Tuesday, May 17, 2016

What Makes A Classic?

I’ve discussed before how much I despised reading books I found either stupid or boring in school – Moby Dick, Billy Bud, Pride and Prejudice, War and Peace, etc. These are touted as literary classics, but I had trouble staying awake while reading them.  Further, they took so long to read because they bored me to tears.

However, they’re considered literary classics for some reason.  So that got me wondering – what makes something a classic?  It certainly not age – we’ve had modern classics like Fahrenheit 451, The Shining, or even the Harry Potter series.  But just because something is a blockbuster, that doesn’t make it a classic.  One Second After by William Fortschen got high on the Bestseller List, yet few would call it a classic.

I think it has to be two things – the impact it has on the culture, and whether or not you go back to it time after time, year after year.  Mention fighting a white whale, and everyone thinks of Moby Dick.  Talk about He Who Must Not Be Named, and images of Voldemort and Harry Potter spring to mind.  Things like being trapped in a hotel during a snowstorm(The Shining) and images of an Alaskan Husky pulling a sled(Call of the Wild) are instant recall when mentioned.  Even very recent stories produce cultural references, like how a current meme on Facebook shows a midget fighting in the Syrian Civil War and being labeled as “Syrian Lannister.”

Going back time after time may be more subjective, but it still fits.  Classics are like old friends you seek out when times get rough.  I’ve read every book in the Harry Potter series multiple times, and I never tire of them.  On the other hand, although I enjoyed The Lost Regiment series, I can’t see myself returning to it over and over again.

I don’t even know that we’re capable of trying to write a classic until after the fact.  Perhaps in the middle of a series that has made an impact(like A Song of Fire and Ice), but usually we just want to tell a good story.  Writing specifically looking for a classic is a bit like going fishing and trying to land a shark – maybe you will, but you’ll more than likely be eaten.


  1. I'll never try to write a classic--I have a feeling that would bore me as much as Moby Dick. In fact, I think a key to writing a modern classic is just the opposite: It has to be something the author cares deeply about.

    1. Maybe that's my issue - I care about zombies and demons, not fancy picnics or exotic animals. :-P