What makes a classic?

<p>Katherine Rushton</p><p>Which contemporary writers will be read in 100 years? The question is at the heart of literary publishing, as editors seek out writers whose works will endure long after the first flush of interest on publication.</p><p>To celebrate its 15th anniversary in September, Random House literary fiction imprint Vintage has put the same question to library reading groups across the country. A list of 100 titles from Vintage's backlist has been given to 48 reading groups, which are being asked to choose 15 they believe will have enduring appeal. The most popular nominations will be published as a shortlist on 2nd September, and which one is to become the overall winner will be put to a public vote.</p><p>Mary Rossall runs a participating group at Grange Library, Cumbria. "In every single meeting we've had, we've ended up talking about how to define a classic," Rossall says. "Does it have to have timeless themes? Can we enjoy it or does it have to be worthy?"</p><p>And therein lies the rub. What makes a classic? For playwright Alan Bennett, it is "a book that everyone is assumed to have read and often thinks they have", while for author J&nbsp;G Ballard, it is defined by "a strong story and intriguing characters, a fresh and imaginative use of language, an element of vision and a way of seeing the world that belongs uniquely to the author".</p><p>On a simpler level, a classic is a book that makes an impression that lasts over time. Vintage publishing director Rachel Cugnoni says: "The reason there is so much debate around this subject is precisely because true classics do not conform to any predefined rules or definitions, but are conspicuously original." She points to Adam Thirlwell's Politics with its description of a m&eacute;nage &#224; trois as an example. "It got mixed reviews, but it is acknowledged as something utterly unique, an attempt to do something experimental."</p><p>But a classic can equally be an existing story retold in an exceptional way, she says. "At the core [Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife] is just a love story, but it's told in the dynamic of time travel which gives it extra depth."</p><p>Mark Twain was more scathing in his analysis of a classic: it is, he claimed, "Something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read." However glib, his description hits upon a truth.</p><p>Classic chick lit</p><p>Bridget Taylor, head of the Young Persons Library Services group in Richmond, was surprised that Alison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It made the Vintage longlist. "It was enjoyable but there was the feeling it was too easy. It's really chick lit," she says. "A classic is a worthy book you should read--one with a reputation. Often it will feel quite inaccessible, but that's part of it: you're left wondering if there is some higher plane to it."</p><p>The Vintage 100 is very varied. Relatively recent bestsellers--The Time Traveler's Wife, Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong, Louis de Berni&#232;res' Captain Corelli's Mandolin and Arthur Golden's Memoirs of a Geisha, for example--sit alongside lesser known works such as Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's The Leopard, Amos Oz's My Michael and David Grossman's See Under: Love. There are also--perhaps unfairly--some established classics: Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.</p><p>A number of the titles have been adapted into movies, and Taylor points out: "Sometimes something will become a classic because of subsequent history or because it is made into a cult film, rather than just because of the book itself." Trainspotting is an example. "It captures an era, but there was also the film that was so iconic and launched those actors' careers." Brave New World is another. "We found it has such resonance because so much of it has actually become very recognisable," she says.</p><p>Born not made?</p><p>So books can become classics when they are made famous by films or history--but can they be created by marketing campaigns? Speaking to the reading groups, it's clear The Time Traveler's Wife is getting more than its fair share of attention--but Cugnoni insists: "Its success was led by the readership before all the publicity. All the books on our list are ones that have found their own life." "Best of"-style lists are usually dominated by recent releases, but Vintage is confident that its will have "integrity". "It's not a list that I feel will be dictated by fashion," Cugnoni says.</p><p>What is certain is that it will be influenced by the bias of those reading groups involved, which have many older, female members. Jon Howells, Ottakar's spokesman, hopes to see Joseph Heller's Catch-22 topping the final selection: "It's the greatest novel of the 20th century, let alone the greatest novel on the Vintage list." But he is likely to be disappointed. Romances such as Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle and A S Byatt's Possession appear to be more popular.</p><p>As the reading groups' shortlists begin to filter back, Cugnoni has been surprised at some of the nominations. "I think the trade will be pleased with the final list. A lot of the books are the very saleable ones you would expect to be there, but there are some surprises mixed in. The Leopard and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are both getting a good early showing."</p><p>For her own part, Cugnoni is reluctant to show favouritism among Vintage authors who are still writing, but identifies To Kill a Mockingbird as her favourite. "It's a book I read at 16 that made a deep and lasting impression on me, and it's something that I reread recently and had lost none of its power."</p>