I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, on and off since college. Over the years I have taken note how College Literature programs have attempted to diversify, but it’s slow. Side note: If you didn’t already know, I was a literature major.
Recently, I started thinking about it again when I posted my Classics Club Spin list. When I went through the list of books/authors I wanted to read for Classics Club, I came across a startling revelation that most of the authors were white men. So, for the past week or so I’ve scoured the interwebs to try to add a little more diversity to my classics list. And let me tell you it hasn’t been easy.
Why? It’s simple really. 1) most of the classics I own were written by white men and 2) When you go to any major “noteworthy” publication the majority of the classics listed are written by white men.
In order for me curate a well-rounded and diversified list of male/female, straight/LGBTQ+, white/POC, etc. I had to redefine what classics are using the standard Classic Literature definition.
So, what is the definition of Classic Literature. It is. . .
Literature of any language or period (Victorian, Renaissance, Modernism, etc.) notable for the excellence and enduring quality of its writers’ works.
Okay, I’ve defined Classic Literature; but I also need to know the characteristics of “What makes a book a classic” and how can I use that to curate a new Classics Club list?
The four most common characteristics are:
- Addresses universal human concerns
- Shifts people’s views on life
- Influences later works
- Merit, which is continually respected and examined by experts and critics throughout the years
So, let’s just say for sake of saying a novel written in 2017 has met numbers 1-3 and working on number 4, can that book be considered a classic in 5 or 10 years?
Lots of literature has come out in recent years that meet at least 3 of the 4 “criteria” for becoming a classics. One that sticks out in my mind is Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (THUG). It meets the first three requirements of becoming a classic and the fourth is well under way.
- The novel addresses the universal human concerns of injustice – the murder of an unarmed black teenage boy by a police officer
- THUG has shed light on this pervasive issue and has helped shift people’s views on social injustice
- Perhaps there is some influence here or maybe publisher’s took note of THUG’s popularity and decided more books like it. Like Nic Stone’s Dear Martin, Mark Oshiro’s Anger is a Gift and Jay Coles’s Tyler Johnson Was Here. Even if it’s the latter, I think it can safely be said that there was some influence.
- And critics have talked about it and praising it for over a year, so how long will it take to be considered a classic? Or will it ever be considered. After all it is YA, which is consistently overlooked in the literary canon.
Will Young Adult literature ever be added to classics canon? What about romance? or Contemporary?
I came across this quote and thought it pretty àpropos.
A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.
~~Italo Calvino, “Why Read the Classics”
The New York Review of Books
We read the classics not necessarily because the writing is outstanding, but because on some level it speaks to us. It insights us to want to do better. Case in point. We read Dickens because he hit hard at what’s wrong with society.
- child abuse/welfare
- child labor
- wealthy v. poor
- tension between the social classes
We see all of what Dickens wrote about in Oliver Twist, Hard Times, Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol in today’s society and because of that it makes him relevant today.
A challenge. Should you choose to accept it.
What writers (non-white men) have brought attention to the same issues as Dickens? And to make it a little more challenging let’s start with post 1900 literature. There are 195 countries in the world, so there have to be a few writers out there. Right? And do you think they should be added to the literary canon?
This post is brought to you as part of the 2018 Discussion Challenge.