Is it the amount of time that has passed? A wide readership? Originating from an ancient civilization?
Defining a 'Classic'
There is an ongoing debate as to what makes a literary work a 'classic'. For many years it was only when a work displayed a certain artistic worth—a vague intrinsic quality that sounds a lot like "I'll know it when I see it." Others consider a book 'classic' because of its influence on subsequent works. This seems likely to create an echo chamber of similar stories and experiences, continuing the exclusion or groups of authors and readers alike.
"The words ‘canon’ and ‘classic’ both evoke notions of evaluation and hierarchy... usually defined more broadly as that which is assumed to be ‘good’ literature, in fact the ‘best’ literature: that which is worth preserving and passing on from one generation to the next" (Ann Thompson, "The literary canon and the classic text").
The most inclusive, and flexible, definition is that 'classic literature' is a work that includes or addresses universal human concerns and experiences (putting Reader Response Theory at the centre of the debate!). Reading books across gender, racial, and religious lines—reading outside your comfort zone—should still allow readers to find similarities with their own experiences. Readers should be able to see themselves in or relate to a text regardless of who the author is or how the protagonist is described.
What about Canon Texts?
This begs the question: should we be reexamining the criteria around books put on required reading lists? To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is an exceptional novel, but perhaps a novel by a Black author would better represent the Black experience in the southern United States. Shakespeare's sonnets are beautiful, but so is the poetry by ninth century poets Li Bai and Du Fu.
"The underlying question here is, do we think a work like King Lear is great because of some essential or absolute qualities it embodies, or do we think it is great because we have been conditioned by our society, especially by our education institutions, into accepting this judgement?" (Thompson 60).
Of course, the issue is that all the works listed above merit study. Academia shouldn't be literary indoctrination but an avenue to think critically about literature and why certain works are granted required-reading status. In fact, many high schools are moving away from the constrained reading lists to lengthier suggested reading lists which include everything from comic books to Latin American poetry to LGBTQ voices.
Debating a Classic Text
Le Salon Literary Discussions facilitates virtual literary salons on 'classic literature' which we define as anything from 1999 or earlier. This broad time-specific definition allows for the inclusion of books by traditionally marginalized voices, placing the focus on the contents of a text, not its' prominence (prominence being a criteria that might limit the choice to traditionally dominant voices.) Participants then debate the merit of the novel, learning from one another and expanding their interaction and understanding of the text in question.
The only way to know if you consider a text a 'classic' is to read what you actually enjoy, but read widely—especially outside your comfort zone. This is the only way to make educated comparisons and have great discussions. After all, literature is mean to be debated. How else will more books come to be considered 'classic'?
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