Can something be a “modern-day classic”?

This week’s Literary Blog Hop asks the question: when is a contemporary book a classic?  And what modern book do I think will be a classic?

I’m going to punt on this one and say the obvious – we just don’t know.

A classic is a book that people are reading and finding relevant to their lives maybe fifty years from now, or hundreds of years from now.  (I started to say a book that people are enjoying hundreds of years from now, but of course we’ve all had to read classics we didn’t enjoy very much.)  We could argue about how long it takes for a book to become classic, but I’d put it at about 50 years or more.

Book critics like to throw around the term “modern-day classic.”  But did Dickens expect to be considered classic?  Did Shakespeare?  Did George Orwell think people would be reading 1984 in 2010?  I’m thinking not.  In fact probably no great author thinks about their work in those terms.  You write the best book you can possibly write, and see where it goes.

I think books are more likely to become classic when they open a window for us into another time or historical event.  So Gone With The Wind is not the best-written book ever, but it is one of our most enduring stories about the civil war era.  I think futuristic stories also fare well, because seeing the vision of the future, from the past, is fascinating, and also opens that “window” for us into another time.  Is a book like Red Planet less relevant today because authors in the 50s thought we’d be colonizing Mars by now and we haven’t?  Compare that to a book like 1984 or Brave New World where we do wrestle with those issues every day.  I think both are relevant because both remind us of our fears and dreams of the future, and what we’ve accomplished and what we haven’t.

Two of my favorite contemporary authors are Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood.  Will they be considered classic someday?  Both write about a range of topics and places, Kingsolver being more historical and Atwood more futuristic.  Both have been writing for about thirty-some years, so I think are well on their way.  Some might already consider The Handmaid’s Tale a classic.  Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits is another one.  So I nominate these great contemporary writers.  But I still stand on my answer that we don’t really know.

Take my post from yesterday on the best books of 2010.  Hundreds of great books are written every year, maybe thousands.  The one thing we know is that time will whittle that number down, again and again.  So which of the New York Times “100 Notable Books” will be read in 50 years, or 100 years, or 300?  Maybe none of them.  I can’t tell you, because I haven’t read most of them yet.

One last thing: as we head into the holidays, please consider donating some of your piles of books to a good cause — libraries, schools, shelters, and prisons are all looking for donated books.  A great post on Fat Books and Thin Women lists links where you can find local or international places to donate books.  Happy holidays!

7 Responses to “Can something be a “modern-day classic”?”

  1. parrishlantern

    Not read any Margaret Atwood, but because of reviews I’ve read on this hop, she is on my list, & I picked up a Barbara Kingsolver today ” the lacuna”
    Enjoyed your selection Thanks

  2. Ingrid

    Great answer. You did a great job describing the complexity of this problem … classics aren’t necessarily well written or enjoyable. It’s hard to say exactly what will make the cut. I hope Margaret Atwood’s work becomes classic some day. I absolutely love her.
    Thanks for participating in our Hop this week!

  3. TheBookGirl

    Very thoughtful post. I love your description of a classic as one that opens a window on a world that is not familar to the reader.
    Having read Atlas Shrugged for the first time this year, I would say that for me would be a modern day classic…enduring, thought provoking themes, beautifully written, with memorable characters.

  4. parrish

    I think it’s the potentiality (?) of certain books,authors that’s the point of this hop & in a sense all we’re doing by our suggestions is laying. bets on the outcome of some race. The main difference is we probably won’t be around to pick up the winnings(lol)


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