Sunday, 29 December 2019

A call to be more humble

25 most hated classic books, 10 “great” books best left unread, 5 classic novels not worth the time it takes to read them, 10 most overrated classics, 15 books we give you permission not to read, etc. etc. The internet can often be a depressing place for (serious) literature lovers. I keep coming across such lists.  
What, after all, is the point of these lists? Only to voice opinions? To express hatred of books? Or to find other people who also hate them as you do, and feel that if you’re not alone, you can’t be mistaken? 
Whenever I see someone denigrate a book that is 100 years old or more, and scornfully call it bad, boring, and overrated, I can’t help wondering why they can’t be a bit more, you know, humble. I wonder why they don’t think, perhaps I approach the book the wrong way, perhaps I dismiss the author for not doing something but they were trying to do something else, perhaps I fail to see the literary merit of the book and should try harder, or perhaps it has some value I can’t quite see but it’s just not my thing. I wonder why they don’t ask themselves, why is the book still read over 100 years later, what am I missing. 
When it comes to films, it can be difficult because cinema, compared to everything else, is a very young art (cinema also has the misfortune of depending on technology, which has been developed rapidly and can easily make a work appear dated and fake, especially to someone not used to it and not willing to embrace it). In literature, it’s easier to see when a book has stood the test of time.   
When I first read Jane Austen, it was Emma, and I hated it. I didn’t understand why she was so popular, and so highly acclaimed. But the book’s 200 years old. The film adaptations may explain Jane Austen’s place in popular culture, but not her place in the Western canon, nor the high esteem among critics and writers. The assignment of her books at schools and universities in English-speaking countries can’t explain her reputation outside the West—around the world. I didn’t understand the praises, so I persevered—I read Jane Austen’s other works, and reread Emma, and then realised that I had been approaching Emma the wrong way, reading it with the wrong mindset. I started to see her brilliance, subtlety, and depth. I used to hate Jane Austen and dismissed her as the mother of chicklit, like lots of people do, today she’s my favourite female writer. 
Of course, not all writers I initially don’t like end up becoming favourites. I still struggle with Henry James. I have reservations against Charlotte Bronte, and doubt I can ever warm to George Eliot. People do have personal taste. 
However, people should look beyond personal taste. There is a difference between enjoying a book and recognising its literary merit—you may find a book boring, challenging, or difficult to get through, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a bad book. People should also expand and develop their taste—after all, taste is not immutable, at 25 you don’t like many of the things you loved at 15, then at 35 you come to like different things. 
Some books need a different approach. Some books demand rereading. Some books require readers to throw away their preconceptions about what a book should do, and go along with it. Some books demand readers to work harder and look deeper. But in the end, they’re also more rewarding. 
I’m not saying that we have to like everything in the canon, I’m not saying that we have to follow literary critics (they don’t even agree with each other). But as I said, there’s a difference between liking a book and recognising its literary qualities, just as there’s a difference between calling something a bad book and recognising that it’s just not your thing. Some humility would be good. 
I’ve seen it all the time, but it still surprises me to see people use words such as “awful” and “shitty” and “trash” for canonical works, or scornfully dismiss influential, widely acclaimed and recognised authors as talentless hacks. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are called upmarket Twilight, Jane Austen’s seen as mother of chicklit, Charles Dickens’s books are described as soapy and sentimental, Tolstoy and Melville join each other over and over again in lists of books best left unread, and so on and so forth. 
To me, Tolstoy and Melville are giants, towering above almost everyone else in literature*—when facing Anna Karenina, War and Peace, or Moby Dick, I’m overwhelmed, I’m in awe of their genius. When I see a reader express not only dislike but also disdain towards them, part of me is amused—these books need no defence. But at the same time, I’m appalled at the arrogance. 
Why do these readers not entertain the thought that maybe they’re missing something? 
One day you and I will be gone. But Melville and Tolstoy and many of these so-called overrated writers will stay, they will outlive us all.

* addendum in 10/2021: that was me, in 2019, being a fangirl. In 2021, I'd say Shakespeare and Tolstoy, but you get the idea. 


  1. Great article which should be read by both teachers and students.

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  3. I agree , my attitude has changed over the years too. I recently reread Middlemarch and get it. She is really involved with a discussion about political reform, which I missed in my twenties, but having read a lot of history in the meanwhile, I get her now. I do agree she is overly serious on occasion,yet a writer I admire 50 years on. I have to admit she is not loveable, like you'd other preferences. I love Tolstoy, except when he goes on a rant, but War and Peace and Anna Karenina are masterpieces. I continually reread Shakespeare. Next year I will read the plays and poems in chronological order. I only found your blog today and am thoroughly enjoying it.


    1. Thanks haha.
      And yeah Middlemarch is a great novel. I don't feel very close to George Eliot, but that one is undeniably a great novel.
      I don't know if you're on twitter, but a lot of things people say there about classic literature are quite annoying.


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