What Makes a Book a “Classic”? This is a pretty controversial subject in the literary world. You might think that this doesn’t sound like a problematic issue. After you read this article you’ll be able to tell that this is a controversial issue that you should think about it if you are interested in storytelling, media, and history. So let’s see what makes a book a classic after all.
Western literary canon
Western refers mostly to Western Europe, often English speaking countries, literary means literature, and canon is a word that was originally used in the early Christian period. In this period people tried to work out which bits of writing would go into the official bible. The canon was the name that they gave for the accepted books.
The western literary canon represents the books in the West that are deemed to be the official literature. The classics are the books that fit into that canon. For a long time, that canon was pretty traditionally established. However, recently there has been a bit of a backlash against it. Because it reflects the academic establishments of the time, which have been a predominantly straight white male.
The side effect of this canon is that it becomes the books that are deemed worthy of study. It becomes a self-perpetuating thing where these are the books that we say are good, the books that you are told are good, and that you meant to read. It essentially reproduces those same kinds of books and privileges to those same kinds of voices.
We need a change
A counter move happens in the latter half of the 20th century. The idea that we should be including more women in the canon, more people of color, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people. All these different stories and authors who didn’t necessarily have a platform over the last hundreds of thousands of years. And this has culminated in something that is called the canon wars. It sounds very dramatic but it essentially centers around the kind of books that we teach in universities.
The idea of moving away from the canon, on the side of the people who support the traditional view, was a dumbing down of university standards. Whereas the other side was saying that it is actually an opening up of literature. It is a way of examining what we value in literature. It is a way of being critical about the canon rather than just accepting it as something that we all have to believe in.
Of course, this problem is far from being solved. I hope that you’ll reconsider the idea of what a classic book is and be more critical with the traditionally “classic” books. It’s the 21st century after all and we should be more open-minded when it comes to changing this old, outdated literary canon.