is a classic in the making.

  5. not sure if life of pi is a classic but that just me I think it is a great novel but may drift off over time ,all the best stu

  6. I wouldn't begin to presume what makes it on the classics list from the books recently published. No idea.

    My thoughts:

  7. This is a great discussion. As you said, it's not always quality. Although I love Wuthering Heights, tons of people don't, and those camped on both sides continue to read it and argue about it.

  8. am in total agreement, that a book is a conversation between you & it, also like a good conversation you are involved, you follow it word for word, also the reverse being true if it's rubbish you drift off.
    enjoyed your write up, tho not sure of Pi

  9. I agree in part, I agree that novels need to be discussed. But I also feel they need staying power. Everyone is talking about Freedom now, but will they still be talking about it in 30 or 40 years?

    And the plot thickens...

  10. I like your idea of how books enter the conversation--I also appreciate your reasoned approach to answering this question. As always, I found the various answers thought-provoking--another good conversation.

  11. Ben - I'm interested in what you mean by your last statement. Do you think authors write only to enter the academy? Or they enter the academy to be a writer?

    litlove - I definitely agree it's probably not the only way, but I still feel it is a vital way for it to become a classic.

    IngridLola - I imagine that Twilight will become a "cult" classic - an entirely different breed, I think!

    Melody - I actually liked Life of Pi. Reading it as a teacher, I think there is much for high school students to take from it, although whether it should be a classic in the vein of Jane Eyre or To Kill a Mockingbird, I'm not sure.

    winstondad - I will also be interested to see the staying power of a book like Life of Pi and others like it.

    readerbuzz - I agree that this was an especially difficult prompt. There really is no way to accurately judge.

    Amy - Wuthering Heights is a great example. I'm not a big fan, although I do see its literary merits. It's the argument that sometimes makes a book intriguing.

    parrish lantern - I like your perspective that the conversation should be between you and the book as well as the outside world.

    Rachel - I feel like Freedom is based on hype, which is not a recipe for lasting long. To be fair, I haven't read and as my husband hated it (and I generally trust his judgement) I probably won't. But it's interesting to me how popular it was even before it was published.

    bibliophiliac - I also enjoyed reading everyone's answers. I wish I had more time to comment to everyone who I read, but on the whole this was an insightful discussion from everyone who participated in the Book Blog Hop.