What Makes a Classic a Classic

Driving drives me to think. I've a long commute. Such things are not good for society.

Anyway, as is often the case, I was cruising along and a sticky problem from years back rattled to the front of my head.

(Sticky problems have a nasty rattling tendency. Easy problems get solved and out of my head rapidly, thus making room for beer. So we needs handle sticky problems for their obstructive properties.)

So, I'm innocently behind the wheel thinking on the aboutness of classics and what makes a classic a classic.

(Sticky problems also play with other sticky problems and sometimes unify to cause Stickier Problems or possibly Very Large Solutions.)

I got into some serious fights about the composition of the classic works. Folks seem to want a recognition factor or prestige or esteem to go along with titles. Or perhaps dust. Dust helps.

But such things are silly, particularly taken with that little grain of salt that tells us if one took such a look, classics could not be created within a lifetime, which is silly.

Why should folks have to wait for something to be a classic? (This is closely related to my Issues with Historical Fiction needing dust to be historical.)

These works are intuitive knee jerks. We know what they look like and read like as Librarians. Our Patrons have a good batting percentage, too.

I offer to my humble readers Harry Potter. Like him or no, he's a classic. There is barely anything on the dust register for him yet. But everyone recognises that this is going to be a series that is on our shelves a good long time. So why wait?

It's not popularity - Danielle Steel comes to mind. (Oh what would we pick on were it not for that woman?)

It's not country of origin - this is very much despite the stodgy lists of the world's 100 greatest books that typically don't feature too much from the East or Pre Columbian America, Africa et cetera. (Tale of Genji, anyone?)

It's not length - this is busted on the variance of the size of the books in the series.

There is a bit in the imagery / diction / writing style category. These are often the ones that prompt folks to say Saricks' dreaded "Well written". (I'd submit that's actually a helpful RA comment, but that's fodder for another entry.) But there's another level to things. Just plain well written doesn't cut it - I tend to throw most of this stuff into a category I fondly refer to as straight lit. No frills, no nonsense, no shooting grandmothers, these readers want unpasteurised lit, neat in little glass shots.

But the largest thing I'd submit would be self identification with Archetypical characters. The characters themselves don't necessarily have to be larger than life, nor do they necessarily need to conform with Campbell's Hero's Journey, but they do fit an archetype. (Holden Caulfield, not someone to model oneself from, but it's the bildungsromans. You read of the teen and think "Hey, I'm a teen or I was a teen once, and yes, this is growing up... He's a Ne'er Do Well.)

One doesn't necessarily have to _want_ to switch shoes, but it's the stuff of drawing you into the tale at hand. This genre rattles you and fashions you into a better person (if you want) by the πάθος of things. But you'll never have an opportunity to identify if the characters are too flat, far from home, et cetera to identify with. It is the recognisable qualities, the repetitious nature of those archetypes that makes this stuff digestable. (Of course, it can be this breed of predictability when mixed unfavourably with high brow writing style and forced school feedings that makes for the perfect storm of "I ain't reading that!")

It is the reader that makes the classic as much as it is the classic itself. A reader has to be ready to sit down, open up and buckle in for a bumpy ride. Through the eyes of the archetypes, we're lead to where an author wants to take us. We wake from that as Greek Tragedy thinking "Hmmm, I don't want the world to be like this." or "Gee, I wish things could be just like they were in this novel."