Millennial Reading Habits Have Changed the Definition of a Classic

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From Quartzy:

The era of the ubiquitous classic is behind us. The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleRagtime, and Slaughterhouse-Five have had their time in the sun. What would their modern equivalents be? The reason it’s harder to name such tomes is because there’s quantifiably less options to choose from, despite having more books to read.

Since its first publication in 1951, The Catcher in the Rye has sold over 68 million copies, roughly moving a million copies for every year it has lived. In 2007, A Thousand Splendid Suns was published to great acclaim, similar to the reception of J.D. Salinger’s magnum opus. But by comparison, Khaled Hosseini’s novel has only moved nearly 6 million copies, averaging over 500,000 copies per year—half that of Salinger’s.

So what sends J.D. Salinger’s 69-year old novel still flying off the shelves and shrinks a novel that was just as well-received upon publication?

. . . .

Millennials may be the death of classic books. In 1982, a year after millennials began being born, the top of bestseller lists were shared by seven or more authors. By 1988, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities could only manage eight weeks. A year later, Salman Rushdie had just nine for The Satanic Verses. By 1994, 10 writers were sharing top spot, each book averaging four weeks. And by 2000, 33 authors were sharing time at the top of the list, ensuring no one stayed longer than a week.

. . . .

It’s not that millennials aren’t reading books—in fact, they actually read more than their older counterparts. But they’re reading in different ways. They’re flipping through e-books. They have radical library habits. And, most curiously, women are asserting their literary power. Women read more, yet men still dominate the literary canon. (As an indication, every book mentioned so far in this article was written by a man.) Why should the heavily under-published gender continue to patronize the offending gender? This is a question that millennials seem to be asking.

This is compounded by the fact that publishing is twice as rapid now as it was in the 1950s. The John Grishams and James Pattersons and Stephen Kings and Danielle Steels all run each other’s classics out of town because of the quickfire production schedule of their work. Buoyed by hungry publisher expectations, the simultaneous explosions of their bestsellers mean none of these authors have been able to wield the kind of death grip Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivagohad on the top spot between 1958 and 1959 for 27 weeks. With the exception of Fifty Shades of Gray, The Da Vinci Code, and The Bridges of Madison County, no book since the 1980s has stayed longer than 20 weeks at the top of bestseller list. The rapid pace in which books are now pumped out might be why classics have shorter lives today.

Link to the rest at Quartzy

19 thoughts on “Millennial Reading Habits Have Changed the Definition of a Classic”

  1. “With the exception of Fifty Shades of Gray, The Da Vinci Code, and The Bridges of Madison County, no book since the 1980s has stayed longer than 20 weeks at the top of bestseller list. The rapid pace in which books are now pumped out might be why classics have shorter lives today.”

    Are they talking about that gamed list that money can buy?

    And I thought a classic was something that kept getting read and enjoyed long after the hoopla was over, like that Harry Potter thingy – which that ‘not really a best sellers list’ took down because it was keeping others from climbing to the top.

    Like Felix says above, I don’t think the OP has any idea what a classic is …

  2. “So what sends J.D. Salinger’s 69-year old novel still flying off the shelves and shrinks a novel that was just as well-received upon publication?”

    Because schools insist on making their students read the Salinger, not the Hosseini. 🙂

  3. “A year later, Salman Rushdie had just nine for The Satanic Verses.”

    And he had the benefit of the Ayatollah putting a fatwa on his head. What in the world does it take to have a lasting bestseller if you can only squeeze a few weeks from something like that?

    • Inventing an entire hidden world of magic wielders in a series of books capable of entrancing 8-year olds and adults.

      Or, inventing an entire world with a fifty thousand year backstory that gets picked up for one of the most expensive, most watched, and most profitable TV series of all time. Dragons help, btw.

      Tough market, huh?

  4. Millennials think the Harry Potter books are classics. That’s the high bar a classic classic has to meet in order to maintain its status as a classic.

    • Harry Potter readership is into its second generation, you know. Many early readers (CA 1997) are by now married with kids and those kids are approaching Potter age.
      And it’s still selling and being discovered by newer, younger readers.

      By most pre-millennial definitions, that makes it an actual “classic classic”, some of which were anointed even faster. GATSBY and GRAPES OF WRATH, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, come to mind, among many.

  5. I love how he/her points out misogyny on publishing but then doesn’t mention ‘To Kill A Mockingbird” at all… in a discussion of classics.

    • Their definition of “classic” really means backlist, not enduring cross-generational masterpieces.

      Try looking at it that way and you see where they’re coming from.

  6. They’re seriously blaming *us* for the loss of “classics” and not, I don’t know, the internet, the indie publishing revolution, or the fact that *everyone* now has a lot more choice in what they read?

    *eyeroll*

    These days, pretty much any article that includes the word “Millennials” is clickbate BS.

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