What Turns a Novel into a Classic?
Many writers have put their pens to countless stories. Some of the stories have slipped into antiquity while others become enduring classics—required reading by instructors and movies that grace the silver screen. What is it that turns some novels into classics while others remain little known? Is it the ability of the author to capture and hold the audience spellbound or is it just “the throw of the dice?”
When determining whether a novel becomes a classic or not, I've noticed the narrative itself often isn't a terribly important part of the criteria; rather, the groups that decide these things are far more interested in how influential the novel was, what the prose is like, whether or not it paints an illuminating picture of the time it was written, symbolism and metaphors present, and/or whether it challenges convention or not.
Basically, the things that determine a classic are more under-the-hood kinds of traits.
Obviously writing skill is a primary component, but overall if a book has strong, and deep, characters, and it paints a picture of a very specific place, in a specific time period, then it is more likely to become a classic. Imagine every classic you've ever read and they almost always have strong characters + strong setting. It seems inherently harder for genre fiction to become classics, because they involve fictional settings and they tend to be more plot driven, but it's not impossible.
Though there is some element of luck that the right agent/publisher/editor will pick up the next classic. Because even the greatest books ever written were rejected at one point or another.
I think the key lies in the stories relevance, and whether people relate to it not.
Tales of struggle and perseverance
going from underdog to conqueror
a conceited man and his fall from grace then subsequent rebuilding of his life from scratch....but this time with different values
the forbidden love story
the growing up and finding oneself story
These are only a few examples, but a lot of people can relate with these kind of novels.
What turns a novel into a classic? There are at least three attributes that are consistent with every classic: Significance, relevance, and time.
When determining whether or not a novel is in fact a classic, significance is well, highly important (do you see what I did there?). A classic novel per se should be significant to its time period. It should stand out as a testament to its time period's history and epitomize the modus operandi. Dickens' Oliver Twist is a social novel depicting the horrors of child labor and poverty during the industrial revolution, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle depicts the same horrors needing much reform in America. Both novels are still studied and read today because of their historical significance. The lessons their authors taught changed the way the public viewed poverty and proved to be catalyst to social reform.
Do the lessons the novel teaches us relevant today? By far, no author or playwright is quoted more than Shakespeare. Disney's 1994 classic, The Lion King is loosely based on Shakespeare's arguably best play, Hamlet. If the subject of love could be put into words, those words would undoubtedly come from Romeo and Juliet or perhaps one of his sonnets. To name drop another classic work is Sun Tzu's The Art of War which was mentioned in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. These lessons are still relevant. Why?
Because they've withstood the test of time. The last and final attribute is Time. The worst thing that can happen to a book is for that book to become Out of Print. To a book, Out of Print is blasphemy. Should a book fall to this fate, significance and relevance would be its reasons. The book failed to achieve the two. I'm sorry to say that there are far more books in human history that are out of print in contrast to books that are in print. I don't know the exact number but I can guarantee you that it's not close.
Only the most special books can become classics. Only the very best, most reviewed and most sold books last. Period.
Well said. Can you name any modern day works that would "fit the bill" or would no doubt be candidates for classics? Or has there not been enough lapse in time?
That's a good question. I think that to be in the conversation, a book must first be in circulation within the last 20 years or more. Just take a look at the books that are constantly being republished (I nominate "The Watchmen" as a future classic
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