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.