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Writing Quote: The Classics

June 20, 2010

Today’s Writing Quote comes to us from the author of one of those old classic novels, Ethan Frome, as well as of many other works: Edith Wharton.  It is perhaps an irony that her quote concerns the nature of the classics of literature – considering that she was herself the writer of what may now be viewed as a classic.

A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

~Edith Wharton

Allow me to translate:  The classics are the classics not because they belong to some vaunted category of “classic literature” – a circular defintion, of course.  They are classics because they are good.  They’re classics because they’re still relevant.  They’re classics because there’s still something to learn from reading them.

And this observation makes this quote the perfect compliment to a post from about a month ago in which I try to demonstrate the absurdity of dismissing genre fiction that happen to be classics because they are classics.  What makes them classics – and worthy of reading and admiration – is that they can’t be dismissed so easily!

It’s kind of my belief that every writer secretly hopes that his or her work will one day bear the label of “classic”.  I won’t lie: I secretly hope it for my work.  How awesome would it be, ten or twenty or a hundred years after my death, if school children were still reading what I wrote?

I give myself a 12% chance of achieving that level of classic-hood.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Lua permalink
    June 20, 2010 12:49 pm

    I secretly hope that about my work as well 🙂 How wonderful would that be?!
    I loved your translation of the quote- classics are classics because even though they were written many many years ago, they are still relevant, important and yes- ‘fresh’…

    And happy father’s day by the way 🙂

  2. June 23, 2010 12:53 am

    Hmm! I never thought of classics that way before, but it does make sense. I wonder though, who decides what is a classic? How many possible classics have been forgotten (due to obscurity) or lost over the centuries…

    That both gives me hope and sadness.

    • June 23, 2010 9:05 am

      Hmm.

      You pose a very interesting question. Who gets to decide what makes a classic? It’s not like there’s some official board that arbitrates between what’s a classic and what’s not.

      In large measure, though, I think it does come down to the formation of a consensus on what’s a classic. To some degree that will probably rely on the view of academics… but I think that the opinions of the general population figure into it as well.

      The good news (for those of us who write speculative fiction): the next generation of people who will look back and decide what the classics are will largely have been raised on speculative fiction… so you can bet that in the future we’ll only see more and more speculative fiction earn the label of “classics”.

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