What Is a Modern Classic?

Art Installation And Book Giveaway Celebrating Hulu's 'The Handmaid's Tale' Opens On The High Line In New York City
Many believe the Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" is a modern classic. Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

The phrase is a bit of a contradiction, isn’t it? “Modern classics” - it’s a bit like “ancient baby,” isn’t it? Haven’t you ever seen babies sporting wise yet cantankerous looks that made them seem like smooth-skinned octogenarians?

Modern classics in literature are like that—smooth skinned, young, yet with a sense of longevity. But before we define that term, let's start by defining what a work of classic literature is.

A classic usually expresses some artistic quality—an expression of life, truth, and beauty. A classic stands the test of time. The work is usually considered to be a representation of the period in which it was written; and the work merits lasting recognition. In other words, if the book was published in the recent past, the work is not a classic. A classic has a certain universal appeal. Great works of literature touch us to our very core beings—partly because they integrate themes that are understood by readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Themes of love, hate, death, life, and faith touch upon some of our most basic emotional responses. A classic makes connections. You can study a classic and discover influences from other writers and other great works of literature.

That’s as good a definition of a classic as you’ll find. But what is a “modern classic?” And can it meet all the above criteria?

“Modern” is an interesting word. It gets tossed around by cultural commentators, architectural critics, and suspicious traditionalists. Sometimes, it just means “nowadays.” For our purposes here, I’ll define modern as, “Based in a world the reader recognizes as familiar.” So although Moby Dick is certainly a classic, it has a hard time being a modern classic because many of the settings, lifestyles allusions, and even moral codes seem dated to the reader.

A modern classic, then, would have to be a book written after WWI, and probably after WWII. Why? Because those cataclysmic events shifted the way the world sees itself in irreversible ways.

Certainly classic themes endure. Romeo and Juliet will still be foolish enough to kill each themselves without checking for a pulse thousands of years from now.

But readers who live in a post-WWII era are concerned with much that is new. Ideas about race, gender, class are shifting and literature is both a cause and effect. Readers have a broader understanding of an interconnected world where people, pictures and words travel in all directions at warp speed.

The idea of “young people speaking their minds” is no longer new. A world that has witnessed totalitarianism, imperialism and corporate conglomeration cannot turn back that clock. And perhaps most importantly, readers today bring a hardened realism that stems from contemplating the enormity of genocide and perennially living on the edge of self-destruction.

These hallmarks of our modernism can be seen in a wide variety of works. A glance at recent winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature brings us Orham Pamuk, who explores conflicts in modern Turkish society; J.M. Coetzee, best known as a white writer in a post-apartheid South Africa; and Gunter Grass, whose novel The Tin Drum is perhaps the seminal exploration of post-WWII soul-searching.

Beyond content, modern classics also demonstrate a shift in style from earlier eras. This shift began in the early part of the century, with luminaries such as James Joyce expanding the reach of the novel as a form. In the post-war era, the hardened realism of the Hemingway school became less of a novelty and more a requirement.

Cultural shifts have meant that obscenities once viewed as outrageous are commonplace. Sexual “liberation” may be more of a fantasy than a reality in the real world, but in literature the characters certainly sleep around a lot more casually than they used to. In tandem with television and movies, literature has also shown its willingness to spill blood on the pages, as violent horrors that once would not even have been alluded to now become the basis of best-selling novels.

One modern classic is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. It’s modern—it’s written in a breezy, breathless style, and it’s about cars and ennui and easy morality and vigorous youth. And it’s a classic—it stands the test of time and has a universal appeal (or at least, I think it does).

Another novel that often appears atop the contemporary classics lists is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It certainly meets every definition of enduring classic, yet it is thoroughly modern. If WWII and its ramifications mark the border, this novel of the absurdities of war stands definitively on the modern side.

Phillip Roth is one of America’s preeminent authors of modern classics. In his early career, he was best known for Portnoy’s Complaint, in which young sexuality was explored in unprecedented ways. Modern? Certainly. But is it a classic? I would argue it is not. It suffers the burden of those who go first—they seem less impressive than those who come after. Young readers looking for a good shocker that reveals all no longer remember Portnoy’s Complaint.

In the science fiction aisle—a modern genre in itself—A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter Miller is perhaps the modern classic post-nuclear holocaust novel. It has been copied endlessly, but I’d say it holds up as well—or better—than any work in painting a stark warning of the dire consequences of our path to destruction.