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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9 comments

  1. I’m completely with you for King. Critics called Lovecraft “vulgar” and “pulp” in the forties. Look at him now. Edited in Penguin Classics. I’m not sure about Rowling because it’s a heavily genred child’s book, but maybe. Copies are in every household after all..including mine

  2. I agree with you on the point that people will still be reading Stephen King and J.K. Rowling in 50 years.. but does that make it literary? probably not. I think it takes other points too, even though staying power is a big one, to make a novel literary. I am pretty sure Murakami will still be well loved 🙂 … I hope!

  3. @BenoitLelievre- I think there’s precedent for a children’s book to be considered a classic. Take C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, for example. Those are also heavily geared towards children but are enjoyed by young and old alike and, I would say, considered classics. The Little Prince is another example. Agree with you about Lovecraft and I think that King will gain appreciation as time goes on as well.
    @Rachel – I would argue that both King and Rowling are literary in the sense that they know how to manipulate language in such a way as to tell one heck of a story. Nether one could be considered ground breaking in any sort of literary technique, but a lot of what we consider classics today don’t lay claim to that kind of innovation either. I truly believe that ‘bad’ books won’t stand the test of time. If a book has lasting power, there’s some reason why. For me, that’s what makes a book a ‘classic.’ I know that I’m probably in the minority of most literary minded people when it comes to Stephen King, but I do believe that his books will have that longevity that might be elusive to other writers (deservedly or not).

  4. What a wonderful post you’ve written! I love this line in particular: ” 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.” That, in a nutshell, has got to be what makes a book endure, makes a book into a classic. In addition to your list of King and Rowling, I would have to add Tolkein.

    And, I love how you mentioned Murakami at the end, one of my most beloved authors of all time. I was thinking I’d suggest Kafka On The Shore as a future classic, but then I wondered how many people would even know what I’m talking about it.

  5. I am with you concerning Murakami. I would love him to go the distance, not sure if he will, mainly because of outside a certain area of readers he appears completely unknown. This is a pity because he also follows that prerequisite – That he knows how to tell a good story. Enjoyed your post as per
    thanks Parrish

  6. @Debnance – I think that sustained popularity over a long period of time is an indicator that a book (or author) is more than just a passing fad. Sure, popular opinion is fickle and can elevate some horrendous writing. But, those brief flares usually die out. An author that can sustain that popularity over decades usually has something more going for him than momentary fame. And, I do agree that there can be dense, incomprehensible, and little read classics – I just think that it’s much harder to predict which ones of those types of books will end up being considered ‘classics’ in the eyes of future generations.
    @Bellezza – Glad you liked the post. I would consider Tolkein already to be a classic. The Hobbit was published in the 1930’s and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy in the 1950’s and both have been read consistently for decades. I would love to see Murakami be a classic in the future and, I think that there’s real potential there for him to become so. Kafka on the Shore was a wonderful, wonderful book. Can’t wait for the English translation of 1Q84.
    @Parrish – Thanks for the comments! Murakami absolutely knows how to tell a great story – and has all the literary bells and whistles to boot. I really hope that he’s still being read after I’m long gone.

  7. Hello, Pete–it seems like forever since I’ve been by to comment. I hope things are going well for you. Stephen King is an interesting example of someone who is both extremely popular and a craftsman. Your posts always give me something to think about, and this one is no exception. I need to put Kafka on the Shore on my reading list for 2011.

  8. @Lisa – Thanks for coming by! Sorry it’s taken a bit to respond. Stephen King really is a craftsman in the true sense of the word. Not a literary genius, but someone who has worked to hone his craft and has become extremely successful because of it. Definitely read Kafka on the Shore. It’s a wonderful book!

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