Intermezzo: Preliminary Thoughts on Defining a Classic

How to define a classic?

I Formal criteria
1 Innovation in form
- e.g. Austen’s use of indirect discourse and personal narration as opposed to omniscient narration (all novels)
- e.g. Characters shaping narration and discourse of authorial narrator in H. James (The Bostonians)
- e.g. Joyce’s experimentation, representation of consciousness in present tense and streamed thought (stream of consciousness)
- e.g. Goethe’s employment of indirect discourse (in Die Wahlverwandtschaft)
- e.g. Federman’s integration of theory in narrative
2. Exceptional formal achievement
- e.g. T. Mann’s presentation of consciousness and use of indirect discourse (not innovative at his time, but arguably exceptional in technique)
- e.g. Woolf’s presentation of consciousness and use of indirect discourse (again: not innovative at her time, but arguable exceptional in technique)
- e.g. Kafka’s psychosis through indirect discourse and personal narration
- e.g. Thomas Pynchon’s experimentation (same situation preceding authors)

3. Formal aspects imitated, developed or refined by future writers
- the aforementioned “exceptional formal achievements” demonstrate other authors’ interest in the innovative techniques listed under “Innovation in form”
- the inclusion of former innovations in contemporary works

4. Broad international acknowledgement of author’s work as defining form
- Either “innovation in form” or an “exceptional formal achievement” is determined by a wide body of academics and writers who read and write about the works and authors in various contexts
- Franzel, Cohen, Genette discuss these authors (with the exception of Federmann) at length in their studies of narratology
- German, French and English academics repeatedly address the aforementioned authors and the implications of their form.
II Content criteria

1. Innovation in content, i.e. new content
e.g. Dostoevsky’s extensive representation of psychology
e.g. Tostoy’s остраниние (defamiliarization), as in the mushroom picking scene in Anna Karenina
e.g. Austen’s focus on ordinary life (as opposed to heroic or historical lives)
e.g. Poe’s representation of the deteriorating mind
e.g. Joyce’s portrayal of the unexpressable, perhaps subconscious (e.g. Nighttown, all of Finegans Wake, etc.)
e.g. Goethe’s Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel): the novel as instruction
e.g. Kafka’s nightmarish world
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2. Exceptional achievement in content
e.g. Federman’s portrayal of the immigrant experience and the writer’s experience (in Double or Nothing) (again: not new, but in combination with his theory – exceptional)
e.g. Fontane’s representation of the ordinary life e.g. in Effi Briest
3. Content imitated, developed or refined by future writers
- This content is found repeatedly in work after the appearance of the aforementioned literature
4. Broad international acknowledgement of author’s seminal content or treatment of content
- Either “innovation in content” or an “exceptional achievement in content” is determined by a wide body of academics and writers who read and write about the works and authors in various contexts
- German, French and English academics repeatedly address the aforementioned authors and the implications of their form.
III. Time criteria
1. Novelty or exceptional character of form and/or content
- Novelty is easier to establish since comparison with previous work is possible (e.g. there is virtually no indirect discourse before Austen’s time and the little bit that exists is random)
- “Exceptional character” can only be determined by readers and critics, potentially by presence of work in bookstore (but acc. to this criteria Goethe would drop out, because you can only find Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers in Barnes and Nobles in NYC (81st and Broadway)
2. Influence of form and/or content on future work (repetition)
- Again: This is easy with “novelty” and harder with “exceptional character”
3. Both novelty and exceptional character here must be viewed from an international, Western perspective
- A classic must be read outside of its original culture. Perhaps a level such as 100 or 200 papers/essays/articles/books in a foreign country after the author’s death would be sufficient to meet this requirement (maybe depends on the time frame)
- A likely example of failure here would be Bulgakov outside of Russia; Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy outside of England
-“Innovation” and “exceptional character” must be separated from “representational of an epoch”
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