Too soon to be a classic?

One thought that occurs to me reading the Vintage Classics edition of Morvern Callar: is twenty years too soon to call a book a classic? (Granted, in this case ‘classic’ is more a marketing term than a critical evaluation, but the question remains.)

I don’t have a straightforward answer. On the one hand, my instinct is to say that the term ‘classic’ implies a book old enough to have survived being tested by the years, and twenty years is not old in literary terms. On the other hand, I very much liked Morvern Callar, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. If a ‘classics’ imprint can look at a certain period in time and say, ‘these books are worth reading now’, I find it hard to begrudge that.

8 Comments

  1. I confess I’d probably say 20 years is not enough. Classics have to transcend everything and still be read in 100 years time and more, and I don’t know if we yet have the distance to decide if they will. Having said that, there are plenty of old books not considered classics that I think should be….. 🙂

  2. I agree. 20 years is too soon, although you can get around it by describing books as a future or modern classic. Also, in the age of ‘Classic Trek’ and ‘Classic Cola’, the word doesn’t carry the same weight anyway.

  3. What are other writers and artists doing with Morvern Callar? That is one big clue.

    The Rings of Saturn is from 1995; The Savage Detectives from 1998. The response of other artists has been significant, with many derivative works – meaning that in as good a way as possible, since a number of them are themselves substantial works of art – springing off from Sebald and Bolaño. It is a pretty easy guess that these two novels will be read 80 years from now. It will take that long for the ripples to die out.

    The word “classic” is always just a guess about the future, even if the book is much older than 20 years.

    • The word “classic” is always just a guess about the future, even if the book is much older than 20 years.

      Very true, hence – as you say – the value of looking beyond immediate reception to how books are responded to in the medium term.

  4. I tend to side with with the view in that classic in this sense is more of a marketing term to indicate a book worth reprinting /recataloguing.

    I hated Morvern Callar when I read it many years ago, it irritated me intensely. I must admit, I’m tempted to give it another go after all this discussion you’ve started about it.

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