If only there were objective criteria to establish the qualities possessed exclusively by a small handful of works deemed “classics.” I googled several questions trying to arrive at an answer. I asked: What defines a classic novel?
And the definition that popped on my computer screen: “A classic is a book accepted as being exemplary or noteworthy, for example through an imprimatur such as being listed in a list of great books, or through a reader's personal opinion.”
Really? This begged a follow up question, so I typed: What are the characteristics of a classic novel?
And this is what my intelligent droid replied: “To be generally agreed upon as a classic, works meet some common high standards for quality, appeal, longevity, and influence. A classic expresses artistic quality. It is an expression of life, truth, and beauty. A classic piece of literature must be of high quality, at least for the time in which it was written.”
So, there must be an acceptance of noteworthiness, but by whom? Assuming some form of general agreement, how is that assessed? Bottom line, the novel meets some “common high standards,” but what are these and who determines them?
Enter writer/editor J. Peder Zane who, since 2006 began asking leading British and American authors to send him their lists of the ten greatest works of fiction of all time – including novels, short stories, poetry, and plays. Peter Carey, Michael Chabon, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Franzen, Norman Mailer, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, and Tom Wolfe are among the 150 contributors. He assigned point values to where a book appeared on any one writer’s list. The final compilation – available at www.toptenbooks.net – represents the most authoritative sampling available on great books. But the result remains the opinions of various writers as to what they considered the greatest works of fiction. Try defining “great” and you can go down another rabbit hole.
Discerning quality in art is really a personal affair.
According to Zane, “classic book” is the term we apply to a necessarily small list of relatively old books that remain relevant and useful to us. We say they offer “timeless” wisdom and insight because they have stood the test of time as truly excellent works. But he emphasized the importance that the list is winnowed down to a manageable number. Given that his lists were created by writers, it is not surprising that writers would identify those books whose stylistic innovations still resonate. This process is really similar to those books honored with Pulitzers and Nobels, awards that are statements from people in a particular year about what they considered the most impactful narrative works.
Classic/great books, then, are not simply a label we apply to works of towering achievement. It happens to be the prevailing and widespread view at a particular moment in time. The books we cherish today may not be the same we cherish tomorrow. One hundred years from now, when that era’s top writers are asked for their lists of great books, the list featured on our book shelves and reprinted in special publisher editions may look nothing like what I’m about to share.
According to The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, J. Peder Zane’s ultimate guide to the world's greatest books, I list the top ten as of 2013. The #1 Top Ten Book of All Time is Anna Karenina. It was the #1 pick when this volume first came out in 2007. The top three also remained unchanged. But in just six years, The Great Gatsby got more popular, Huck Finn lost some appeal, and In Search of Lost Time lost out to Moby Dick. So, it’s anyone’s guess what this list looks like in 2019.
- Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877)
- Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869)
- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
- Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
- Middlemarch by George Elliot (1871-2)
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884)
- Hamlet (1600) by William Shakespeare (T. S. Elliott was a literary critic at the time and declared Hamlet a failure)
- The Stories of Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)
- Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Of the above, all except The Stories of Anton Chekov and Hamlet are listed in the ultimate literary bucket list, 1001 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich. I admit that going through 1,001 books can be a blur, but these two books were noticeably absent after three reviews down this lengthy list. I concluded that “love” is a theme whose appeal crosses centuries. But it is the author’s mastery that produces great works of fiction. In Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, Tolstoy and Flaubert were able to turn stories of adultery into enduring works of profound humanity. As for War and Peace whose 1,225 pages I drank in while taking a Russian Literature course in college, Tolstoy is as adept at drawing panoramic battle scenes as he is at describing individual feeling in hundreds of characters from all strata of society. And then there’s his depiction of Prince Andrey, Natasha, and Pierre, who struggle with love and with finding the right way to live. That story will always be timely.
Written by Linda Kass
About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. It won a Bronze Medal for Historical Fiction from the Independent Publisher Award Program and was a 2016 Foreword INDIES Award Finalist. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!
Learn more about me on my personal website.