Was that title a little clickbait-y? It probably was, but heck I’m not changing it, it’s accurate.
Today, I have a little bit of a rant/discussion in which I want to explain why I hate the term ‘classic literature’ particularly when people say things like ‘I love reading classics’ or ‘I read a lot of classics’.
First of all, and this is really the crux of the matter, I think it’s important to address the fact that every single person reading this will have a slightly different idea of what “a classic” actually is. For some it’s synonymous with boring, for others it’s something set in a drawing room. Whether you think of classics as old books, books that have loads of adaptations or books from ancient Greece/Rome, none of you are necessarily wrong. Herein lies my problem, the vagueness of the term.
Technically, a classic piece of literature is defined as literature that is widely acknowledged as having outstanding or enduring qualities. Yeah, you’re right, that can be pretty much any book!
As an English student, it’s assumed that I read a lot of “classics” and people are often baffled that I haven’t read Dickens or Shelley. However, that’s not my area of expertise or the period of literature I enjoy (I’m a Medieval/Renaissance girl) so I have no shame in correcting them.
Most of the literature I enjoy are plays over novels or poetry (probably because I’m a character-driven reader and because the novel is such a new format).
Are Chaucer and Shakespeare’s works considered to be classics? Yes. But if someone asked me on the street what books I like to read I’d always specify Renaissance/Medieval literature rather than simply Classics. The term “classics” says absolutely nothing about what I read.
Although the whole, “you haven’t read Dickens?” thing is annoying, I think there’s a greater fault to the term “classics” and that’s in the fact that it groups completely different books from different worlds, genres and styles into one giant mess of scariness! Just because you love Wuthering Heights doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to get into Beowulf or Homer’s Odyssey – and that’s okay, everyone has preferences, especially readers (we’re creatures of habit)! By the same token, hating one “classic” doesn’t mean you’re going to hate them all, you just haven’t found your niche yet.
When people use the term “classic” to describe their reading, it also tends to neglect the modern classic. Here, I’m thinking of books that were published within the last two decades, but have been incredibly influential (Half of a Yellow Sun and The Road spring to mind) but they seem out of place alongside Pride and Prejudice and so are denied the title of “classics” by some readers. Poor guys, they worked hard for that title!
If you’ve made it this far through my rant, I commend you, and I promise I’m nearly done.
I am hereby proposing that we abandon the word classics and start defining our reading, no matter how old the book is, based on genre and period. Not only does this give us more to talk about and more categories to explore but it also reduces the risk that new “classics” readers from being let down and getting completely demoralised. By no means am I suggesting that you can only read one type of “classic”, you can read as broadly and as many as you like/have time for, but most people are drawn towards specific genres in modern literature, shouldn’t we expect the same from the past?
I’d love to hear what you guys think in the comments down below, is it something you’ve ever noticed/thought about? I feel like it’s a bit of a niche pet peeve, but that’s what this whole blogging thing’s about I guess. Let the discussion commence!