What Is Classic Literature?

Mark Wollacott

Classic literature is a collective term for works of literature that transcend time and culture to have a universal appeal. Such novels, short stories and poetry remain relevant through time. They are recognized for their artistic merit, quality and often for their groundbreaking nature. Due to their classic status, these types of books remain in print long after their copyright has expired and may be printed by any number of publishers.

Dante's "Divine Comedy" is a classic of world literature.
Dante's "Divine Comedy" is a classic of world literature.

The books considered to be a part of classic literature, as recognized in the West, can come from any background and often include translations. This has allowed older works such as Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” to be considered works of classic literature. Works often come from writers who have died by the time their works are considered such as Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen, but others are still alive when their works attain this status, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Graham Greene.

Classic literature describes literary works that have universal appeal.
Classic literature describes literary works that have universal appeal.

The definition of what constitutes a work of classic literature is ambiguous at best. One thing is clear: the distinction between a classic work and a classical work. Classical works are pieces of literature from Ancient Rome and Greece. It is also important to distinguish between classic works and the Western canon. While many of the novels may be synonymous, the Western canon is formed largely through academics and may not reflect the sale of books online or in bookshops.

Works by Oscar Wilde were not considered classics until after his death.
Works by Oscar Wilde were not considered classics until after his death.

Generally speaking, the decision of making a book a classic or not is a backward-looking process. Relatively few contemporaneous books are considered classics, although there are many that are almost certain to attain such status. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series and possibly “Northern Lights” by Philip Pullman may achieve this status. For many other books, time will tell if they stay relevant.

Many novels are also genre-dependent. This means they may not get onto a general list of classic literature and may not make a literary canon, but they are of great importance to that particular genre of fiction. Classic science-fiction literature includes older works such as H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, but also includes a great many novels from the classic period of sci-fi in the 1950s to 1980s. These latter works include those by Ray Bradbury, Ursula Le Guin, Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick.

Jane Austen novels, written in the 19th century, are considered classic literature.
Jane Austen novels, written in the 19th century, are considered classic literature.

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