OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve been reading The Classic Short Story 1870-1925, by Florence Goyet. It puts forward some interesting, and perhaps contentious ideas about the form, but what it started me thinking about, was how you define that ‘classic’. It’s a word that in popular usage can be vague, variable even, in meaning,. We can have classic cars, classic movies, classic clothes, and even classic curries, but I wanted to know what made a short story ‘classic’.

My wife trained, and worked, for several years as a textile designer, so I asked her for a definition. Classic, she told me, implied a design that contained elements that had never gone out of fashion; that were used over and over again, being adapted and renewed continuously, but never losing their connection with the origin. The ‘classic’ element of a design does not disguise, hide or deny its heritage, but proclaims it. Yet such elements would be regarded as neither ‘retro’, nor ‘old fashioned’, though logically they might be both.

The classic short story then, must carry elements of previous short stories, elements that are still valued, even though they are recognised to be unoriginal, because, in fact, they are unoriginal. So where do the origins lie of Ms Goyet’s Classics of 1870-1925? I pose the question because it crossed my mind that when we use the term, with its dates, we are perhaps intending it to be understood that the stories of those dates are the origin of what becomes classic when copied in later periods, rather than being examples of stories that themselves copied from earlier designs.

Ms Goyet’s study was based on a study of a thousand short stories. I can’t match that. I have only read – in English originals or in translation – a thousand, but in them have sensed elements that to me are ‘classic’ over almost a thousand years of writing. Boccaccio, among others, in his Decameron, was producing stories that seemed to me to read very much as modern short stories might, in both structure and content. And some of the seventeenth and eighteenth century stories I have written about in this blog seem quite contemporary. Are the elements that make them so ‘classic’ elements?

Or does the term move on in some way, like a torch beam with a ‘classic-coloured’ filter sweeping across the time-line of past stories, with Ms Goyet’s generation – whichever that might be – illuminating that particular late nineteenth century period in its beam? With which colourful metaphor I’ll leave you to speculate on’t.