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It seems that, in passing, some books are referred to as "an American classic," or "one of the great American classics." This seems like it's a whole subsection of what counts as "classic literature."

Oddly, while infrequently, certain books are debated, or people discuss which new book is going to be canonized as the next Great American Book, most of the books that we describe as "classics" are ones that nobody would bother to refute. Everyone seems to agree, or assume, that they are. Stuff like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or The Jungle, or For Whom the Bell Tolls, or 1984, or Of Mice and Men, or The Great Gatsby...

Then we have the American classic authors, some of whom appear in that list: Mark Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald...

Nobody disputes that these are "classics". But, how did they get labeled that way? Does somebody decide which books are classics and which aren't? Is there a process for canonization of the body of classical literature that I'm just not aware of?

If there isn't, then how did this terminology come about, and why is it so consistent everywhere you look in America?

closed as primarily opinion-based by user111, fi12, Riker, Rand al'Thor, Benjamin Jan 25 '17 at 1:28

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • I think I actually asked a very similar question on the og lit site. hopefully you get a good answer :-D – DForck42 Jan 24 '17 at 20:58
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    First, the publisher decides that they need to come up with some way of increasing the sales of a popular book... – Valorum Jan 24 '17 at 21:16
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    I like this question, but unfortunately I think it should be closed. – Benjamin Jan 25 '17 at 1:27
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    Voted for reopening. Note that this question asks far more than "what is an American classic" and is very process-oriented. " Is there a process for canonization of the body of classical literature that I'm just not aware of?" seems like a perfectly on-topic question to me. – VicAche Apr 4 '17 at 13:01
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The noted science fiction author Samuel Delany has a lengthy discussion of the canonization process in his book About Writing. His conclusions are:

  1. While there is a definite relationship between canonization and quality, canonization is socially constructed, mutable, and often affected by incidentals not directly related to the work's quality, including alignment with prevailing social trends, mores, or commitments, the persistence or effectiveness of individual promoters of the work, and the vagaries of fate. Canonization is thus not infallible, inferior works can be canonized over superior ones.

  2. The key element of canonization is a body of scholarship built up around the work, as supplemented by things such as awards, inclusion on lists, adaptations and derivative works.

In short, the defining characteristic of the canonized work is that it continues in living memory beyond its initial publication. There is therefore a self-reinforcing aspect to canonization. The more a book is referred to, the more visible it is, and the more likely it is to continue to be referred to.

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    ...huh. I'd really love to see/read that reference, if you can find it! – Aza Jan 24 '17 at 21:28
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    @Zyerah - Added the reference. Better late late late than never, right? It's a terrific book. – Chris Sunami Nov 20 '18 at 14:27
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Italo Calvino's "Why read the Classics" (2000)

Italo Calvino lists 14 "definitions" of a classic

Although (As mentioned in the comments) although the viewpoint of Italo Calvino is quite abstract and possibly intentionally ambiguous, I believe it gives a good initial idea of just the difficulty in describing a "classic".

Another interpretation is given by Richard J. Smith:

First, the work must focus on matters of great importance, identifying fundamental human problems and providing some sort of guidance for dealing with them. Second, it must address these fundamental issues in ‘beautiful, moving, and memorable ways,’ with ‘stimulating and inviting images.’ Third, it must be complex, nuanced, comprehensive, and profound, requiring careful and repeated study in order to yield its deepest secrets and greatest wisdom. One might add that precisely because of these characteristics, a classic has great staying power across both time and space.

Richard Smith seems to give more common suggestions, describing "fundamental issues" and a common suggestion of "staying power across both time and space" essentially being timeless, and relevant no matter how many years had passed.

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