What Is Classic Fiction?

David Bishop

The term classic fiction can be applied in a broad sense to any creative narrative that has either been given special recognition or deemed worthy of academic discussion. Most common uses of the phrase generally refer to prose works, such as novels or short stories, which have been acknowledged as having some literary significance or merit. This term is distinct from classic literature, which may include non-fiction genres such as histories, biographies or religious texts. Classic fiction can be subdivided by genre, language, time frame, region and other methods.

Epic poems like Dante's "Divine Comedy" can be classic fiction.
Epic poems like Dante's "Divine Comedy" can be classic fiction.

Most popular lists of classic fiction in the United States predominantly contain English novels written in the 19th century. Among these are works by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Such lists may also include works by French, Russian and American novelists, as well as epic poems such as The Iliad and The Divine Comedy. While the commercial marketplace remains focused largely on popular Western European works, academic institutions promote a much broader sense of classic fiction that may include Asian, Native American and Eastern European creative texts along with some by previously underrepresented authors and genres.

Sherlock Holmes is the main character in a series of classic detective novels.
Sherlock Holmes is the main character in a series of classic detective novels.

These lists are important because they help to define which fictional works are presented to students in the classroom, as well as what they are encouraged to read during the summer and in their free time. Lists also help organize literary classes at the university level and frame academic debate. Classic fiction can even provide a bridge between generations who have grown up with the same reading experiences. Many phrases and idioms in everyday use came into the language from these works.

Works of the 19th century by British author Charles Dickens are examples of classic fiction.
Works of the 19th century by British author Charles Dickens are examples of classic fiction.

Aside from defining the literary cannon, the term "classic fiction" can also be used to denote works of particular significance within certain genres. Classic detective fiction includes works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dashiell Hammett. Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov’s books are often described as classic science fiction. While these genres and sub-genres are often excluded from mainstream and scholarly debate, many readers discuss these texts and try to determine which stories deserve special attention.

Most popular lists of classic fiction contain novels written in the 19th century.
Most popular lists of classic fiction contain novels written in the 19th century.

Commercially speaking, classic fiction is generally marketed to students or audiences seeking intellectual stimulation. Special classic editions often feature higher-quality bindings and paper so customers can display the work in their library or on a coffee table. Texts considered to be classics are typically shelved together in a marked section of a bookstore, regardless of their proper genre. While most fiction shelved in this category was first published before 1950, the concept of classic fiction is always being re-evaluated to incorporate newer works and to remove texts that fall out of favor.

Jane Austen novels, written in the 19th century, are considered classic fiction.
Jane Austen novels, written in the 19th century, are considered classic fiction.
Classic fiction is often classified by genre and by the language in which the work was originally written.
Classic fiction is often classified by genre and by the language in which the work was originally written.
Epic poems like The Iliad by Homer are considered classic fiction.
Epic poems like The Iliad by Homer are considered classic fiction.

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Discussion Comments

croydon

@irontoenail - I think it's subjective though. There are very few books out there, maybe none at all, that no one can find fault in.

If there was a realistic set of objective standards for judging books, then every classic fiction list would be the same. They do often tread over some of the same ground, but there are always books that people will argue about.

And there are some books that might be classics, but which modern audiences aren't all going to enjoy. Dickens, for example, can be very difficult to read.

irontoenail

@indigomoth - I think one of the things that makes a classic book last in popularity is the language used in it, but the plot and the characters and everything else is important as well.

I always have this weird thing with classics where I don't want to read them because I feel like they are going to be boring, or difficult to get through. I think it comes from school classes where they would make us read books we had no interest in.

But I've found that classic fiction novels tend to be wonderful to read. I read To Kill a Mockingbird recently and it moved me to tears. There wasn't an instant that I was bored or that I thought it was tedious.

There are so very many wonderful books in the world, now, you have to create a masterpiece in every sense of the word for people to truly consider it to be a classic.

indigomoth

It's interesting how the words from classic novels can stick with you for years and years. The other day I was taking a walk in the morning as the sun came up and I noticed that there were rays of light arching across the sky. There were ten of them, and the words "rosy-fingered Dawn" came to my mind.

When I looked it up, it was a quote from The Odyssey. I haven't read that since I had to for high school, which was quite a long time ago now. But that one single line had obviously stayed with me and I guess that's the reason why the work has survived for thousands of years.

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