Recognizing a Classic

As I have shared at this blog, I write a column monthly for Review Direct. It is a collection of mostly literary stories and musings. As I come up for air from the annual frenzy of the Independent Publisher Book Awards, my thoughts turned to great books. What makes a classic? So I wrote on the topic. People have responded with positive feedback about the article- including suggestions it would make a great topic for a book itself. So, I am posting it here to open up comments and dialogue.

Recognizing a Classic

“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” – Mark Twain

What makes a novel a classic? Does it need to exist for a period outside its own time to prove its merit? Or do certain works seem to define themselves immediately as greats? With the death of authors like John Updike and Kurt Vonnegut and the advancing age of greats likeToni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, we cannot help but look at current authors to try and pick the next greats from the crop. As we look for new literary stars, we face a very different landscape from generations past. From Modern Library to Buzzfeed, websites far and wide almost weekly offer us lists of authors to watch, books we should be reading, and subjective classics.

Some authors probably come instantly to mind to those who work in the world of books. With two Man Booker Prizes to her name, Hilary Mantel seems destined for a place on the Classics shelf. Jonathan Franzen, author of the much discussed The Corrections and Freedom, is often brought up when discussing currently literary writers. His notorious personality (and big mouth) certainly help to keep him at the forefront. David Foster Wallace has a certain following that seems to indicate his works, especially Infinite Jest, will be talked about for a while. Jennifer Egan cemented her place among current literary greats with her Pulitzer winning A Visit from the Goon Squad.

The literary writers of today open interesting debate, but what do the careers of now classics indicate for the future? Charles Dickens ranks among the accepted literary greats. When he wrote he was the most popular novelist in England and his works were serialized in magazines. Such readership made him very different from the literary elite we think of as classics today. Will Nora Roberts be more widely read than Jeffrey Eugenides in 75 years? Jodi Picoult than Jhumpa Lahir?

Another aspect to consider is how the current publishing industry will affect longevity. When many of the novels we consider classics were published there were limited numbers of print runs each year. Books were also a luxury item for some classes. In 2011 almost 3 million books were printed. Major publishing houses put out thick catalogues every season featuring new titles. With such a flooded market to compete in, do authors today really have the same chances of surviving five years in print, let alone five decades? Do the masses marginalize wordsmiths?

What current authors do you think students and scholars will be reading in fifty years? Do you think any popular authors will achieve longevity despite critics? Is it possible for authors to find staying power in a publishing system that produces so many books per year? Share your thoughts.


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