Someone said something very strange to me the other day.
This was an acquaintance, someone I’d only met that day, at the event we were both attending. We had gotten onto the topic of my English-student-dom, and so, it seemed inevitably, we began to make our way towards the topic of literature. I mentioned some of the books I’ve been reading for my degree, and they mentioned the Great Gatsby, since the movie’s been all over the place lately.
Here’s the kicker. I don’t particularly like the Great Gatsby. I dislike it because I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters, so the pathos in the ending was entirely lost on me. I can entirely understand why other people do like it; it is certainly written with some skill, and if the character thing weren’t a problem, I’d probably adore it.
The look I got when I explained this was incredulous. “But you’re an English student! And it’s a classic!”
Just because I’m an English student means I have to like every book that is considered ‘classic literature’? Well, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for Herman Melville, Percy Shelley and Jane Austen, then.
I hate this perception that Classics are somehow beyond criticism. Sure, they’ve stood the test of time, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfect and everyone will like them. Not liking the Classics means you ‘just don’t get them’. Actually, I get this double with Jane Austen, apparently the idea that a female English student can be entirely ambivalent towards Austen is just unthinkable. Just like being a fantasy buff who doesn’t particularly enjoy Lord of the Rings is some form of sacrilege.
Here’s the problem, as I see it. For some people, there is no difference between enjoying a novel and appreciating it. For instance, it is perfectly possible to appreciate the way, say, Catcher in the Rye is written, how the character is developed, and the way the story is put together, while simultaneously not actually enjoying the book because Holden Caulfield is whiny and insufferable. I never fail to be impressed with the time Tolkien spent on his world and languages and all the background for his world, and of course it had a huge effect on the fantasy genre, you can’t ignore that. It’s just that I find the characters flat, and the descriptions of the world get in the way of the plot, for me.
Plus, it’s just kind of silly to say that the Classics are beyond criticism. That’s not a thing that happens to books. Yes, they’re all influential, and they are usually very skilfully written, but they’re just books. I mean, come on. We can criticise modern science fiction, but not War of the Worlds? Forget that – we can criticise fantasy today, but not some of the surviving greats of Gothic literature? Just because something’s old doesn’t mean it’s always right. We don’t apply that to people, how can we possibly expect it to apply to books?
I blame school. I blame school for a lot of things of this nature, that and Hollywood. We see so many examples of ‘bookish’ characters knowing all of these highbrow literary references, and we’re told in school that it doesn’t matter what you think of the book, all that matters is what meaning you draw from it. That’s true to an extent – you don’t need to like a book to appreciate it, but it results in this odd disconnect where, if you’re a bookish type, you’re supposed to read books exclusively from the canon of Classics, because they “make you smarter” or something. And if you have an opinion on the quality, then you’re arguing with something that survived through generations, and so many people thought was amazing, so you must be wrong. Try to tell someone they should like Twilight because “so many other people do, they can’t all be wrong”, and see how many times you get punched in the throat.
In the end, I only said “Well, can’t be perfect. I love my degree, but not always the books” and left it at that. I don’t regret not ranting at them; they were a perfectly pleasant person and there was no reason to start an argument. This is what blogs are for.