What Makes a Classic?

A Classic what? A classic anything. Music, car, book, garment design . . . What characteristics determine if something will last from generation to generation, either the object itself, or the contents and design? It appears in a textbook? Is remembered for generations (in which case the Tacoma Narrows Bridge is a true classic, because every civil engineering class and text I’ve been through includes it.)

The question came to mind because of Cedar Sanderson’s discussion of sci-fi classics and who likes/dislikes them. Why are some books classics? “Because every English teacher makes us read it,” usually said with a groan and a pout. Or is it because it was the first book to present an idea (FTL travel with more than handwavium for an explanation), the book that set the foundation for a sub-genre (like Starship Troopers did for mil-sci-fi), or told a story so well that people go back and re-read it for the story? Or yes? I read Jane Eyre because everyone seemed to refer to it. It wasn’t bad, but I have no desire to re-read it. I read Faulkner because, well, he’s Faulkner. Didn’t like it. Tried again later, and while I appreciate his ability to tell a story, 1) you gotta know your Bible and 2) his verbosity didn’t do much for me. I don’t care for the Southern Gothic family destruction story-line, which probably explains why he doesn’t resonate with me in a positive way. I prefer his short stories. He’s classic for what he could do with words, but not because people keep reading him for pleasure.

(As an aside, Brad Torgersen has in interesting take on the matter and the argument of “If you haven’t read this, you don’t really know literature!!!!” as it applies to genre fiction.)

So what about the navy blue blazer? Why is it a classic? Because it always looks good, a little tweaking and it fits and flatters most people, and a well made one lasts forever. It is appropriate for many occasions. Pick-up truck? Ditto. I swear half the vehicles in the Panhandle are white pick-up trucks, 2/3 if you don’t count all the car-cars in Amarillo. They work, they are multi purpose, they (used to be) are sturdy, and can be tailored to a multitude of tasks. Although I did giggle when I was visiting a state college, by chance during the state veterinary association meeting, and the entire visitors’ parking lot was white pick-ups with Port-A-Vet cases in the back.

Imagine a hundred of these, and trying to find yours. From http://www.portavet.net/images/magnum.jpg

Imagine a hundred of these, and trying to find yours. From http://www.portavet.net/images/magnum.jpg

So what is a classic? Something people like, find useful or enjoyable, and that stands the test of time. Starship Troopers and Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the white pick-up truck, Chartres Cathedral, “Stairway to Heaven,” and “Amazing Grace,” the blue blazer and Little Black Dress (or navy-blue dirndl, in my case), the Lensman series, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” I’d argue that all are classics. What about Faulkner and Homer, The Handmaid’s Tale or Catcher in the Rye, or atonal music? Harder to say, but I suspect the Muse will still be singing of the wrath of Achilles long after Margaret Atwood is out of print and Faulkner is found only in academic libraries. But I’ve been wrong before.

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4 thoughts on “What Makes a Classic?

  1. Another aspect (likely included your definition) is that a Classic Story is discussed (pro and con) by average readers.

    Not only is Starship Troopers one of the first MilSF stories, it is IMO message fiction done right. Much of the message is what the Main Character learns & is taught. [Smile]

    • I always sort of wonder how my writing and mindset would have been different if I’d found Starship Troopers before I found Hammer’s Slammers and the Falkenberg legion books. I imprinted on Drake and Sterling and Pournelle, and came late to Heinline.

  2. It’s funny sometimes how you get reminded of something you thought was purely local history, by someone halfway across the country.

    Old Galloping Gertie was a real feat (or something) of engineering.

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