Thursday, 10 February 2011

When is a Classic not a Classic?

Hello blog readers. I need your help.

So as you may know I made it part of my New Year’s Not Really Resolutions to read 12 classics this year.

I just felt that I wasn’t really challenging myself with my reading very much. Although I’m not exactly reaching for the See Jane Run books, there are times when I feel I could benefit from some heavyweights in there.

Plus I was sick of having to say “I’ve not read it” whenever somebody brought up certain famous novels.

(Do you know how many classics there are out there? Kind of a lot.)

So I made my sweeping statement that I was going to read 12 “Classics” this year and got on with it. Only now I find myself in a bit of a dilemma. Maybe I should have been clearer on what I define as a classic?

This all centred around a discussion I had with my Dad at the weekend. I took him back his copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and mentioned that I had rushed out to buy The Daily Telegraph on Saturday purely because I saw that it was giving away a copy of a collection of three of F Scott Fitzgerald’s short stories.

Dad disputed that this counted as a Classic, saying that although F Scott Fitzgerald was a classic author, he didn’t think these particular short stories counted as a “classic”. The Great Gatsby however, would be considered a classic.

We got further into debate when I announced that I was also planning to read Gone with the Wind as part of my 12. He said that although the film was a classic, the book wasn’t that famous.

So this left me reeling a little bit. Am I not setting out what I achieved to? I’ve read Midnight’s Children (still digesting that one before I feel strong enough to attempt a review) and I feel that although that’s fairly contemporary, it can be judged a classic because it was named the Booker of Bookers. But then again – is it? Am I confusing the term “classic” with “books you should read”?

But then I argued that One Day in the life of Ivan Denisovich might not be deemed a classic because I’d certainly never heard of it. Should I only be reading “acceptable classics” and if so then what the hell are they?!

You see the tangled web I’m getting myself into?

So I thought I’d turn to you guys (some people call it co-dependency, I call it blogging) and ask for your opinions...

1. Does the collection of F Scott Fitzgerald stories count as a classic?

2. Does Gone with the Wind count as a classic?

3. What do you think constitutes a classic?

(I'm not asking you if you think Midnight's Children is a classic because if you say no and that means I've read that book for nothing I might never read again. Can you guess how the review is going to go?)

And then finally I would like you to name a classic that you think I should read. All titles will be put into a hat (as long as I haven’t already read them, I’m not really bad you know, I have read some) and I will draw out a winner and that will be the next classic that I read.

So you know I think we both get something out of this bargain – you know?


  1. I went to school with her girl who would use the phrase 'it's a classic' about everything: films, books, songs, tv programmes. Too many things were 'classic' with her. Annoying!

    To answer your questions...

    1. Yes definitely.

    2. Yes definitely - especially if you can name the author however many years after it's been published.
    I think anything that has withstood the test of time and people are reading at least 40/50 years after it was first published. But then there's the sit on the fence phrase 'Modern Classic' which I think can be used for a book that has been read widely and will survive to be read 50. A good indication would probably be if it's been put on an exam paper. I studied Captain Corelli's Mandolin for A Level, so maybe that is a classic.

    You've probably read it already but I Capture The Castle by Dody Smith is an amazing book. Definitely a classic! x

  2. Hmmm, I can see your dilemma here.

    1. I would say no, that a classic should be a novel.

    2. Again, no, because I didn't even know it was a book.

    3. No idea! I can think of examples (Great Gatsby, Pride and Prejudice, Little Women etc etc) but not a definition.

    I went on the Penguin Classics website for inspiration and they had the Kama Sutra on the homepage so I guess anything goes!

    I haven't read many classics either I have to admit. A Clockwork Orange is apparently a Modern Classic though so I'll nominate that - I loved it!

  3. Hmm, the definition of 'classic' is a tricky one. To me, it suggests a book which is generally accepted as belonging to the literary 'canon'. There are older classics (Austen, Brontes, Defoe, Richardson, Dickens, etc) and 'modern classics' (e.g. Rushdie, McEwan, Naipaul, Murdoch, Ishiguro). However, tastes in literature (and therefore what constitutes 'classic') are subject to change. 'Midnight's Children' is definitely a modern classic (and one I've never been able to finish). Books I would recommend are: Joyce, 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man'; Woolf, 'To The Lighthouse'; Lawrence, 'Sons and Lovers'; Jean Rhys, 'Wide Sargasso Sea'; Ishiguro, 'The Remains of the Day'; Carey, 'Oscar and Lucinda'; Charlotte Bronte 'Vilette'; Austen 'Persuasion', Defoe, 'Journal of the Plague Year'. Just off the top of my head! Hope that helps some.

  4. Oh look at the mixture of opinions already! To add my twopenn'orth:

    1) No. I'm with your dad on this one. In this particular case those stories don't seem well known enough to justify being called by name so it's highly unlikely they're classics. I don't think that means collections of short stories can't be classics, it's just rare for it to happen. Am struggling to think of examples...maybe Dubliners by James Joyce? I don't recommend it though - it was an A level text forced upon me.

    2) Yes. It's better known as a film but the book is pretty widely recognised as a classic too.

    3) Something that has stood the test of time and still holds appeal for modern readers. The obvious ones are things like Dickens, Austen, Bronte(s)... I'm sure you can complete the list yourself. Basically the famous authors. The Penguin Classics site is probably the best overall selection of what's considered classic.

    As for recommending one, may I suggest a few? My personal taste doesn't run to the older novels because I find most of them a real slog to get through. Early 20th century stuff is my real preference. How about Cold Comfort Farm - Stella Gibbons, Vile Bodies or Brideshead Revisited - Evelyn Waugh or The Pursuit of Love - Nancy Mitford. They're all so readable and enjoyable and although they're not weighty historical tomes, I'd still very much say they count as classics.

    As a slightly left-field suggestion, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day by Winifred Watson. It's a largely forgotten gem but I absolutely adore it.

  5. I think what you need to remember is that you came up with this idea simply to challenge and stretch yourself. Getting into a downwardly confusing spiral about what is a classic isn't going to help anybody.

    Remember this is about you and what you want to read. Don't read something because you think you should, but because there is something in the review or the opinion of the person who recommends it, that you think will speak to you.

    I wish you luck in your endeavour and look forward to reading reviews. I second The Remains of the Day, but pretty much anything by Ishiguro is ok in my book.

  6. Very very tricky definition - and I teach literature, so you'd think I'd have one to hand (don't tell my students, ok?). To my mind, a Classic tends to be something that has stood the test of time to a certain extent, and has a kind of common currency among people who read: you have heard of the title, even if you don't know anything about it, and it isn't just the book that was raved about in all the reviews when it was published, and then disappeared completely. I think the point your dad raises about an author having less classic days is a good one - a Classic doesn't have to be a novel (I don't read many short stories, esp. in English, but Guy de Maupassant and Flaubert's Trois contes spring to mind), but it does have to be relatively respected as a work in itself. Gone with the Wind is another whole can of worms - I did know there was a novel, but I don't know whether I'd think of it as a classic, whereas (and sorry, but French references are my strong point) Dangerous Liaisons is definitely a classic, as well as being a well-known(ish?) film... As to my recommendations: for 'canonical', Brontes or Gaskell (don't be put off by Gaskell's length, she is eminently readable!), Austen, Virginia Woolf, perhaps a Fanny Burney (Evelina is fun); for more modern classics... Ian McEwan? Umberto Eco? Michael Frayn (love Headlong)? Vikram Seth's An Equal Music? Penelope Lively? Penelope Fitzgerald? Margaret Atwood?

    What about plays and poetry, by the way? Emily Dickinson strikes me as readable, as does Christina Rossetti, and Brian Friel is a great playwright. (Have just realised that I've strayed away from 'classics', and into 'reading I wish I had time to do' - oops. Sorry!)

  7. I think I agree with CraftyCripple - it's at least partly what you feel will be interesting and engaging. The Lord of the Rings might well be classed as a modern classic but it bores the pants off me every time I've got less than half way through the first book!

    I also agree with ruthcrafts - the book should have stood the test of time. But at the same time, I don't think you necessarily need to go for the really well known ones (Pride and Prejudice springs to mind).

    I'm a Gaskell fan myself, but I'd also recommend The Pillow Book (a kind of diary by Sei Shōnagon, a Japanese courtier, written around 1000AD), Samuel Pepys' diary (but get a short version!) and Tacitus's Histories (readable Roman Empire stuff). Oh and I, Claudius is worth a look too. And finally to lighten the load, don't forget the Moomin books - a fab children's collection if ever there was one.

  8. I'm inclined to agree with CraftyCripple and Ana - go with what feels as though it will draw you in. I think its fine to be open to suggestion but having spent my life feeling that I should read certain books (my Dad was an English teacher and could never understand why I couldn't get through the Lord of the Rings trilogy!) I try not to beat myself up about it if I find one of the 'classics' doesn't float my boat. I do think its worth sticking with things for a bit as sometimes they just take a while to get going but primarily reading should be an enjoyable experience so I think you have to enjoy the language and 'feel' of a book.

    In terms of books I think of as classics - I think Dickens, Austen, Bronte and Orwell are always worth a look. I've had Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) and Madame Bovary (Flaubert) on my 'must read' list for ages. Catcher in the Rye (Salinger) and Lady Chatterly's Lover (Lawrence) are good reads; I also loved To Kill a Mockingbird and of more recent authors anything by Sebastian Faulks has kept me enthralled (my current read - Human Traces).

    Actually, there are really so many good reads and many could be defined as classics... I think my advice, for what its worth, would be try it and see...

  9. Hmm- like it has been previously stated, it all depends on what you are hoping to get out of it. Now of course Gatsby is considered a classic, but I wouldn't rule out all of his short stories, some are quite good.

    I do consider Gone with the Wind a classic.

    Maye I will take a step back. I made a challenge like yours a while back, stating I wanted to read the classics. I meant the books one hears about. The ones that are referenced in movies, books, TV and by people you meet. That is how I started. I let it go from there and flowed into other books by "classic" authors.

    As for classics to throw in your hat...Pride and Prejudice, Washington Square, Picture of Dorian Gray, Madame Bovary, Emma, Jane Eyre, Great Gatsby.

    Check out my site for Fitzgerald

  10. Hello there!! Here starts the marathon blog catching session!! (In between small bouts of work of course)
    To answer your questions:
    1. no
    2. no
    3. i'm not sure what the answer is to that!
    You can't go wrong with anything written by Dickens for example, or Tolstoi books I reckon - so Great Expectations, A Christmas carol, Anna Karenina, War and peace are my suggestions to you!

  11. I'd agree with agirlinwinter that it is a novel that is in the 'canon' but I'd dispute the inclusion of the Brontes on the grounds of literary merit - clearly it isn't clear cut.

    I'd not bother with the short stories and read The Great Gatsby because it is a lot better and more important.

    Gone With The Wind is just a no.

    As a ready reckoner I'd say anything published as a Penguin Classics 'counts'. Your could include Penguin Modern Classics too.

    I think you need to define it for yourself though. I think you probably already know your own answer. Ehen you deicded to read 12 classics why were you doing it? To read important books, good quality books, impressive books? Another reason?

  12. Er I'm a bit lame - I tend to view classics as those books listed in the backs of Oxford or Cambridge works - that you find in the old section of the bookshops...that is as far as I'd go. So anything Jane Austeny/Charles Dickensy - stuff that was influential way back...

    I'll give you a few as I want to but if you want to select one - go with Wuthering Heights my all time favourite. Then I'd say:

    The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis (Do it, do it do it!!! One of my favs!)
    Mill on the Floss by George Elliot
    A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
    The Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer
    The Aeneid by Virgil

    I could go on forever but there are a few I

  13. I call Gone With The Wind a classic personally. Maybe that's down to the LENGTH of it though.

  14. Tough one. I think your dad has something with the classic authors v classic books. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is definitely a classic but she wrote dozens of other books, some of which aren't even printed anymore, because they're not all classics. I think I'd say:

    1. no
    2. in the US it's considered classic but I'm not sure it's so well known in the UK (as a book anyway) so - your call
    3. I guess a classic is a book that's held up for veneration, whether that means being listed on those endless "greatest books" lists or put on school and university syllabuses or even possibly a book that's been continuously in print for at least 100 years (which isn't the same as any book that's at least 100 years old that's currently in print, but I'm not sure how you'd find out which was which).

    As for classics I'd recommend:

    Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
    The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
    The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
    1984 by George Orwell
    Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
    Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

    Actually, this is quite a good list:


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