Classics Question: What defines a classic?

Calling All Classics Lovers and Readers Everywhere:

I have a very important question to ask you and I would love all the feedback I can get. My question: What qualities define a classic?

I am getting ready to start reading The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck for The Womens Classic Literature Event and my husband asked me why it was a classic. He is a big fan of James Clavell and loves the Shogun series and he wanted to know why The Good Earth is considered to be a classic, but Shogun isn’t. I have never read Shogun so I can’t answer that question fully, but I have a few thoughts on what qualities I think define a classic:

  • It has stood the test of time
  • It has characters who broke with convention
  • It provides a realistic look at the social mores and customs of the time
  • It deals with issues still relevant today
  • It offers a look back in time and still has us talking today

There is something about a classic that has an enduring quality to it, but what defines that quality is hard to narrow down. I think that could be because it may vary from person to person.  I may consider The Good Earth to be a classic, but someone else may not. One person may think that Jane Austen is not worth reading because she is not relevant to us today, but another person may say she is definitely worth reading because of what we can learn about that time period from her novels. Maybe this is the mark of a classic, a work that still has us talking about it and saying ‘you need to read this and here’s why.’

I guess if a work is still in print after a certain period of time, I would say 50 or 60 years, and there is still something I can learn  from it, e.g. history, culture, or social structure, then maybe these are the initial marks of something that has ‘classic’ potential.

What are your thoughts on what defines a classic? I’d love to hear from you. Tell me in the comments below.


7 thoughts on “Classics Question: What defines a classic?

  1. Interesting question! For the most part I agree with your criteria, but I’d also add that (for me, at least) a “classic” must be written with above average skill, and it must be open to deeper analysis – that is, it must involve broader themes, symbolism, techniques, etc., which are part of what makes it endure beyond the time and place in which it was written. Although, that being said, I suppose it’s also possible for something to be a “classic” of its genre due to its popularity and the way it embodies that genre’s tropes and conventions. I suppose it depends on the sense in which you’re using the term!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment! I agree with you; a great deal of thought and skill goes into creating a work that will endure beyond the time it was written. These are great points and qualities I will look for in the classics I read this year!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent points I would add one more. A unique use of words which singles the author out.
    ‘ Oh but he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping; clutching, covetous , old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self- contained, and solitary as an oyster.’
    You would have to be pretty remarkable to beat that eh?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. A Christmas Carol…I love it! Yes, it would be hard to beat this. There is a reason Dickens is still read today; he knew how to paint a picture. I can’t think of a literary character more memorable than Scrooge, or a story that draws us in emotionally and touches our hearts like this one. Thanks for sharing this ‘classic’ passage 🙂 !


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