5 signs that novel is a classic, not a cult classic.

5 signs that novel is a classic, not a cult classic.

31 days of cult classics | Modern Mrs Darcy

I’m baffled at some of the “cult classics” that I think are bona fide classics, no modifier required.

A cult classic has a small but specific and highly devoted audience. The definition is subjective, but some novels that get included in cult classic lists don’t belong there. (Every novel referred to below has shown up on cult classic lists aplenty.)

Let’s review a few things:

5 signs that a novel is a classic, not a “cult classic.”

5 signs that novel is a classic, NOT a cult classic | Modern Mrs Darcy

1. It was assigned reading in high school.

This eliminates the likes of The Catcher in the Rye and The Great Gatsby. There are exceptions–I studied Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and read Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook senior year, and I could argue for their cult status.

5 signs that novel is a classic, NOT a cult classic | Modern Mrs Darcy

2. It’s more than thirty years old.

“Classics” have to work harder to earn the distinction than cult classics do, and age is a key qualifier. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest–just published in 1996–sits firmly in cult classic territory. Catch-22 has a similar flavor, but earns classic status with its 1961 publication date. Only time will tell if Infinite Jest makes the cut.

5 signs that novel is a classic, NOT a cult classic | Modern Mrs Darcy

3. It’s a perennial bestseller.

To Kill a Mockingbird was an instant bestseller and a critical success when it was published in 1960, and it’s now been in constant publication for 50 years. That’s a true classic.

5 signs that novel is a classic, NOT a cult classic | Modern Mrs Darcy

4. Rocky and Bullwinkle parodied it.

Novels get parodied only when they are believed to be part of the cultural consciousness. This filter eliminates genuine classics like The Rubáyát of Omar Khayyám and Crime and Punishment.

5 signs that novel is a classic, NOT a cult classic | Modern Mrs Darcy

5. Other writers reference, remix, or mimic the work.

When The Hunger Games came out, it was described as the new Lord of the Flies, securing the classic status of Golding’s 1954 work.

What novels get called “cult classics” that you think deserve bona fide classic status? What “classics” do you think are really cult classics? (Bonus points: “bona fide” brings what cult classic film to mind?)  

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This is the sixth post in a series, 31 Days of Cult Classics. You can click here to see a list of all the posts, updated everyday in the month of October.

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18 comments | Comment

18 comments

  1. Christy Peeples DuBois says:

    My daughter is in the advanced honors curriculum at her school and The Great Gatsby was one of her assigned summer reading books. But I am enjoying your blog and being an avid reader myself, your current topic. Thanks for your ongoing works.

  2. These are great guidelines, Anne! I’m not sure about #4 though. I can think of a number of novels that are a part of cultural consciousness that are not classics- though this could play into your rule that they be more than 30 years old. But I’m not sure they’re cult classics either because they’re bestsellers and well-known entities. For instance, Twilight has been parodied left and right. I doubt it would ever be assigned reading in high school- though I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a college somewhere that offers a Vampires in Literature class. There’s fan fiction that has garnered its own following a la 50 Shades. What do you think? Am I making this more complicated than it really is?

    • Anne says:

      Oh, that’s a good point. Saturday Night Live skewers contemporary stuff all the time, and Fifty Shades is Twilight fanfic. But I stand by the Rocky and Bullwinkle parodies. 🙂

  3. Faigie says:

    I’m not clear about the differences between classics and cult classics. I’ve always thought of classics as boring stuff we had to read in school…but catcher in the rye was quite a book. I read it as an adult since it was my brother in laws bible

    • Anne says:

      Yeah, the line is blurry and subjective between classic and cult classic. And I’m laughing because I almost made “you didn’t want to read it because it sounded boring” one of the line items above. People are much more likely to say that about true classics than cult classics.

      Bottom line: classic = widespread appeal. Cult classic = narrow appeal but crazy enthusiastic audience.

  4. Jennifer H says:

    “Bona fide” brings to mind “O Brother Where Art Thou”, which also has some of my favorite music in it. Holly Hunter played George Clooney’s ex-wife who now had her a “bona fide” fiance. I love this movie!

  5. Colleen says:

    Background: I was in high school in the 80s. I read “Catcher in the Rye” on my own before it was assigned. I wasn’t fond of it because I’m not fond of the teenaged angst genre.

    I don’t think of “Catcher in the Rye” as a classic. I find it too much of Baby Boomer teenaged angst. Yes, brooding anti-heros were big in Hollywood at the time “Catcher” came out… so there is that mark on artistic history. But I cannot see that angst-y, brooding guys are Eternal Truth that will stand the test of time.

    But I would have said that about Heathcliff (don’t like him!) and people still read “Wuthering Heights.”

  6. Jeannie says:

    Excuse my confusion, but I don’t understand the word “eliminate” in #1 and #4. Do you mean that the rule in question eliminates the work from being wrongly labeled a cult classic rather than the true classic it is? Or eliminates it from something else?

    • Anne says:

      I’m sorry for the confusion–I miss my caffeine, clearly! But yes, that’s exactly what I meant. I think it’s ridiculous for Crime and Punishment and The Great Gatsby to be labeled as cult classics and not as capital-c Classics.

  7. Brianna says:

    hmmmm I really have to think on this one.
    Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – Classic. It was assigned in my high school and has a major fan base, beyond sci fi fans.

    What about something like The Light Between Oceans or Gone Girl? They’re huge hits with big fan bases, but they are really recent. Or does classic/cult classic not count for something so “fresh”?

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