What’s a Classic Novel?

What's a classic novel? When you hear "classic," you might think "old" but that isn't always true. A classic is a novel that represents a genre or a writing style, or it can be a novel that makes a contribution to literature. There are all kinds of classics, from horror classics to romance classics, from novels that sold millions of copies to a novel that changed how a genre was written. Classics come from all cultures and all years, and classics can reflect a time period, a societal standard or may offer commentary on a subject. 


We may think that novels have been around forever, but that's not true. Instead, storytelling has been around forever: ancestors told tales across the fire, epic sagas were recited over and over again until committed to memory, until, finally, written language was invented and someone wrote something down. But for all those thousands of years telling stories, the invention of the novel is fairly recent, and scholars debate what is the first English novel. Is it Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, published in 1485? What about Don Quixote in 1605, The Pilgrim's Progress in 1678, Oroonoko in 1688, Moll Flanders in 1722, Pamela; Or Virtue Rewarded in 1740, or Robinson Crusoe in 1791? Historians and English majors may never agree.

Le Morte D'Arthur

Don Quixote

The Pilgrim's Progress


Moll Flanders


Robinson Crusoe

The classic novel argument

Why the argument? It comes down a series of questions, like what do we classify as a novel? Does a novel need to be a certain length? Can the novel be based on real events? Does it need to be written in prose or letters? Should it focus on the individual and their journey? Is that story ultimately believable? 


Where do you start? There's no hard and fast rule on what classics to read (sorry!). Think about novels you've enjoyed, then read What Classics Should I Read?, opens a new window to inspire your classics journey. Still need inspiration? We have that too!

Classics reading lists