A Bit of Educated Guesswork

This week’s question over at the Blue Bookcase’s Literary Blog Hop is:

What makes a contemporary novel a classic?  Discuss a book which you think fits the category of modern classic and explain why.

Hopping about and reading other’s responses, there seems to be almost universal agreement on some basic points.  First, while the time frame differs slightly for different people, a contemporary author is one who is currently writing or has been writing in the past few years.  That seems like a fair definition to me.

Secondly, all seem to agree that a classic is a book that can withstand the test of time.  A book, no matter how good, is not a classic if it ends up being consigned to the rubbish bin of literary history.

After these two points, perspectives begin to differ.  How many years does it take for a book to earn the label of “A Classic?” Must a book have a particularly high degree of literary merit to qualify?  Good questions, but open to a great deal of personal interpretation. I choose to think about this whole question in this way:  What contemporary books will people still be reading in 50 years?  I realize that 50 is a bit of an arbitrary number and it could just as easily be 40 or 60, but 50 rounds out nicely and, if people are still reading a book fifty years later, it must have some sort of lasting appeal.  As for so-called “literary merit,” I don’t really factor that into my equation at all.  If a novel can maintain appeal over the decades, I’ll assume there’s something inherently meritorious about the book.

As for the books that people will be reading in fifty years?  I’ve seen Cold Mountain, The Kite Runner, Middlesex, The Road all nominated as candidates.  All of these are all wonderful books.  However, I’m not certain they’re destined to be ‘classics’ in the sense that people, outside of some literary specialties, will be reading them in 50 years.   Certainly, any of them has the potential to become a ‘classic’  – but so do hundreds of other well-written novels from the past ten or fifteen years.  From our perspective in the present, it’s almost impossible to predict how any single book will fare in the eyes of time.  Take Moby Dick, as an example.  It’s now considered by many to be THE Great American Novel.  Yet, it was received with mixed reviews and fell into obscurity after its publication until it was resurrected in the early 20th century.  In hindsight, its easy to say that this rediscovery was inevitable – such a magisterial novel was undoubtedly destined to be recognized for the great work of art that it is.  However, it could have just as easily languished in obscurity and eventually forgotten.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not up to making any predictions.  If I was going to put money down on what books people will be reading in 50 years, I’d easily go with the works of Stephen King and J.K. Rowling.  Call me an uncultured philistine, I’ve got thick skin.  If history serves as any guide, these two authors are the safest bets.  The authors who become ‘classics’ are often the ones who are cultural behemoths in their own time.  Take Charles Dickens, for example.  While his literary merit was debated in his own time (and has been ever since), he was a genuine celebrity.  People loved him and still do – and not because of his original literary genius.  The man simply knew how to tell a good story.  That’s what people remember and that’s why his books continue to be read generation after generation.  Love him or hate him, Stephen King tells a story as effectively as anyone writing today.   And, through his books and their many movie and television adaptations, his characters and ideas have been ingrained into the cultural landscape.  Same goes for Rowling’s Harry Potter series, perhaps even more so than Stephen King’s works.  Rowling hooked an entire generation of kids who will remember those books for the rest of their lives and will undoubtedly read them to their own children.   People will be reading about Hogwart’s and He-Who-Cannot-Be-Mentioned well into the next century, I guarantee it.  And, to be perfectly honest, I think the works of both these authors deserve to become classics.

Other, more ‘literary’ books are certainly destined to become classics as well.  But, for works that don’t come with a cultural zeitgeist driving them forward through time, a lot more is left up to chance.  I’d like to think that my great-grandchildren will be reading Jonathan Franzen and Haruki Murakami, but I can’t be certain of it.  As with almost any aspect of life, the role of luck and chance is just as important, if not more so, than skill and merit.

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