This article in the Times Lit Sup doesn’t really address “What Makes a Modern Classic” as the title suggests. It more or less reviews some recent reprints billed as modern classics. But it did get me wondering about what makes a modern classic.

Figuring out what constitutes a modern classic is even more rife with difficulty than sussing out what makes a classic on the order of Dickens or Austen and their time periods. As the things that are important to us in this time changes so too does what we deem important in other literary time periods. Just think about all the books the feminist movement brought to our attention. So if we can’t agree on classic classics, how are we to agree on modern classics?

One of the biggest difficulties is definitions. What does “classic” mean? I turned to the venerable OED for a little help:

  1. Of acknowledged excellence or importance.
  2. Of the first class, of the highest rank or importance; constituting an acknowledged standard or model; of enduring interest and value.
  3. A work of literature, music, or art of acknowledged quality and enduring significance or popularity. In extended use: something which is memorable and an outstanding example of its kind.

We can all agree on a classic being a work of excellence or importance but then we have to ask excellent or important to whom? Enduring popularity is a good measure but even enduring popularity waxes and wanes.

Then of course, there is the sticky wicket of what “modern” means. By modern do we mean works from the literary period called “modernism?” And if so, what year is the cut-off for that? Or by “modern” do we mean fifty years ago to the present? Or some other number of years?

And if “classic” requires enduring popularity, how can fifty years (or 60 or 70) be considered “enduring” when the classic classics have endured for over 100 years or more?

What is interesting as the TLS article notes, books that are being brought back into print and labeled “modern classics” aren’t by the likes of James Joyce or Virginia Woolf or even Toni Morrison, but authors whose names are not especially familiar to a wide audience. The TLS also observes that these “modern classics” frequently come with the endorsement of current writers. What that means I am not sure because I don’t think current writers have any better grasp on “modern classics” than the rest of us do. And maybe that is part of the point.

So I wonder, is there such a thing as a “modern classic?” Or is it a publishing ploy that plays on our assumption that anything that is “classic” has got to be good or is something we “ought” to read? I don’t know the answer. I don’t know if there can be a satisfactory answer. Just thinking out loud here. Please feel free to also think out loud in the comments.

Advertisements