What Makes a Classic?

Thoughts on the Evolution of Memorable Fiction

We all know that the meaning of ‘classic’ has evolved from the original designation indicating the literature of ancient Greece and Rome to a medium that has endured over generations.

What do we find in books that people reread over generations? A world consistent enough to make escape, for the duration of the book, possible? Emotional fulfillment? Insight? Thought-provoking ideas? Characters that seem as alive as people we know in real life?

I recently reread Pride and Prejudice again. Now, I’ve been rereading Jane Austen regularly for several decades; there are some passages of P & P that I can just about quote off by heart. But a slow, careful reread gives me tremendous pleasure—I can sink into that safe, aesthetically pleasing, brightly peaceful world for a time, and find human insight that shows how different people then were, and yet how much the same. I’ve reread for different things: this time I traced the chemistry between Darcy and Elizabeth. Once I read for the skillful depiction of minor characters. Another time for manners, and assumptions make by the writer that the reader knew exactly what was going on. Another time for classical references—hints of what Austen had read, what had shaped her own early tastes.

There’s enough substance in Austen’s novel to reward the revisits—and not just substance, but an intriguing blend of the familiar and the curious.

Henry James, in an essay about Anthony Trollope (another of my favorites) said that there are two tastes for imaginative literature: the taste for the emotions of surprise, and the taste for the emotions of recognition. I wonder if that pair, translated out into broad, cultural terms, is what creates a classic—the blend of differences and samenesses that enables human beings to see each other across time, and be fascinated with how we’ve changed, yet still resonate with what makes us alike. A book that has been mined so much that the elements that have become cliche still manages to transcend cliche—like Shakespeare’s plays, with all those snippets of lines we’ve heard in commercials and all the other detritus of contemporary culture. His plays still give us a visceral thrill when experienced in the whole. Shakespeare’s paradigm is intriguingly different, yet his best characters are as real, as human, as any fashioned by more modern authors.

If this is true, it might explain the attraction for science fiction, which combines the taste for the strange with that of the familiar. In the best science fiction and fantasy we find the presentation of paradigm—worldview—through the metaphor of other worlds.

I believe that stories shaped culture when they presented the familiar old world and introduced new ideas. These ideas may be as subtle as the notion that old spinsters—a staple of comedic derision in literature hitherto—were capable not just of real emotion but of nobility within their necessarily circumscribed sphere as we see in Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford. Or notions could be as startling as George Eliot’s positing in Daniel Deronda that Jews are not only human beings and not monsters but they have a rich and fascinating history—a book printed at a time when the most casual anti-Semitism was so acceptable that you see it in books written for children.

Literature rehearses new ideas—not just political and economic ones, but social and emotional. We are surprised by new ideas, we gradually accept them, or at least become familiar with them, and as time wears on and a new generation comes along and reads those very same ideas, they perceive them as quaint.

That the ideas have become familiar may be regarded as a triumph for social consciousness, but does that mean the books are no longer readable? What happens to our tastes when our own paradigm changes? How do we look at books whose ideas are no longer “New!”

During my high school teaching stint, some young, intelligent students claimed that Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara was the best fantasy ever written. Ugh! My initial response to that was, “Have you read Lord of the Rings?” Well, some of these young readers had indeed read it—and found it dull, slow, and annoyingly male-oriented.

When I first read LOTR at age fourteen, I couldn’t put it down, not for three days. I rejoiced at Eowyn’s appearance, because in those days, all the good parts went to male characters. This is one of the things that got me writing, in fact, the idea that girls could have adventures, too. But anyway, I adored that trilogy at fourteen, and I reread it about every ten years, and admire it anew, all for different reasons.

At the same time, the fact that so many young readers consistently found it dull made me do some heavy thinking. Some have called it cliche, but that’s a given, since Tolkien’s most successful superficial elements have been mined repeatedly by twenty years of fantasy writers. But dull? Changing tastes in pacing might account for that.

When she was sixteen, my daughter had to read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. She ploughed her way obediently through it, but she and her classmates found it very slow going indeed. They thought it tedious to the point of tears, the women totally unbelievable, the frame construction at the beginning not only incomprehensible but annoying because it added wordage to be grunted through, but no point to the story. Of course the frame didn’t make the story seem “real” as it had to its audience nearly two hundred years ago. The science was peculiar, not ‘electrifying’ (yeah, I know— cheap shot!), the moral dilemmas dreary, and not fascinating and slightly scary. As an adult reader, I found the book a fascinating period piece; the story of how it came to be written, and what its reception was in Shelley’s society is more interesting than the story itself. I appreciate how subversive her ideas were at the time, because I am familiar with that period of history.

But for young teen readers like my daughter, there was no subversive element in Frankenstein to draw them back and back again to reread. There is no subversive element in Tolkien for the current generation of youth and young adults to draw them back again. When time has passed and books gradually sink into a former paradigm, I think readers need to be aware of history and paradigm to reach those meanings that still hold value. In Frankenstein we see the beginnings of the notion that “science” and “progress” could be the saving of the future. By making a religion of science, well-meaning people found it all right to do hideous things to animals, people, and the environment, all in the name of science—while they were busy deriding their ancestors for doing hideous things to animals, people, and the environment all in the name of God.

Tolkien’s books open to the older reader who knows something of history a grim and unflinching view of the terrible cost of war. Only someone who had lived through the trench warfare of the Somme could have written such a painful, poignant book; a reader who knows something of that war can see the profoundly effective overlay of Tolkien’s experience on the fantasyscape, imbuing it with a terrifying sense of the real.

In my teen years, conformity was still an cultural expectation, and escape to Middle Earth, where the Bagginses could let the Took side of their characters free them to find magic, was a tremendous vindication for those of us struggling to express our individualism. Also exciting was Faramir’s existence as a kind of Robin Hood outside of his father’s repressive traditionalism—and then there were Legolas and Gimli, making friends and appreciating one another’s culture despite racial differences. Finally, of course, there was Eowyn’s spectacular escape from the role of women, to find heroism in her Dernhelm guise. A very subversive book to a young reader in the early sixties.

Not that subversion is the only clue to what makes a book a favorite to be reread again and again. It’s one of many clues. Good books are seldom about one thing. But the point was about subversion, and I think subversion of unexamined assumptions is important. Constructive subversion is a clue toward solving the mystery of understanding where we’ve been, where we are going now, and where we might go. Subversion for the sake of shock or destruction exploits ugliness for the sake of shock value, for the extra cash. There’s no doubt that ugliness sells—in books, in movies, on TV, and in the news. I see few of them becoming classics, books people reread over lifetimes–generations.

Classics retain their power, though our perception of that power has changed in its superficials; the books not only entertain, but hold up a mirror to our past, whispering “Do not go there again, except in these pages.” Tolkien’s moral truths still hold for some of us, and though his world is no longer strange or new to young readers his skill in presenting it, and the story that takes place in it, still establishes Middle Earth in the treasury of memory along with other great books.