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Is the classic novel dead?

With this question I don’t mean the novels that are already called classics. Dickens, Tolstoy et all will always be there if only because they are taught in schools.

My question is more about modern novels that have been praised and called ‘modern classics’ when they were published and talked about and generally read. Quite a few of us liked A Suitable Boy, More recently Wolf Hall and The Children’s Book were highly praised. Will any of these (or others) become classics? Or are people today looking too much for ‘the newest’ and ‘the latest’ so that nothing gets read and re-read enough to become a classic?

What do you think? Which one (if any) of all the ‘modern classics’ will still be read 50 years from now?


An interesting question, Marita, and one I have had a few thoughts about. I have read all three of the ones you mention and rate them very highly. However whether they will become classics I am not sure. Perhaps we ought to look back a few years to see which ones published soon after the Second World War are still very highly thought of and have stood the test of time. Do you think Brideshead Revisited is a classic, for example? In Sebatian Faulks programme on Saturday he obviously thinks Lucky Jim is a classic though I'm not sure I agree - though it is a wonderful commentry on the time in which it was written. D H Lawrence was very well thought of in the sixties but seems to be less admired nowadays. Surely a classic is still a wonderful read, despite having been written long ago, and says things to the reader that still resonate.
Of your three choices I personally liked Wolf Hall the best. I found The Children's Book immensly interesting but perhaps too long and complicated though it is a fantastic commentry on that lost generation. I will give it some time and then try it again to see if it improves; which I think a classic should do. I've reread A Suitable Boy and it definitely improves as the layers of story and the history of India become more resonent once one knows what will happen.

That is a really good question, and a very interesting thought provoking one to bring up, but I think society has changed and attitudes are so different these days.  Sadly I think no, because now it seems like (to me at least) we live in such a superficial fast paced world where everything is now, this minute that as a result its what it "en vogue" at that particular time and when something else becomes flavour of the month previous favourites are just cast aside, I have seen examples of this in my local charity shop where I have seen copies of ALL the books you mentioned in your post for sale there which have obviously been read once and then just cast aside by someone.

It’s an interesting question, and, given that the only criterion defining a classic is longevity, it is not for us, but for future generations, to decide which (if any) of the works produced in our own time are “classics”. The best we can do is to guess, but since none of will be alive by the time future generations of readers deliver their verdicts, we are in no position ever to find out how accurate or otherwise our guesses are.

As is well known here, I generally find myself disappointed by modern novels (and let us take “modern” here as referring to the years of my own lifetime, i.e. almost 51 years now). Even the best of what I have read of this era has not come up to the standards set by the best that the past has produced. But that is merely my opinion – albeit not an unargued or an unsubstantiated opinion. Whether future generations will think the same way as I do, I have no way of knowing. (And, needless to say, I have not read everything: indeed, I am particularly badly read in this area.)

Strangely enough, although poetry is a minority interest even amongst readers of serious literature, I think there has been much poetry of a very high standard written within my lifetime – from Elizabeth Bishop (whose centenary is coming up in a few days, by the way) to Philip Larkin. Only last year, we had (at least) two quite magnificent collections of poems – Human Chain by Seamus Heaney (which I have now read), and White Egrets by Derek Walcott (which, so far, I have only browsed). And as ever, there are many I haven’t read.

As for drama, I think Harold Pinter was as fine a dramatist as the twentieth century has seen. There are many others, of course.

If we look back, I don’t think there has been any era since the invention of the printing press that has not produced literature we now regard as classics. But when we consider the different literary forms, there are waves and troughs. For instance, the 1750s and 1760s were wonderful decades for the English-language novel – with the likes of Fielding, Smollett, Richardson and Sterne all active. But, for reasons that we may only guess at, the novel declined for many decades after that. Between Fielding and Richardson on the one hand, and the emergence of the Victorian novelists on the other, we had some seven or so decades during which the only major novelists in the English language were Walter Scott (whose stock has now fallen), and Jane Austen (who continues to be as highly regarded as ever). Austen excepted, that’s not really a lot to show for some 70 years or so. But then, all of a sudden we had Thackeray, Dickens, the three Brontës, Trollope, Gaskell, Eliot, Hardy, all following each other in quick succession.

And yet, although those 70 years may have been a fallow period for novels, we had in the poetry of Burns, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Keats. While the Victorians had their great poets as well (Tennyson, Browning, Barrett Browning and Hopkins – though Hopkins wasn’t known till much later), that era couldn’t quite match what had gone earlier.

So what will future generations decide about the novel in our own era? Will they judge it to be a golden era for novels, or as a fallow period?  We may have our own opinions, but the decision isn’t ours.

For me, personally, the hundred years or so between (very roughly) the mid-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century constituted a golden era for the novel. Just about all the novels I value most come from those decades between, say, Wuthering Heights, Bleak House, The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick at one end, and Doctor Faustus, Invisible Man, Ballad of Sad Café and The Guide at the other.

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