Sally Rooney’s Normal People has been widely touted as a “future classic”, a book that critics and pundits believe is destined for the status of “classic” in some imagined future. I’d heard the term “future classic books” bandied around somewhere before, but couldn’t quite remember where… and then I dug up this fantastic post from Lynne at Fictionophile (an idea that originated at Orangutan Library). So, I thought I’d take a crack at it myself: looking over my shelves, I pulled out a stack of ten that I think will be future classic books.
How does a book become a classic?
Back when I was thinking about what makes a book a classic, I came up with a set of criteria that I’ve adapted to apply here.
For starters, books need to stand the test of time in order to become classics. That means fifty, a hundred, or a hundred and fifty years from now, people would still be interested in reading them and able to derive some kind of insight or enjoyment from the experience. Even from a purely pragmatic standpoint, future classic books need to continue to be re-printed and re-published; a book that can’t be bought or accessed anywhere is going to have a tough time becoming a classic.
Future classic books should also probably pass some test of literary merit. This one is tricky because it’s so subjective: my masterpiece might be your bargain bin garbage. Still, I think it’s reasonable to expect that there should be some kind of general consensus from People Who Know(TM) – critics, awards panels, and so forth – as well as general readers that the contender is, y’know, good.
(That said, it’s interesting to consider how many classics were considered popular nonsense at the time of initial publication. Shakespeare was basically 50 Shades Of Grey in his own time…)
Finally, future classic books should make some kind of cultural contribution, and/or have an enduring significance and resonance. This could take any number of forms: Nineteen Eighty-Four takes on new resonance every day because of the scary new parallels we see between Orwell’s vision of a dystopia and our own reality; the premise of Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, the duality of the “top bloke” and the monster, is so enduring that it’s become part of our idiomatic language; Pride And Prejudice is continually read and re-read as a subversive, feminist text; Robinson Crusoe has become a historical record of the atrocious colonialism and racism that pervaded social mores, politics, and (inevitably) literature in its time… The list goes on and on.
How do we decide which are future classic books, then?
Well, of course, this is entirely subjective: my judgements are different from Lynne’s, and from just about everyone else’s. In fact, it’s really not all that different from trying to determine what “counts” as a classic in the present day. Everyone has their own ideas and opinions. That’s what makes this so much fun! As I said, I looked over my shelves, and tried to pick out books that were published in the last 20 years and that matched all of the criteria above. Here we go…
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
Citizen is one of the best-selling books of poetry of my generation, and sales have re-surged in light of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests this year, putting it smack-bang in the middle of the Venn diagram of popularity and critical acclaim and ongoing resonance. Rankine integrates poetry with other art forms, so that reading this collection is a multi-media experience: art, photography, music, even video. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate this book’s cultural contribution and significance; it is one of the most incredible testaments to the lived experience of race and racism I’ve ever read.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend (and the subsequent books in the Neapolitan quartet) is incredibly complex. It covers everything – burgeoning womanhood, the politics of small communities, the ramifications of war, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence, literacy, friendship, betrayal, revenge, how women’s lives are shaped by class and status, maternity, familial obligation, social responsibility, intelligence… These themes and motifs are timeless, and reading it, it’s hard to imagine a future where we don’t consider it a classic, on par with Austen and the Brontës. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend here.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
The Argonauts is a love story, of sorts, a memoir of Nelson’s relationship with artist Harry Dodge, but it’s also an exploration of gender identity, queer theory, and the modern family unit. When it was first published, it was fresh, fierce, and barrier-breaking. Now, it’s become a contemporary classic of the queer literature canon, embedded in our understanding of the heteronormative pressures on relationships and families, and surely a future classic book in its own right. Read my full review of The Argonauts here.
My Year Of Rest And Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
If the measure of future classic books was simply “ones you keep thinking about long, long after you’ve read them”, My Year Of Rest And Relaxation would get the gong. Not simply because the unnamed protagonist’s goal (to sleep, in drugged-out bliss for a entire year) is very relatable, but because… ah, heck, I don’t even know. Moshfegh’s writing is incredibly engaging, just on the surface level, but it has hidden depths that you can plunge re-read after re-read. I’m not sure I’ve even reached them all yet, but I’m looking forward to plunging in again!
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
I had to put an Ishiguro on this list of future classic books, but I had a devil of a time picking which one! My personal favourite (so far) is An Artist Of The Floating World, but that’s one of his shorter and less-well-known/lauded titles, so in the end I settled on Never Let Me Go. There’s not much I can say about this one without “spoiling” it, which is probably much the same feeling that people had upon the initial release of Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (and look how that turned out). I guess I’ll settle for saying simply that it’s eerie, unsettling, and clearly a work of Nobel-Prize-winning genius.
In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
A blurb that promises a book “revolutionises” a genre, especially one as saturated as memoir, seems quite literally unbelievable. But I’m here to tell you the truth: Carmen Maria Machado did it with In The Dream House. It is an intimate, horrifying, beautiful, multi-dimensional account of her formative – and abusive – love affair with a partner she calls only “the woman in the Dream House”. Machado mines the depths of pop culture and literature and art and critical theory in search of representation. I am truly in awe of her, and if this book doesn’t end up a future classic, I’ll eat my hat.
Atonement by Ian McEwan
In Ian McEwan’s best-known work, Atonement, one young girl’s mistake has spiraling ramifications. Lives are ruined, including her own, and she has to contend with how to (you guessed it) atone for her role in the whole mess. It has already been immortalised in film, but I think the book itself is destined for the classics shelf. It won a stack of awards in the years following its release, and its interrogation of the timeless themes of sex, family, and power continues to resonate with readers. Read my full review of Atonement here.
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Americanah addresses a story as old as time (literally, we’re talking some Penelope and Odysseus type of shit here): a couple torn apart by time and circumstance, who come back together. Ifemelu immigrates from Nigeria to the United States to attend university, but her bond with her high-school classmate, Obinze, never quite breaks. Of course, it also addresses the immigrant experience and the power dynamics of race, gender, and class (those old chestnuts). The only thing that could top Americanah becoming one of the future classic books is one of Adichie’s other books taking the gong instead…
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
Say what you will about Jonathan Franzen (I could say a thing or two myself), but The Corrections is readable as all heck and it achieved incredible cut-through despite its incredibly unfortunate release date (1 September 2001). It captured A Moment in American life, an oddly prescient take on the anxiety and existentialism that emerged post-9/11. The story itself centers on a family – two aging parents, and their three adult children – and their lives coming up to their “one last Christmas” together. Despite being deeply rooted in American life and culture, there’s something ineffably universal about this story (plus, I reckon it’s got one of the best closing lines of any novel, ever).
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The Secret History is the definitive campus novel, surely – I can’t think of any other that even comes close! It was Donna Tartt’s first novel, though she’s maybe now better known for her later Pulitzer Prize-winning offering, The Goldfinch (which I think is too long, too dense, and too singular to become one of the future classic books). This one is an “inverted detective story”, exploring the close-knit relationship of six classics students that lead to a murder. Just the right blend of mystery, suspense, and literary chops!
Now, before you come for me: the sad fact is that in this search I came across a lot of books that I think should be future classic books, but I doubt they will be. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is top of that list (yes, I’ll never miss an opportunity to plug it). And, on the other side of it, there are plenty of other books that probably will be future classics, but didn’t make the cut for one reason or another. Yes, Harry Potter is the obvious choice, but the Philosopher’s Stone was published before my 20-year cut-off and J.K. Rowling has recently proved herself to be… well, a bit Umbridge-y. And there are plenty of worthy contenders with whose work I’m just not familiar enough to make the call (I can hear you shouting MURAKAMI, calm down, I’m getting to him!).
Which do you reckon are the future classic books? Let me know in the comments below!