Are Classics Really “Timeless?”

Discussion Post Stars
Ask someone what a “classic” book is and probably they’ll tell you something about how it “stood the test of time”–presumably because of its “universal values.”   But it’s somewhat disingenuous to suggest that books survive based solely on their merit.  Their are obstacles at every step of a book’s life–and not clearing them all does not mean a book is bad.  Similarly, clearing them does not mean a book deserves a classic label.

Publishing the Book

For a book to become a classic, it first has to move from manuscript form to book form.  Consider that:

  • You must first submit your manuscript to an agent.  A college intern will probably weed through submissions before an agent ever sees it.  The intern, like all people, has subjective taste that will determine whether your manuscript gets passed on.
  • Once the intern passes your manuscript to the agent, he or she will have to determine its value.  Not just its literary value, but its market value.  Perhaps the time for vampire romances has passed or they’ve just pitched five mermaid books and want something else.  Your manuscript may not pass because of factors beyond your control.
  • If your manuscript survives, the agent will pitch it to an editor.  Editors work for a long time with a book.  They’re going to (probably) choose a book they like–so your fate is up to their personal tastes.  Or they may publish your book even though they hate it because they know that your werewolf romance is going to sell big despite their conviction that it’s terrible.
  • Maybe the editor loves your book, but the company only has resources to publish so many books a year.  They may have to pass.

At any stage, a manuscript can be rejected or accepted for what may seem like arbitrary or unfair reasons.  A manuscript may even be rejected simply because the author failed to follow directions or otherwise seems difficult to work with.  Literary talent often has nothing to do with one’s successes or failures.

Marketing the Book

For a book to survive to be a classic, it also needs some staying power.  It’s difficult to be inserted in the canon when no one has heard of your book!  Consider:

  • The marketing department only has so many resources.  Authors may have to do a lot of marketing themselves.
  • Authors who work another job or are not being supported financially by someone else may be unable to market as effectively as they would like.  They may not have the time or resources.
  • A book that manages to get a review in a major publication has advantages other books don’t.
  • Your book may get reviews or marketing based on how influential your friends are. (I have no examples of this offhand, but it’s just a fact of life that your work is promoted better when you have a good network.)

A book may never have wide appeal because not enough people heard of it.  A great book may fall into obscurity while a sub-par book rockets to the top of the bestseller list.

Teaching the Book

A book often needs to be heard of and presumably taught to be part of the canon.  Instructors choose books for various reasons, not necessarily the ones you think.

  • The instructor was taught the book in school so they each it to their students.
  • A book is short.  Someone once suggested to me that Ethan Frome is not Edith Wharton’s best work, but it is easy to squeeze onto a syllabus.
  • Someone told the instructors a book is part of the canon.  Harold Bloom lists Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Emily Dickinson as part of the Western canon.  Guess which women writers you’re most likely to read in college.
  • The book illustrates some feature the instructor finds worthy of discussing, such as the polysemy in Shakespeare or the complexities of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  But tastes change. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Shakespeare’s language wasn’t worshipped the way it is now; adaptions for the stage, where the scenes were shortened and the language simplified, abounded.  They did not appreciate complexity in Shakespeare.  Books come and go in the canon as different periods appreciate different  featues.  Shakespeare managed to last.  Other authors were not so lucky.


Canon formation often comes down to economic factors, power structures, and personal taste.  We revere the canon as the best the Western world has to offer, but we also know that it has traditionally ignored female writers and writers of color.  It’s not because only white men write really great books–it’s because historically white male writers have had more resources,  have wielded more power, and have written the types of books that critics and instructors have deemed worthwhile. But just because someone writes a different kind of book, that doesn’t mean she’s not writing a great  one.  A book that perhaps should be given the chance to become a classic, too.

Krysta 64



10 thoughts on “Are Classics Really “Timeless?”

  1. rantandraveaboutbooks says:

    I like that you mention the publication process because I’m attempting this myself right now, and it’s a bit tiresome. I was literally thinking about some of these points as I saw your post. I think I’m 2 years behind the market on my first manuscript. Luckily, I have others. Your post really made me think more about that first manuscript, and how sometimes, these things are out of our control. What about something too old to go through this process? The Iliad is my favorite classic. I have a strange love for that story that sparked my interest in other classics. Considering the age of The Iliad, I would think it would be considered timeless, but I guess that probably depends on who you ask. I’m sure there’s people who can’t stand it. But I think all classics have some type of fandom. There’s people who love Fitzgerald and others who can’t even read a page of his work because of their past experiences with teachers. I see The Iliad on every classic literature list, but it’s the one book that was introduced to me in college that I never see anyone mention, and I know very few people who’ve read or heard of it. They usually say, isn’t that the book the Brad Pitt movie was adapted from, which always bugs me.


    • Krysta says:

      To stay in print long enough to be considered a classic, I think even a text like the Iliad would be affected by factors of economics and taste. Someone somewhere had to decide to preserve it, then to transmit, to translate it, to convince a publishing house that it was worth taking a financial risk on publishing a translation of it…. Basically, to be timeless, a book has to have more going for it than its intrinsic value, even though we like to act as if art exists on some higher level where the market can’t touch it. But once something like the Iliad makes it to “classic” status, the label alone can help to preserve it. If it’s a “classic” people are going to keep putting it on lists of must-read books and they’r going to keep teaching it, thus keeping it in print.

      We may be entering a bit of a new age where fandoms will have a greater chance to preserve and transmit books the literati ignore, though. But, then of course there are other ways of diminishing the value of a work. Harry Potter, for example, will probably be labelled a “children’s classic” or a “fantasy classic,” both of which are distinct from just a “classic.”


      • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

        That’s a good point. Harry Potter probably wouldn’t be labeled as just a classic. Do you think a book like Twilight would ever make it onto a list like this, considering some schools have bought the books for students? J.K. Rowling is a legitimate writer, but I would take issue with someone like Stephenie Meyer making it on a list like this when the writing is not up to par. I think one thing most classic writers have in common is their ability to write well. If HP makes it to classic status, do you think select Stephen King novels have the ability to one day be considered classic horror? Other than Dracula, I can’t even think of any horror classics. I’m rambling… I have so many books running through my head.


        • Krysta says:

          I live in fear that the popularity of Twilight will catapault it to classic fame. It will probably carry on at least in schools as some some of cultural study or maybe as part of the vampire tradition, though that doesn’t necessarily mean anyone will call it a classic.

          I also take comfort in knowing that not everything taught in schools will be considered a classic. Things like Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid may be assigned in schools to get children reading, but I think the academy would faint if someone suggested they would be classics one day. 😉

          I haven’t read any of King’s work so I can’t really speak to his potential as a classic writer. I do sometimes like to sit and wonder which of our current books will be considered classics, though. Will they be books almost no one has read?


          • rantandraveaboutbooks says:

            I hope Twilight is omitted from the list. I think that would be a sad day in literary history if it ever reached classic status. I just don’t see it having a place among such talented writers with beautifully written stories. There’s a book called Captain Underpants? That made me laugh. While the name is catchy for an MG reader, I agree with you there. Stephen King is a very talented writer. I enjoy his writing style more than any other author. I’ve been reading his books since I was in middle school. I’m curious about that, too. That’s why I cringed at the thought of Twilight. I can’t think of anything I’ve read lately that I can see withstanding the test of time. There’s so many hype books out there I wonder how long some of them will stay around. I can’t believe we’re still talking about Twilight over ten years later though I think the movies had a lot to do with its lasting presence. This post really has me thinking about books I’ve read. The only story that left an impression on me is The Iliad. No other story has ever resonated with me like the characters in that book. I guess I have an old soul. I love old books. I swear I was supposed to be born in a different era. 😊


            • Krysta says:

              Captain Underpants is the series. The actual titles are far more ridiculous. ;b

              Writing style may prevent Twilight from becoming a classic, but I still see it being taught as part of the vampire genre since it’s obviously been so influential in turning vampires from evil/demonic figures to good/sex symbols. I’d be surprised, though, if it ever made it into a survey course or was taught in high schools as a classic.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    As always, such a thoughtful post, Krysta! Definitely agree – never thought about this before, but there are probably tonnes of books out there that could be classics, but never had the opportunity to be!❤ Loved this post so much!


  3. Emily | RoseRead says:

    I LOVE this post. I absolutely think that “classic” does not equal “timeless” because that would rule out many “classics” that are clearly dated. But just because a book is dated does not make it lose its merit and does not make it irrelevant. Classics can teach us the values and cultures of a different time, so calling classics “timeless” makes no sense to me. Literature is not written in a vacuum. Reading something from 1840 will inevitably be saturated in the values/politics/cultural climate of 1840. As to the question of merit, it’s so arbitrary that it’s a struggle to discuss (and very worth of discussion!). So many things to consider….
    Great post!


    • Krysta says:

      I’ve always understood “timeless” to mean that classic possesses some perhaps indefinable quality that allows them to transcend time and continue to speak to readers, even if some of the content seems dated. The implication is that a book becomes a classic based on this indefinable quality when, in fact, things like personal taste, marketability, finances and influence, etc. all play a role in ensuring a book lasts. It’s not all about artistic merit.

      Liked by 2 people

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