A continued discussion on what can be defined as a literary classic
August 3, 2013
Posted by on
Since I brought up the question about how to define a literary classic I was given a rule of thumb that books should be at least twenty years old and was shown a sample list that begins in antiquity (it included Gilgamesh) yet came right up to modern times. I was a bit surprised to see Isaac Asimov, Ken Kesey, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker all had one book there. So I see that at least some consider the test if time not to be a huge factor, though the twenty years struck me as quite soon for a book to be considered a classic. Even cars must wait until forty years.
I say this because I would suppose to be a classic a book would have to have resonance with a successive generations, not just the generation in which the book reach its fame. I know this isn’t air tight as some books are “rediscovered” for various reasons and some books make it through generations, I’m convinced, because they are required reading in some programs. (Think Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle here.)
And wouldn’t classics have to be such by general consensus? As an example I’m going back to a book that I’ve mentioned before, Joseph Conrad’s Gaspar Ruiz. I have tried discussing this book with a few literature types none of whom had read it and only one claimed to have known of it. So it is arguable that even though it was written by one if the best known authors if his time and was probably a best seller in its day, and even though I enjoyed reading the book if your average ‘literary types’ hadn’t a clue about the book how could we agree that it is a classic?
I do realize that there are classics in national literatures that your average reader may not have heard of. For instance the Vietnamese consider Nguyen Du to be their Shakespeare yet how many outside of Vietnam have heard of, let alone read, his magnum opus, Kieu? And likewise there are unknown books that can constitute classics within genres. In these two examples it is hard to argue against a book being a classic.
I guess there are many parallels between this question and the Great Books arguments that go on in academic circles.