The term classic fiction can be applied in a broad sense to any creative narrative that has either been given special recognition or deemed worthy of academic discussion. Most common uses of the phrase generally refer to prose works, such as novels or short stories, which have been acknowledged as having some literary significance or merit. This term is distinct from classic literature, which may include non-fiction genres such as histories, biographies or religious texts. Classic fiction can be subdivided by genre, language, time frame, region and other methods.
Most popular lists of classic fiction in the United States predominantly contain English novels written in the 19th century. Among these are works by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. Such lists may also include works by French, Russian and American novelists, as well as epic poems such as The Iliad and The Divine Comedy. While the commercial marketplace remains focused largely on popular Western European works, academic institutions promote a much broader sense of classic fiction that may include Asian, Native American and Eastern European creative texts along with some by previously underrepresented authors and genres.
These lists are important because they help to define which fictional works are presented to students in the classroom, as well as what they are encouraged to read during the summer and in their free time. Lists also help organize literary classes at the university level and frame academic debate. Classic fiction can even provide a bridge between generations who have grown up with the same reading experiences. Many phrases and idioms in everyday use came into the language from these works.
Aside from defining the literary cannon, the term "classic fiction" can also be used to denote works of particular significance within certain genres. Classic detective fiction includes works by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dashiell Hammett. Robert A. Heinlein and Isaac Asimov’s books are often described as classic science fiction. While these genres and sub-genres are often excluded from mainstream and scholarly debate, many readers discuss these texts and try to determine which stories deserve special attention.
Commercially speaking, classic fiction is generally marketed to students or audiences seeking intellectual stimulation. Special classic editions often feature higher-quality bindings and paper so customers can display the work in their library or on a coffee table. Texts considered to be classics are typically shelved together in a marked section of a bookstore, regardless of their proper genre. While most fiction shelved in this category was first published before 1950, the concept of classic fiction is always being re-evaluated to incorporate newer works and to remove texts that fall out of favor.