Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Literature, reading, taste, critiques, discussions

I asked "Why do you think people hate Great Expectations?", because I don't know the answer. Tom and Inderjit don't know either. But this is Himadri's response in an email:  

"I’d guess most people hate it because they have no inclination towards literature and are forced to study it in school. But there are other reasons.
I first came on to the net nearly 20 or so years ago, and quickly became involved with several book boards. I was excited: at last, I thought, I’d make contact with people who share my interest. And indeed, I have made a great many friends. But … but there were many conversations that went something like this:
X: Great Expectations didn’t grab me at all. I know everyone says it’s a great book and everything, but I thought it was boring.
Me: Why didn’t you like it?
X: I just didn’t.
Me: Yes, I appreciate you didn’t like it – I was just curious as to why you didn’t.
X: It’s just my opinion. I thought it was boring.
Me: Yes, I realise it’s your opinion, but I still don’t know why you didn’t like it.
X: It’s just my opinion. I’m entitled to it.
At this point, Y sticks his nose in.
Y (to me): Stop bullying her!
Me: I’m not bullying … this is a discussion forum, and I am trying to initiate a discussion …
Y: Yes, you are bullying. X doesn’t have to give a reason if she doesn’t want to. She’s not answerable to you.
Then, Z pops in.
Z: I don’t know what’s happening on this board. You can’t express an opinion without someone jumping down your throat. It didn’t use to be like this – it was quite a friendly board when I joined.
Me (very much on the defensive now): I just wanted to know why she didn’t like the book – that’s all!
Z: Not everyone has to have a Ph.D. in literature to join in the discussion, you know! This board is open to everyone.
X: Look, I didn’t like the book because it was boring, OK? Because it was long-winded. Because I don’t just like a book because everyone says I should like it – I can think for myself, and decide for myself what I like and what I don’t. Does that answer your question?
Me (a bit miffed by this stage): Not really, but let it pass…
X, Y and Z (in unison): What do you mean by that? How dare you?
…and so on.
Sometimes, to initiate a bit of proper discussion, I’d put up an essay-length post explaining why Great Expectations is so precious to me. In fairness, some people would say “thank you”, and “that was an interesting read”, or whatever. But no discussion would ensue. And then, a couple of weeks later, X (or it could be someone else this time) would start up again:
X: I read Great Expectations a few weeks ago, and it didn’t impress me at all.
And Y would say:
Y: it’s one of those books people like just because they’re told they should like it, but it really is very boring.
And then X, Y and Z would join in praise of some piece of middlebrow tosh. Needless to say, they won’t go into why they like this middlebrow tosh: they just tell each other it was great, it was so readable, that they couldn’t put it down, and so on. And that, for them, is a “discussion”.
Now, is it really worth taking time off from all the other things you may be doing to get involved in something like this?
So why don’t they like Great Expectations? It may be that some have genuinely valid criticisms, but if so, they don’t articulate them. The reason they don’t like it, as far as I can make out, is some combination of the following:
-        They were forced to study it at school when they would rather have been playing computer games
-        They have not developed a discerning taste for literature
-        They do not think such a taste is worth developing
-        They are suspicious and resentful of those who have developed such a taste
-        They like to think of themselves as “rebels”, and disliking a book that is critically acclaimed flatters their ego that they really are rebels
-        They like to look down on people who they think are unable, unlike themselves, to think for themselves, and who merely accept the critical consensus
   At least, they would think this if they knew how to spell “consensus”
-        They do not understand what discussion is, and think that mere statement of opinion is the end of a discussion rather than the start of one
-        They think any opinion, no matter how uninformed or uneducated, is as valuable as any other opinion, because everything boils down merely to a matter of opinion
-        They think that any challenge to their opinion is a personal affront
-        And finally, they just don’t like it. End of story. Do you have a problem with that?
After putting up with this sort of thing for more years than I should have done, I have decided there is little point in trying to engage with those who are so averse to any meaningful engagement. There are intelligent and discerning people enough with whom to discuss literature." 

Here are some other great posts by Himadri about Great Expectations in particular and Dickens's works in general:
About literary criticism, quality, standard, taste, etc:


  1. I have a lazy answer to the basic underlying question:
    Whether or not people read and like an author or book is not as important as whether or not people in the future will continue to read an author or book; in other words, present tastes and interests are less important than the enduring aesthetic value of an author or book in the future.
    Yes, that is a lazy response to your important question. I apologize for being so lazy.

    1. It's not that important. I was just curious, seeing it in the list of the most hated books. I also googled "I hate Great Expectations" and found links to 2 forum threads, but the people there didn't say why they hated it either. So...

  2. Here's my two cents worth. I don't like Great Expectations, though I can appreciate the development of Pip's mind, the feeling of having risen and feeling ashamed of your humble origins. And his despair with Estella. Basically, Pip's feelings are the only thing that seems real to me in that novel. And the Biddy and Joe issue. But even Biddy and Joe don't seem real enough, somehow.

    It is this feeling that saves the novel. Otherwise it is clumsily written. The big reveal about Magwitch seems anticlimactic compared to the opening chapters. Miss Havisham's friends are bores, though she seems scary (another saving grace). They are not well caricatured compared to, say, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, Little Dorrit, Bleak House etc.

    Great Expectations I think is considered his greatest because of Pip's feelings which seem very real to us. Dickens' other novels do not explore much psychological depth (and can be very long) which is why they don't get so much attention. Personally I prefer David Copperfield. Dickens was a master at atmosphere, caricature, Victorian world-building rather than psychological exploration. He is entertaining - Copperfield is fun and entertaining but also sad - perhaps like a soap opera, but I think writing emotional complexity was a bit out of Dickens' depth. If you want to read an underrated Dickens, try Little Dorrit. Arthur Clennam and Mr Dorrit are interesting studies. There is some gentle caricature in Flora Finching (based on Dickens' early sweetheart), though on the whole the novel is quite gloomy. But very real.