What Makes a Classic

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Sep 02 2010

Kim and I both just finished reading Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Okay, I take that back. Kim and I both devoured the book, immediately bought the second on our Kindles, and followed that by reading the third (which just released). It’s been a long time since I’ve read something that so engrossed me. I actually dreamed about these books.

During one of the many hundreds of conversations Kim and I had about the book, Kim asked if I thought it would become a classic, and I didn’t have to hesitate. Absolutely, I said. It has all of the makings of the great classic YA books, at least in my mind. It has a strong, adventurous heroine, a great story, a good vs. evil plot, and a lot more that I’m afraid to talk about for fear it might give away too much. It reminded me of all of my favorite YA books rolled into one, as well as some adult classics.

But what really makes a classic? Have you read anything lately that you thought, yes, this will be the book that English teachers will be assigning years from now or that I’ll be passing down to my children or my children’s children?


34 responses to “What Makes a Classic”

  1. Avatar Philangelus says:

    "It has a strong, adventurous heroine, a great story, a good vs. evil plot, and a lot more"

    It makes me sad that part of your list of requirements for a class is not "the great writing."

    I haven't read the books myself, but it would seem to me that great writing has to be the backbone of a classic.

  2. Avatar R.S. Bohn says:

    I picked up a copy of Patricia Geary's "Strange Toys" in the sci-fi section of a used bookstore. I paid, I think, two dollars.

    I read it weeks ago and am still stunned and overwhelmed.

    Is there a good v. evil plot? No. Strong, adventurous heroine, check. Blurring of the line between reality and imagination, yes. A subtle exploration of what makes us tick and why the world is such an amazing place? Okay.

    Amazon reviewers say this is one of their most favorite books ever, yet it's unheard of. I found the writing, the imagery, the characters, to be the strongest I have possibly ever come across. Why is this book not a classic? I've been discussing it with a friend endlessly — the theme, the symbolism, the perfect beauty.

    Perhaps "Hunger Games" is easily identifiable — YA. Where to put "Strange Toys"? It shouldn't have been in the sci-fi section. This isn't sci-fi in the slightest. We honestly can't categorize it.

    Does a classic have to be neatly categorized? Is that another requirement? I only know that Geary's story and her protagonist, Pet, stay with me, never leaving. And that makes it a classic in my book. (heh)

    Great question.

  3. Avatar Sommer Leigh says:

    The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is well on its way to classics status. My high school English teacher husband is teaching it next semester to his seniors. This is the first book to come to mind, but I know there are others. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by jacqueline kelly, The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson, maybe. Looking for Alaska by John Green.

  4. Avatar Netti says:

    I've always thought of classics (particularly dystopians) as challenging society in some way. I didn't find this in the Hunger Games. I've only read the first one so far, of course so I may be wrong. But I found the main theme in the book to be, besides survival, romance. If the romance between the two main character had been a survival strategy instead of unrequited love I'd have thought it genius. But it just seemed to be lacking.

    I miss dystopia like Fahrenheit 451. Call me old fashioned but I miss the message and the challenge. We get that with Margaret Atwood and if anyone has other examples please chime in because I'm not finding them. I want my dystopia to make me consider the society I live in and challenge social norms.

  5. Avatar Kim Lionetti says:

    Philangelus —

    I think "great writing" means different things to different people and so it can be rather an ambiguous way to try and describe a classic.

    Honestly, these books are written sparingly, in such a way that every word counts and yet the mechanics of the writing, itself, are invisible because the storytelling is spectacular. In my opinion, that's great writing.

    But you or someone else may have a different opinion.

  6. Avatar wry wryter says:

    Had it right here.
    Father John Rapp, Harmony Society.
    Dystopians? Hell yes.
    No need to look to the future, look back, ugh, great story, great failure.

  7. Avatar Nicole says:

    I think there's a big difference between what becomes a "classic" in the hearts of readers, and what's considered a "classic" to be taught in classrooms.

    Haven't read them yet, but sounds like the Hunger Games books are well on their way in the first category.

  8. For me, a classic is a trend setter. The book that 'started it all'.

  9. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I do believe it will be a classic at some point. We read it as part of our mother-son book club selection (moms with 12-yr-old sons). That said, this will open up the pipeline of copycats to the point where I think the industry will need to contemplate some guidelines about violence. This book was a little hard to take at times due to the violence, and I have suggested to my son that he wait a few years to finish the other two books. The compelling story drove you on and almost made you overlook the violence but that is not necessarily a good thing in my opinion.

  10. Avatar Hilary says:

    I also just finished The Hunger Games. I was riveted and finished it in less than a day – I literally couldn't put it down. The heroine is everything one could wish, and for me, the violence worked. It was neither sugar-coated nor glamorized. Just a brilliant piece of writing.

  11. Maybe more important than "great writing" as far as a modern classic is concerned, is "accessible writing". Neither too low nor too high for all audiences and reading levels to enjoy.

    But I do think this series is well-written, and is an especially good example of how to make first person PRESENT, a tense that most claim to hate, work.

  12. Sommer Leigh took them right out of my mouth. Book Thief and Looking For Alaska are also great books. Identifiable, great plots, teach great lessons.

    Even if they don't become "classics" I think they'll always have a certain spot on the shelf, or book list. In any case, these are the books that should be taught in schools, rather than the outdated classics that children have no interest in reading.

    I also couldn't put the Hunger Games down.

  13. Avatar Kim Lionetti says:

    I love John Green, but haven't gotten to LOOKING FOR ALASKA yet. That will have to be moved to the top of my TBR pile.

  14. Avatar Lauren says:

    I've seen students walking around campus with these books in hand. I've wondered if maybe I should read the first one to see how I like it. They've gotten great recommendations from other bloggers I follow, so I may just have to give it a try.

    A classic for me involves a strong story with a strong line of characters that discusses an issue or topic that will remain timeless like Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, The Scarlet Letter, The Shack, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. I'm sure I'm missing a few, but those were the first that came to mind. Everything in those stories may not be exactly how our society deals with it today, but still relatable.

  15. Avatar Kate says:

    I can't say that I've read anything that made me think "Classic!" lately. But I did read a book that just won't leave me alone. Galveston by Nic Pizzolatto. It's bound to be a classic in the noir/Texas lit genres. I read it about as fast as I could.

  16. Avatar Amy says:

    I loved the Hunger Games series and I'm amazed at some reviews I've seen that claim the writing is bad. It isn't. It's some of the best writing I've ever seen.

  17. Q: What makes a book a classic?

    A: Anna Paquin

  18. Avatar Anonymous says:

    "Life of Pi" Yann Martel

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Re: "Life of Pi"

    It asks the big questions, takes a transformative, magical journey, and poses the question that symbolism may be the highest order of magic to save your soul and realism the surest way to killing spirit.

  20. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I live in a big city with lots of crime and violence so prefer not to make it my bedtime reading. Maybe YA and young readers are getting used to so much violence in their books and movies? If so, what a shame…

  21. Avatar Kaitlyne says:

    A Thousand Splendid Suns made me feel that way. The writing was spectacular, and the story was engrossing and fascinating and difficult, but it maintained a level of hope throughout.

    One of the best books I've ever read, and something I definitely think should be included in college lit classes.

  22. Avatar Kim Lionetti says:

    HUNGER GAMES is definitely on the darker, more violent side, but I would say that it is used to send a distinctly anti-violence message. Does that make a difference to any of you that feel the violence is too much?

  23. Avatar Anna Zagar says:

    The writing in Hunger Games was excellent. It was simple, laconic, and every single word deserved to be there.

  24. Avatar Anonymous says:

    The only time violence bothers me is when it's violence for the sake of violence. The same thing goes for sexual innuendos, etc…

    If it plays an actual part in the plot / characterization, then I can swallow it down much easier.

  25. I'm not certain that I've read anything lately that screams, "Classic!" I remember one that has become a classic called, "The Giver." It was assigned one afternoon, and I couldn't put it down. I had it read by nightfall.

    I believe passionately in justice and vindication. To see the social pressure on the main character and the others to conform to standards that modern Americans abhor made me inwardly seethe. I HAD to keep reading to find out if everything would be all right.

    I think the characters need to resonate not only with the audience contemporary to a book's release. It needs to resonate with future generations.

  26. Avatar Brittany says:

    I also just finished reading THE HUNGER GAMES roughly 1.9 days ago. (I am glad to see I'm not the only one who's just jumping on the bandwagon.) I fell in love with it and could not put it down. Now I'm on the holds list at the library for the second and third books. *sigh*

    I am a high school student and I don't know if the "classic" is going to be redefined. I don't like the fact that teachers (or the school) assign books to us because they're "classics." I would, if I was the teacher, much rather assign a book that would cause the kids to fall in love with reading and want to do it on their own, rather than assign a book that supposedly is a great work of literature that half the kids will pretend they read, anyway.

    I understand that some "classics" that are commonly assigned in school are really great and some do have great literary themes, but most just put the students to sleep and turn them off from reading. Even with the violence in THE HUNGER GAMES (which didn't seem overly violent to me, though I've heard it gets worse), I would not hesitate to assign it for my hypothetical class becuase it is something that they would relate to and would get them to think and would get them reading of their own volition.

    I think "classics" needs to be reassigned as a book that makes you think about the world today, whether it is your morals, the government, or what people are dealing with in life.

  27. Avatar Anonymous says:

    1. If you're going to criticize HUNGER GAMES for what you consider violence, I hope you've at least read the book. Some of the posters here have, but it's clear some have not.

    2. If the violence in HUNGER GAMES makes you think it cannot be a classic, then go back and reread your Shakespeare please.

    HG – definitely a classic.

  28. Avatar Anonymous says:

    How can you compare any YA book, violent or not, to Shakespeare? He wrote about violence with class…

    To be or not to be…a classic…that is the question. LOL

  29. Avatar Brad Jaeger says:

    Everybody keeps mentioning The Hunger Games trilogy! OK, OK, I'll buy it already!


  30. Brittany, though I teach music, I'd like to respond to your comment. Teachers choose the classics because they are necessary to be culturally literate and also give you perspectives from places that have come before the modern era.

    I hate to sound like a fuddy-duddy, but you may change your mind as you get older, especially if you are college bound. I adore my students, but I have to work very, very hard to frame lessons on older pieces of music in a manner that highlights the piece's unique qualities. It can be a difficult thing for a generation that is obsessed with what's happenin' now to connect with what was happenin' 400 years ago, but it doesn't make it any less important.

    That said, I understand your frustration, but we must remember that a person's not always going to like what is assigned. Such is life…

  31. Avatar Jill Thomas says:

    I believe we use the term, 'classic' too much in today's society. I read Stephenie Meyer's TWILIGHT series and loved it, but is it a classic? I don't think so. It's a phenomenon, certainly, but classic? The HARRY POTTER series written by J.K. Rowling is a classic indeed. Ms. Rowling's story changed us. It changed the way children looked at reading, it shifted us, touched us. I would venture to say that if Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 was released in today's world, it would not reach the over 100 million readers Ms. Meyer has, but is it a classic? Yes. Definitely. So what makes a classic? Great writing, great plot, great characters…all the above, but something else too…something magical and elusive, something indeterminable,a secret ingredient that even the writer probably cannot identify and maybe that's what makes us long for it.

  32. Avatar Sheila Cull says:

    I understand what it's like to fall in love with a book and your post makes me smile because of the way you worded it.

    100 books a year is my average. I love 25 and think ten will become classics, to answer the question.

  33. I think there's something beyond mere quality that turns a book into a sensation. We like to belong to a shared culture, to know what movies, music, and books other people are enjoying. Sometimes, a book will blast off because it's extraordinary (although most extraordinary books do not), but other times there's a lottery-like aspect to unusual success.

    Again, I haven't read HG, but I've heard it's very good. Still, there are other great books. Most of them sell a fraction of a fraction of the copies of a book like Hunger Games.

  34. Avatar DeadlyAccurate says:

    I read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire in about 3 days total. They were the books I quite literally found hard to set down. (As in, walk from one room to the other reading as I went, set down to do something, then pick up as soon as possible). When I finished them, I gave them to my sister and warned her she would do the same. She emailed me four days later asking when the third would be released.

    I also told my beta reader friend about them. She, too, read the first two in a couple of days.

    I reread them this week before I read Mockingjay, and while I didn't find Mockingjay as good as the first two, I did like it.

    The writing is excellent, the story terrific, the heroine truly amazing yet flawed. I hope at least the first book becomes a classic.