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What Makes a Classic?

Sunday, December 11th, 2011 | Posted by Theo

more-than-humanLast week, I criticized Mur Lafferty for attempting to dismiss some of the classics of the genre unread.

Reading some of the comments on that post got me to thinking about an obvious question: what makes a classic of the genre? Obviously, an ability to stand the test of time is the most important element in defining a classic, as a brief perusal of the bestsellers of 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago will demonstrate, but there must be more to it than simple longevity since there are no shortage of unread classics, both within and without the SF/F genre.

Is there some sort of magic formula that allows us to distinguish between the merely popular and the temporally transcendent? We know that sales quantities are both objective and incapable of determining literary greatness, but does this mean that greatness is entirely subjective or are there some reasonably objective elements involved?


It probably makes the most sense to begin with the books that are considered classics of the SF/F genre and compare them to the classics of mainstream literature.

James Wallace Harris has composed a list that includes various citations that is headed by the following ten SF works.

  • The Demolished Man, Alfred Bester (1953)
  • More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon (1953)
  • Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
  • The Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov, (1951)
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller (1960)
  • Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner (1968)
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin, (1969)
  • The Time Machine, H.G. Wells (1895)
  • War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells (1898)
  • Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke (1953)

last-unicornNow, there are only four, perhaps five works on this list that I would place on my own list of top ten SF classics, but I can’t seriously quibble with any of the works, and still less the authors listed. (Full disclosure: I’ve only read one Sturgeon novel and More than Human wasn’t it.) And now let’s look at a list of Fantasy classics, in this case, one composed by GoodReads.

  • The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
  • The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien (1937)
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis (1950)
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll ((1865)
  • A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle, (1962)
  • The Wonderful World of Oz, L. Frank Baum (1900)
  • The Earthsea Trilogy, Ursula K. Le Guin (1968)
  • Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie (1902)
  • The Last Unicorn, Peter S. Beagle (1962)
  • Watership Down, Richard Adams (1972)

There is even less to quibble about on this list; I would question only the place of the Le Guin and Beagle works on it. (The Left Hand of Darkness is a definite classic, Earthsea not so much.) Now, for the sake of comparison, let’s consider a list of the historical literary classics.

  • The Iliad / The Odyssey, Homer (800 BC)
  • The Barchester Chronicles, Anthony Trollope (1855)
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (1813)
  • Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift (1726)
  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë (1847)
  • War and Peace, Tolstoy, (1869)
  • David Copperfield, Charles Dickens (1849)
  • Vanity Fair, William Thackeray (1848)
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert (1856)
  • Middlemarch,George Eliot (1869)

tale-of-genjiRather Anglocentric, and I’m entirely unfamiliar with the Trollope novels, but this is also a fairly reasonable list, although the absence of Dostoevsky is a little astonishing. I would also insist upon the inclusion of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, but wouldn’t expect it to have been considered by most Western readers; the absence of The Decameron can be justified by the fact that it is a collection of tales rather than a novel per se. Then again, The Iliad isn’t either, but one couldn’t possibly leave it off the list no matter what. But setting aside the question of the optimal list, what can we note by comparing the SF/F lists with the mainstream one?

The first thing to note is that there is no temporal overlap whatsoever between the first two lists and the third one. The last book on the mainstream list, Middlemarch, was published nearly 30 years before The Time Machine. The second thing that leaps out is the surprising way in which more female authors (3) appear on the ten works comprising the mainstream list than on the twenty genre works (2), despite the fact that all three women published their novels long before women had been “liberated” to write. (And it should be four; the Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s work, which is arguably the first true novel, was written in the 11th century.) These two things are interesting, but unrelated to our present purposes, so we shall ignore them.

What is more immediately useful is to note that the mainstream list can be divided into two types, character studies and moral/philosophical explorations, with some degree of overlap marked by Tolstoy. However, this is not true of the SF/F classics, which feature no significant character studies and much weaker moral/philosophical explorations in the five works that can be reasonably described that way.

Of the SF classics, only LeGuin and Miller would appear to qualify as moral or philosophical explorations; not uncoincidentally, they are the two novels that would probably be considered the most philosophically serious. I suppose one could also make a case for Clarke’s novel as well, but from a philosophical perspective, it is only noteworthy for its glorification of the literally inhumane.

embassytownWhat makes a SF/F work classic appears to be primarily a matter of conceptual priority. Each of the classic SF/F works are more representative of some level of literary innovation and conceptual creativity than of any great insight into the human condition or philosophical depth. This may in part explain why the SF/F genre is considered to be somewhat of a literary ghetto; “the literature of ideas” is not considered to be a compliment in this regard. And that raises the interesting question; it it possible that a SF/F book with reasonable cause to be considered a literary classic would not be regarded as a classic within the genre itself?

It’s probably a moot point, as of the current generation of genre authors, the only author who springs to mind as one who is potentially a writer of classics in both the mainstream and genre senses is China Mieville. Not only is Mieville spectacularly original in the conceptual sense, but in Embassytown, he also addresses matters of not-insignificant philosophical weight. However, his inclination towards the grotesque likely renders his work a bit too far outside the identifiable human condition for it to stand the eventual test of time.

As for the likes of popular authors such as J.K. Rowlings and Stephanie Meyer, it should be readily apparent that despite their immense popularity at present, their works will no more be considered classics than will the works of equally best-selling authors like Tom Clancy, Stephen King, and Danielle Steele.

15 Comments »

  1. Thanks for the thought provoking post! Let me respectfully offer a comment and perhaps extend this conversation a little bit.

    What would help clearly answer your question, I think, is more direct model of literary history. One of the things we rarely take into consideration is the degree to which the vast majority of the “mainstream” literary classics in the popular imagination are pre-20th century texts (the list you cite corroborates this). Of the science-fiction classics from the list you cite all of them are, quite neatly, 20th century texts.

    This is something we enthusiasts take for granted and don’t reiterate enough I think: the genres of Science-Fiction and Fantasy are 20th century phenomena. *Don’t get me wrong*: there were of course texts that contained “science-fictional” and “fantastic” elements in previous literary eras (e.g. the Gothic novel, the Chivalric Romance, the folktale, etc.). But we risk “watering down” what are otherwise historically unique artistic developments when we point to any deviation from the real as fantasy or science-fiction. In a few words, The Illiad and Beowulf are not Fantasy with a capital F! Frankenstein is not a science-fiction story. Wait! Before turning away in disgust and chalking me up as another crackpot English teacher with too much time on his hands, bear with me!

    What we have with our beloved Science-Ficton and Fantasy genres is establishment of a new tradition. It’s a hunch of mine that SF and fantasy texts deviate from the real in a *historically* novel way. Why? Because before you can have “Science-Fiction” and “Fantasy” you need to have established a strong “reality principle.”

    A lot of what Victorian novelists in the West were doing throughout the 19th century were was establishing this very principle. Thus, a lot of what we today call “literary realism” and what we take for granted as the fundamental formal conventions of fiction writing was being engineered by 18th and 19th century novelists, starting with Don Quixote.

    Consider that novel: it’s all about the absurd misadventures of a fella who has read way too many romances of Chivalry, the popular literature of the day. Cervantes’s work was a polemic against contemporary classical tales where characters were universal archetypes and heroic and morally pure. In Don Quixote you have two worlds juxtaposed over top of each other: the “real” world of whores, windmills, brothels, and tin-armor; the “fantasy” world of the Gentleman from La Mancha of dragons, beautiful damsels, honor, and glory. Don Quixote and many subsequent novels–the “picaresques” of Defoe and Fielding in the Anglo world–were a repudiation of what would have been considered at the time “less realistic” literature. If we fast forward to the 19th century we have a literature that has become preoccupied with–gods! the horror!–the mundane of the mundane, the social world as it truly was–e.g. Austen’s tea parties and droll conversations.

    Near the end of the 19th century, though, some light shines through. This intolerable preoccupation with the “Quixotic” begins to exhaust folks. The other world, the spiritual realm of demons and witches and nameless things–which had been exorcised by those writing in the shadow of the literary realists–began to return. Thus, you get in the late 19th century moments where writers ever-so-tentatively start deviating from the strong reality principle honed by the Victorians. You get Marley’s ghost in _The Christmas Carol_. You get the fated death of Melmotte at the end of Trollope’s _The Way We Live Now_. Other examples abound!

    By 1900 there are writers who have wholeheartedly and with full breasted gusto thrown aside the reality principle. Wells, Butler, M.R. James, Dunsany–they represent crazy new technologies, weird worlds, ghosts, and yet–and yet!–they do so while utilizing the formal conventions of literary realism! This is new. They are not writing silly poetry of knights slaying dragons. No. They are writing realist novels where knights are slaying dragons. And this, my friends, is new.

    To return to your original question: what makes a classic? Well, as far as I can tell–aside from Carroll, Wells, and Barrie–you have writers writing in a self-conscious and fully articulated tradition buoyed by publications and fully lodged in the popular imagination a few decades into the 20th century (I, personally, like to point to the founding of the Ur-text _Weird Tales_ in 1923 as a kind of arbitrary date of critical mass). Enter Harold Bloom and his concept of “agony” and the “anxiety of influence.”

    Let me gloss Bloom real quick (I can feel your patience thinning): once you have a tradition of guys (and some girls) writing together, artistic production becomes a dialog, a back-and-forth competition. Writers choose who their predecessors are and they write for them, against them, *in combat* with them. Thus***the classics are the works of the writers whose influence most fully echoes throughout the works that constitute the genre.*** Long and short of it: a classic has nothing do so with what “we love” or what “is good” but what is most influential for later writers writing in the same genre.

    The important and liberating point is that genre writers, in the 20th century, began ignoring so-called “literary artists” and began constituting their own progenitors. What makes a classic of science-fiction and fantasy? The same thing that makes normal classic: it captures the imagination of many subsequent writers who wrestle with it in their own writing, reinvent it, improve it, pay homage to it.

    Sometime in the 1920s writers stopped taking Shakespeare as a agon of first principle; they chose, instead, H.G. Wells, Lord Dunsany, E.A. Poe. And through some weird alchemy they ended up founding modern science-fiction and fantasy (horror too).

    Comment by jrcarney52 - December 11, 2011 12:57 pm

  2. I think your point about the SF/F genre being a 20th century phenomenon is intriguing. It tends to indicate that there will not be a lot of timeless classics produced by the genre, given that temporally limited phenomena don’t tend to translate well to future generations.

    And to tie this all back to the start, it may explain, in part, why Mur Lafferty finds the genre classics to be unappealing even though they’re only fifty years old. At least, those she tried to read.

    Comment by Theo - December 11, 2011 1:55 pm

  3. Regarding the artistic potential of genre fiction: perhaps you’re right. I hope not!

    I tend to believe (err… hope) its the opposite case, that science-fiction and fantasy, being young traditions when compared to “The Western Canon,” are just getting started. From the Epic of Gilgamesh through Joyce and Beckett, you had a pretty good artistic dialog going. The chaos and madness of Joyce and Beckett (Burroughs, too), for me, signal the end of the Western Canon.

    Here’s a controversial statement: the majority of what would claim status as “high literary art” produced these days (1970s onward) has become a bloodless academic exercise. And a surprising amount of the stuff that’s any good is a parasite on SF and Fantasy, e.g. Kurt Vonnegut, Junot Diaz.

    Compare that to the output science-fiction and fantasy!

    Regarding Lafferty: don’t know her work or what she’s about, BUT, to a large extent (not fully), the early days of the genre were a boy’s club and her dismissal may have something to do with that. I could be wrong. In the early days girls were often just props or caricatures. My wife holds some similar views about the early writers of the genres. She loves LeGuin, but Howard or Tolkien–dudes put her to sleep. (For my part, superficial representations of women in the work of, say, Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber–aside from an occasional shudder of disgust–kind of endears their work to me. It makes it quaint and more fun for me. Sometimes their version of women are more fantastic than the dang sorcerers!)

    Comment by jrcarney52 - December 11, 2011 2:52 pm

  4. It is amusing that people don’t like fiction because they don’t involve women. Do the same people shy away from episodes of history that predominantly involve men? “Oh that battle on Omaha Beach….how dull, no girls. Let’s talk about women in the factories.”

    A classic work of fiction overcomes the zeitgeist of various eras and is still read and enjoyed by people – Tolkien and Austen being good examples from above.

    To jrcarney52,
    Western art in general, not just literature, was terrible in the 20th Century. Only now are we seeing the very first hints of a turning away of the juvenile art of the 20th Century and a revival of serious, quality art.

    Comment by Tyr - December 11, 2011 4:11 pm

  5. Interesting post Theo.

    Like I’m sure everyone who has thought about wanting to be a great writer, I have considered this too and tried to break out the key attributes of a classic. Largely in agreement with your post, I had come up with the following four (in order of importance):

    1) New Idea, or at least Doing The Idea Better than had ever been known (by the reader) before.
    Could just be a superlative re-organization or presentation of existing idea(s).

    2) Changed the Reader’s Thinking.

    3) Really Great Entertainment/Story Telling.
    This seems to be accomplished by causing the reader to feel something for the characters, as if they were real people; and/or the plot/predicament is meaningful to the reader because of personal interests or similar experience or aspirations. In other words, the reader personally identifies (usually putting themselves in the role of the protaganist, but sometimes with a supporting character or the antagonist instead). Multiplied times 10 if the reader previously thought he/she was basically alone in those interests/experience/aspirations.

    I feel this is a primary reason for Rowling’s success: in addition to the common theme of identifying with a protagonist that is that has special significance and/or powers, the main setting is a school, with all of the features that most people can identify with: friends, cliques, bullies, good and bad teachers, crushes, etc. While not a classic, I think this was the key appeal of the Harry Potter series, that so many people across age brackets could associate common experiences.

    4) Fashionable Popularity (unfortunate and illegitimate).
    Because Person A liked a book, Person B reads it and thinks they like it because they highly regard Person A, and so it goes until everyone agrees it is a classical work. Basically something that never should have been regarded as classic, becomes so merely by peer pressure.

    So I think most classics have varying portions of those 4 attributes, with #1 being the most important. For example, I regard LOTR as being heavy on #1, #3, and a lesser portion of #2. Of course, even if the attributes are agreeable, the portions are very subjective and it also seems key to recognize that WHEN you read it is very important. When read in one’s youth, #1 and #2 have much more opportunity and I think more impact.

    And the flip-side of that is that a valid classic can be robbed of its impact by immitation and repetition of the New Idea. They can basically victims of their own success at #1 and #2; now EVERYONE has the Idea and Thinks That Way. Follow Ons can often do it better and if the reader finally gets to read the classic later, it can merely seem quaint. But of course some classics present the New Idea so skillfully that the imitations are always inferior and so they remain timeless.

    And also, the New Idea must be a Good Idea.
    I just read yesterday that “fantasy writer Amanda Hocking signed with St. Martin’s Press… [who] will also reprint her best-selling self-published ‘Trylle’ trilogy about attractive teenage trolls.” I am absolutely certain this is Theo using a pen name to cynically perpetrate a joke (and also cash in on the logical? extension of the Twilight formula), but I predict it won’t be a classic.

    Comment by hideous - December 11, 2011 4:17 pm

  6. Regarding 20th century art: Go down, Moses! Heh-I just don’t feel comfortable with such a broad brush stroke. There’s some good stuff.

    Regarding women and fiction: I tend to believe people like what they like and more often than not its for intuitive rather than intellectual reasons. This was why I hedged a little bit when I was trying to characterize Lafferty (also, of course, ’cause I don’t know her work).

    But I’m board for the revival!

    Comment by jrcarney52 - December 11, 2011 4:31 pm

  7. I think most classics have varying portions of those 4 attributes, with #1 being the most important. For example, I regard LOTR as being heavy on #1, #3, and a lesser portion of #2. Of course, even if the attributes are agreeable, the portions are very subjective and it also seems key to recognize that WHEN you read it is very important. When read in one’s youth, #1 and #2 have much more opportunity and I think more impact.

    I think your analysis is largely true so long as you are talking about SF/F classics. I don’t think it is at all true of the literary classics. A cheating wife meeting the consequences of her actions is not exactly a new idea, and yet both Flaubert and Tolstoy managed to produce classics from it.

    I just read yesterday that “fantasy writer Amanda Hocking signed with St. Martin’s Press… [who] will also reprint her best-selling self-published ‘Trylle’ trilogy about attractive teenage trolls.” I am absolutely certain this is Theo using a pen name to cynically perpetrate a joke (and also cash in on the logical? extension of the Twilight formula), but I predict it won’t be a classic.

    Ye cats. If it weren’t for my background in the music industry, where the most banal and derivative drek sells 1000x more than original ground-breaking music, the similar phenomenon at work in literature might bother me. As it stands, I just find it tremendously amusing that Katie Price is one of the best-selling “writers” in the UK.

    Comment by Theo - December 11, 2011 4:42 pm

  8. Yes, I would at least think that the literary classics must have more of #3 (and maybe #4) than the others.
    But at the time of Flaubert and Tolstoy writing about the cheating wife and consequences, I wonder how many times it had been done before (in novel length)? If the answer is 10-20 times, I would capitulate. But if they were among the first few, then I would say they had a (smaller) portion of #1 == superlative presentation of existing idea!

    Comment by hideous - December 11, 2011 5:06 pm

  9. But at the time of Flaubert and Tolstoy writing about the cheating wife and consequences, I wonder how many times it had been done before (in novel length)?

    Given that it can be found as far back as Shikibu’s novel, to say nothing of the various tales of the Decameron, I think it is quite safe to say that it was done more like 100-200 times before, if not 1000-2000.

    There is really nothing new in Dostoevsky in terms of ideas. But it is the depth of his exploration of morality, psychology, and the human condition that renders his work so great, and consequently, classic.

    Some ideas are timeless and universal. Others are not. I would argue that classics require an amount of the former.

    Comment by Theo - December 11, 2011 5:42 pm

  10. Interesting post. I think JRCarney has some really good ideas (and interesting ones).

    Comment by sftheory1 - December 11, 2011 6:03 pm

  11. Well, then I must agree with your point.

    So I think my listed attributes are too much in keeping with my personal tastes to be universally applicable.
    I read Crime and Punishment for the first time only a few months ago. Initially, I became impatient with his seemingly endless inner torment, to no point that I could appreciate beyone dispassionate appreciation of the ability to be deeply introspective. Finlly, due to Dostoevsky’s skill, I came to care about how it all turned out and became engrossed. But while acknowledging his truly exceptional writing skill, the book would not make my top 100 due to my personal tastes and I doubt I will ever read it again (unlike books I truly love).
    But C&P must surely meet any objective definition of classic, whether I like it or not!

    Comment by hideous - December 11, 2011 6:18 pm

  12. For what it’s worth I have had similar ( but not identical ) thoughts about Weird Fiction ( my favoured term for SF/F/H/etc ).

    SF/F/H etc are as we know them are new products, built upon the ruins of an alternative literary heritage.

    ‘Classics’ are what the giants whom shoulders writers stand upon are made of.

    Cormac McCarthy said something like; ‘…books are made of books…’

    Pretty obvious if you read enough.

    I might also add that I do not like these ten commandments of books/music/theatre/paintings/nose-picking/whatever.

    What’s the big deal?

    I mean really what’s with all the damn must read lists?

    Who cares what some cabal of self appointed experts behind the curtain of the internet think anyone should run out and go read.

    ( As if I haven’t read that stuff any ways ).

    Especially since no one every mentions One Thousand and One Nights, Romance of The Three Kingdoms, or even Journey to the West.

    I mean that last one has the word ‘West’ in it and apparently everybody fucking obsessed with that direction.

    ( Theo is again full of win for mentioning The Decameron which I haven’t seen brought up in years ).

    Any ways my cranky ass is going to go read some Harold Lamb.

    Comment by RadiantAbyss - December 12, 2011 1:37 am

  13. @Tyr,

    It is amusing that people don’t like fiction because they don’t involve women. Do the same people shy away from episodes of history that predominantly involve men? “Oh that battle on Omaha Beach….how dull, no girls. Let’s talk about women in the factories.”

    Leftist academics and feminists hate, hate, hate military history for precisely that reason! Just try taking a course on WW2 these days, and chances are the focus will be 99% on race / class / gender / labor issues on the homefront with only a 1% acknowledgment that something was happening on a far-away battlefield somewhere (and oh by the way, whatever was happening was racist, so there).

    Comment by Lugo - December 15, 2011 12:18 am

  14. Any Top Ten Fantasy list that doesn’t have Jack Vance on it is wrong.

    Comment by Lugo - December 15, 2011 12:19 am

  15. This Post by Daniel Abraham titled, A Private Letter from Genre to Literature, put things into perspective;
    http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/12/guest-post-daniel-abrahams-private-letter-from-genre-to-literature/

    Now if we can only get the literary snobs to read it and admit the truth.

    Comment by kid_greg - December 16, 2011 11:52 am


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