Why I Hate “Classic Literature”

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!

8 Comments

  1. Hmm…..I’ve never really thought of the term ‘Classics’ like that before. I would consider myself a lover of literature (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Austen, Dickens….) but I definitely think that we use the term rather loosely or as a blanket word.

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  2. There’s definitely different types of classics. I think we should categorize them. I enjoy modern classics, as in Jane Austen, Dickens & LM Mongomery. But I haven’t really been able to get into ancient and medieval classics.
    I think my biggest struggle with Shakespeare are his flat characters. He has amazing characters like Beatrice, Hamlet, Richard III & Shylock. Then he throws in other characters just to prop up the main character. They feel fake and forced, and to me, that ruins my enjoyment of his plays.

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  3. I think classics does say something about what you read. It’s indicating that you read books more than a half century old. This distinction is useful with non-readers, it means that your favorite books are less likely to have been made into movies they’ve seen and can discuss with you. Once you get into a room of bibliophiles, though (or book bloggers), then it has much less relevance and I’m with you on defining by era/genre/location.

    [Btw, I’m a recovering Regency-Victorian novel specialist, although with a strong liberal arts education and wide reading tastes outside of school. You picked a good subject – I wrote a paper once on passion plays and learned just enough to realize how little I know about the era.]

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  4. I have the same issue, to be honest. Saying you read classics with specifying which genre of books or era or what is like saying ‘I like piano music’, when that could mean anything from classical piano sonatas to modern piano rock. Not to mention, classics is not a defined genre by any means, so some things I would consider classic may not be classics to another person, and vice versa.

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  5. Very interesting post. I would agree that there is a flaw in the definition of a classic. I find I have struggled with many of the classics I have read in the past but not all, just like any other books, I find I usually have a bit of an easier time with modern classics. Great post made me think about my reading 🙂

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  6. I think in terms of classics, they could/should be broken up into the time periods in which they were written. And in my honest opinion the ancient Greek, ancient Roman, and ancient Latin works are the foundation of all literature. And you have to remember that theater wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the ancient Greeks, as they were the ones who invented theater.

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  7. I’ve never really thought about the meaning of “classics” before; When I here the word it makes me think of Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter and other books that you kind of “have to read”. But now that I read your post, I guess the word classic does have multiple different meanings. You’ve given me something to think on!;)

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