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‘A Classic Is A Book That Hasn’t Finished Saying What It Has To Say’

A photograph of three Jane Austen books, the Oxford University Press editions

A few years ago now, I wrote a post about what makes a classic a classic, looking at different ideas though mainly at what I was going to use as my definition in terms of my Classics Club list. A few weeks ago I read an article, Why Read The Classics? that included the line I’ve used to title this post, and it was a mini revelation to me. Not a complete light-bulb moment, because, and I think I speak for all of us when I say this, whilst I already had the idea mulling in the background, I’d never put it into words. Here was, in words, made into a statement, everything that seems true of a classic. I still think there isn’t one sole definition of a classic as the word encompasses so many concepts and interpretations (and I think that’s needed) but I love the statement and wanted to consider it further.

I do reckon it’s perhaps the unofficial ‘correct’ definition of a classic – and I realise that in saying this I’m to all intents and purposes contradicting what I’ve just said above. If you think about it, it’s the books we still talk about that are in the canon, it’s the books we still talk about that are, well, talked about, be they Victorian, from the 1930s, or a little beyond that. (In this way such a time limited definition would rule out my own definitions, of the work of Angela Thirkell and Barbara Comyns being called classics, because so few people read them – though there’s a case to be made for them becoming en vogue in the future just as many of the books from the Victorian period have done… and Thirkell and Comyns have been making their mark on bloggers.)

Such a definition requires a period of time to work: there needs to be a certain amount of time after the book’s release before we starting calling it a classic because there will always be a lot to say about a new book and time must progress before we find out if it has staying power. We can guess but we’re guessing in the moment what will be relevant in the future and we don’t know what the future holds.

How long should we wait? This is surely where the term ‘modern classic’ comes in handy. A newer book we think is likely to survive time can be a modern classic. It will then either join the canon as hoped or fade away from our collective consciousness.

But just as there are differing definitions of ‘a classic’, so ‘modern classic’ differs. I’d say Daphne Du Maurier – you knew I’d include her in this somewhere – is almost an author of ‘classics’ rather than a modern one; I hope she makes the canon. (I’m sure doing my accidental darnedest to make it happen!) But others might say differently. Certainly I’d say the definite, widely-accepted cut-off at present for ‘modern classics’ is the 1920s – we consider The Great Gatsby part of the canon.

There’s something else that affects the canon that I’d like to consider, briefly – defining moments in literary history. I wouldn’t be surprised, for instance, if Fifty Shades Of Grey ends up being known for a long time to come, not necessarily because it would still have an audience but because of its literary social context, the way it was the first erotic novel to break into the mainstream, creating a path others have followed. (Then again could we call that a reason to be added to the canon? I think not, but if a book is kept in the public consciousness for its social history then by all accounts even if no one likes it it’s still a classic.) Perhaps this is the reason why there are so many classics no one likes, then again the idea of ‘hasn’t finished saying what it has to say’ works with dislike as much as with like – we’re still talking about Heathcliff and by all accounts he did some terrible things.

To move away from E L James – yes please – and back to the main topic, the problem with the idea that a classic is a book still making conversation is that it’s subjective. Some books no one could argue against – we do still talk about the works of Jane Austen – but other books we could argue against. One could say that we’ve dissected a book, others many disagree. In many ways it’s down to individual taste, to personality and, whilst elitist-sounding, down to education, too. To speak personally, I think I’ve written all I have to say on Cranford in long-form (to be posted) but a literary student with a focus on Victorian social history, perhaps specifically on Victorian poverty or Victorian fictional towns full of women who prefer Samuel Johnson to Charles Dickens, would probably say I’ve made a start rather than a finish and that there’s plenty more to say. Many of us would say we’ve exhausted Twilight but someone who has experienced life both as a Mormon and in another religion, for example, might say everyone else has missed key points.

There will always be new interpretations as time goes on and that would be true whether the book in question is a classic or if one day in the future someone discovers a copy of a dated, out of print, forgotten everyday novel. The progression of time brings new information about things we already do and know about, as lead was once thought good for cosmetics and nowadays we can weigh in on ill health in a more enlightened manner – that sort of thing. And the progression of time brings new viewpoints, away from information itself, in the form of new social contexts, upbringings, and so forth.

If we apply this line of thinking then we see where books may enter and leave the canon – enter when relevant, leave once they’ve said everything. We can assume books like Orwell’s 1984, that are highly relevant right now, more so than they were when they were first published, will see us for a while longer but will eventually lose relevance, in Orwell’s case perhaps in the near-ish future. (That said maybe there will be a lot more talk in hindsight of that book in future.)

I agree with the concept raised by the statement. Personally I find it’s generally the classics that I get the most out of in terms of thinking and writing. Part of that is because I know there are more people out there who might be interested in posts on a classic, a book more likely to have been read than one of the plethora of others, and that spurns me on – obviously, whilst I might find posts about random books great to write, others may not know enough to ‘get’ them. But regardless, for me it’s easier to write more about the classics. And of course when we write about books our aim is to not repeat what’s already been said – at most we’ll take a well-used subject and put a new spin on it… and the book therefore still has something to say.

And we’re still doing all that for the books we call classics. It is what makes them classics and as such it’s surely fair to say that a classic is a book that hasn’t finished saying what it has to say.

What do you think about the statement discussed here?


Jeanne Griggs

April 11, 2016, 7:40 pm

As someone who researched satires with “literary social context” (many of them quite topical, and so not understandable today), I would argue that a lot of bad works of fiction are remembered because of their consequences and affects, not because of any intrinsic worth.
I’ve been thinking about a book that doesn’t “speak” to me individually but still has lots to say to others–I want to claim that it has nothing to say to me, but perhaps it would if I were reading it with a group. Hmm. More on this at my place on Wednesday!


April 25, 2016, 8:59 am

Jeanne: Just as long as no one has to read them! Maybe it would help to read the book with a group, but then again that’s a good point in itself; they won’t always speak to everyone.



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