“Classic—a book which people praise and don’t read.” – Mark Twain
If you went to a normal American high school, then you probably sat through normal American litorture—that’s my horrible hybrid word of “literature” and “torture.” Maybe you listened to Faulkner’s Sound and endured his Fury, or said Farewell to Hemingway’s Arms. Maybe you read The Great Gatsby (I couldn’t come up with a pun for that). If you love books as much as I do, then you might have felt puzzled, or even ashamed, if you happened to think the hallowed canon didn’t live up to its laurels.
But isn’t it heresy to frown at the work of these dead, bearded, alcohol-tolerant men? (Yes, I know, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s face was as smooth as a doll. But still!)
Our teachers could always say we dreaded these authors because we were uncultured proles with no appreciation for anything but comic books and Harry Potter. But I did love some of the giants, and probably you did, too. Flannery O’Connor can make me laugh and flinch on the same page. I just didn’t fall in love with the giants that were pushed at us in class.
I never liked anything I read by Hemingway. His prose is flat and numb, his stories are brimming (figuratively) with beer and wine, and his female characters are almost always weak and neurotic.
Fitzgerald’s Gatsby struck me as shallow and slight, a soap opera about rich people, with clumsy and obtrusive symbols. The characters all play sad, artificial roles, with Gatsby calling people “old sport” three or four times on a page.
Once, I had to read Melville’s Moby-Dick. Our class was told this was the great American novel. Even though it has some great images, the book is hysterical and mawkish, an arm-waving self-indulgent wallow in a typical “the world is meaningless” philosophy. And the whale doesn’t even appear until the last thirty pages of a five-hundred-page book. It should be called Ishmael; or, a Really Long Detour on Our Quest for the Whale.
A teacher or professor’s answer to these reactions usually ends up in one of two categories. Tell me if these sound familiar:
1. “That’s how they wrote back then.” Teachers will use this excuse if a book is overwritten, overwrought, overdone, or overdramatic (ahem, James Fenimore Cooper). It’s true that books from the 1800s are often denser and more sentimental than modern novels. But if students like us are having such an allergic reaction to these books, isn’t that a sign that educators should consider updating classes with some of the excellent work being published today?
2. “You can’t judge a book by whether it’s enjoyable.” Other times, a teacher bewildered at somebody’s dislike of 1823’s The Pioneers will retreat and burn the fields along the way. He admits the book isn’t enjoyable, but it’s superficial, he contends, to value a book only if you actually liked reading it.
I strongly disagree with the second answer. Novels are about life, which is wonderful, vivid, and sometimes painful. If they do a good job of portraying this, shouldn’t they be enjoyable to read? Or fascinating? Or terrifying? But not boring, not false. Never.
I hope reading this might prove cathartic for some people. For others, especially critics who have assembled lists of “The Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century,” it might cause cardiac arrest. I hope not. But if so, a copy of Anthology of American Literature is on the way. Both volumes.
Which, if any classics, did you secretly dislike? Any mentioned here that you loved, maybe?
Anthony Otten has published stories in Jabberwock Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Wind, Still: The Journal, and others. He has been a finalist for the Hargrove Editors' Prize in Fiction. He lives in Kentucky.
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