In A Nutshell
The definition of literature is a tricky one, and some argue that today, things like graphic novels, movies, musicals, and comic strips can even be considered literature if they move the right people. There are some hallmarks of what makes a work a classic, including reaching a wide audience, having a profound impact on the shaping of culture, standing the test of time, and capturing the heart and soul of the era being depicted.
The Whole Bushel
When it comes to high school English classes, there’s likely only one type of book to be taught: examples of classic literature. They’re old, a lot of them are boring, and some of them (we’re looking at you, Chaucer) are downright raunchy even by today’s standards.
Feuds over banning books notwithstanding, what is it that catapults a book into the annals of classic literature?
Nowadays, something doesn’t even necessarily need to be a book to be considered literature. The widening definition of literature includes anything that is expressed in an artistic way and anything that reaches enough learned minds that it’s widely commented on, including graphic novels, movies, and song lyrics.
Until the 18th century, it was widely thought that the only purveyors of literature were the poets.
But the idea that other types of things could be literature, too, was brewing by 1774 with the release of a book called The Making of the English Literary Canon. Cited in the book were things like court cases argued with all the emotional investment of a theater production. The book also maintained that anything that wanted to be literature needed to be measured against the works of writers like Virgil, Homer, and Cicero. The farther we got away from them, the harder that measurement became, so new, modern masters—like Chaucer—were created by translating their work into a modern language that everyone could access.
This created the idea of a literary canon, with “canon” taken from the biblical idea of identifying works that were a part of the accepted teachings of the church. They were the works that everything was measured against, and literary canon became the measurement of literature.
By the 1980s and 1990s, people were starting to really rebel against the idea of traditional literature. Some suggested that what made something truly great was its ability to reflect the cultural values present in the time it was written in. Literature began to shift from something elite to something that everyone wanted in on.
In 1940, Mortimer J. Adler published How to Read a Book and sang the praises of 137 writers he claimed were responsible for the world’s great books. Those were the people you’d see taught in high school and college classes, and they’re also the people that are being pushed aside for the inclusion of a new school of modern classics.
So what are the concrete qualities that make something classic literature, as opposed to just a novel? There aren’t real guidelines, but some points keep coming up when it comes to recognizing literature.
Some suggest that a novel becomes literature when it has a far-reaching impact on public consciousness, like Mark Twain’s works, or something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Some say it needs to be old enough to confirm that it’s going to stand the test of time and that it’ll still be relevant with the changes that come with new generations of readers. But, at the same time, it needs to capture the heart and soul of the time it was written in.
The idea of literature is ever-changing. When British publishers were deciding which works to include in their Everyman’s Library of classic literature, they chose Jane Austen as the first author to have her entire catalog of work featured as must-have classics. In contrast, today, we’ve seen Bob Dylan continuously nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature since 1996.