What is a modern classic?

A modern classic

In a a review in the TLS, D J Taylor sort of discusses what a modern classic is. He quotes the blurb on the back of current Penguin Modern Classics – It begins with an adjectival spotter’s guide (“Contemporary . . . Provocative . . . Outrageous . . . Prophetic . . . Ground-breaking”, etc) before moving on to some diffidently expressed first principles. There is talk of such items possibly leading to “great movies”, of the breaking down of “barriers”, whether social, sexual, or, in the case of Ulysses, the “boundaries of language itself”, even of something described as “pure classic escapism”. He does not like these ideas and nor do I. For a definition of classic, Stefanie at So Many Books turns to the dictionary and comes up with A work of literature, music, or art of acknowledged quality and enduring significance or popularity. Both Stefanie and D J struggle not only with classic and with modern. Rightly or wrongly, I do not have too much difficulty with modern. I have defined modern as the period approximately (I stress approximately) from the beginning of the 20th century. You may disagree with that but it works for me. At least as far as the novel is concerned, there is a distinction between Victorian novels and twentieth century novels. It may not suddenly change on 1 January 1901 (which is when the twentieth century started) but it is starting to change a bit before that and the change accelerates after that. Some may argue that the big change comes post-World War I, which is a valid argument. Others may claim that it has not changed. In an article in the Transatlantic Review, J G Ballard said Something like 5000 novels are published every year and the great majority show no advance in vocabulary, technique, style on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. However, I think many critics would agree that the modernist movement may well have started in the 19th century but really took hold in the twentieth century. I am sticking with my view on this.

Not a classic?

Both Stefanie and D J struggle with classic. In literature, of course, the classics tend to be the works of Ancient Greece and Rome. The picture at right shows the cover the Finnish version of Mika Waltari’s Sinuhe the Egyptian but the original on which it was based was written around 1900 BC, i.e more than a thousand years before Homer. I am not sure whether it would be considered a classic nor whether Waltari’s novel (first published in 1945) would be considered a modern classic. But let’s look at music. We all know what classical means. The OED says of, relating to, or characteristic of a formal musical tradition, as distinguished from popular or folk music; spec. of or relating to formal European music of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, characterized by harmony, balance, and adherence to established compositional forms. They say nothing about quality, and state that it specifically occurs in the late 18th and early 19th centuries though, of course, it can refer to music from both earlier periods and the modern era. So this does not help us. In rock music classic refers to rock music that is at least twenty years old. Again nothing about quality. This sense is not included in the OED. Classic blues can, of course, mean the older blues but, at least amongst aficionados, it means blues with female singers from an older era, such as the great Bessie Smith. None of this seems to help us much.

A modern classic

D J gets quite hot under the collar about what is and is not a modern classic. Stefanie does not know what it is. So let me try and ease their pain. Firstly, from the Penguin point of view, it is a marketing ploy. They want to flog books (that’s their job) so they think by labelling some books Modern Classics we may well buy them when we otherwise would not have done so. They are probably right. But how can we – readers, critics, reviewers, bloggers – define them, at least as regards the novel? I think that it is relatively easy.
1. It is a book first published at least twenty-twenty-five years ago
2. It is a book that has, to a certain degree, stood the test of time.
Ha ha, you counter. What do you mean by to a certain degree and stood the test of time? I mean that there are people who consider that the book still has a certain literary quality. And what are these books?

Not a modern classic?

Many of them are obvious. You will find numerous on my site. We may disagree on some of them, which is fine, and I may have omitted many that you consider a modern classic and that is also fine. Your modern classic may not be mine and vice versa. But what about Philip K Dick (see picture at right)? Or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? Or Love in a Cold Climate? I own, I think, virtually every Philip K Dick novel and would say some of them are definitely modern classics, including the one pictured here. I have not read either the Christie or Mitford and am unlikely to do so but I think they have stood the test of time, that certain people do consider them as having some quality and that they could certainly be considered modern classics. D J hums and haws about London Belongs to Me and Blaze at Noon. People in glasshouses… D J is also an author of novels, such as Secondhand Daylight which is not a modern classic though may well be one day but London and Blaze are, even if he does not think so. It is not a particularly helpful term but if we define it as I have above, it means we can accept that it is primarily a marketing term while, at the same time, perhaps pointing us to books that could be of some interest. And we can still decide for ourselves whether the book really is a modern classic.

3 thoughts on “What is a modern classic?”

  1. An interesting take on the matter. I don’t think I can muster up the same confidence as you do though 🙂 Maybe by 2050 it will become more clear for everyone what is and isn’t a modern classic. Time seems to be such an important element in the final determination. I do completely agree that much of it is marketing from the publishers. I think that so much of that marketing muddies the water and makes it hard to decide if a book is a genuine classic or simply a really good worthwhile read.


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