Hating The Classics!

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Paul Whybrow

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I came across this provocative article which disparages the reputations of a dozen classic novels; I agree with much of what's said about them.

12 classic books that don't deserve their praise, sorry

Many of these books are set texts for students, which goes some way towards explaining why they're put off reading for life!

I've had several 'meh' moments this year, re-reading famous novels. As my latest Cornish Detective novel featured Godrevy Lighthouse, I decided to revisit Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse. As a child, she holidayed close to the lighthouse, though she moved it to the Hebrides in her novel. The story isn't given a lot of form, there's hardly any dialogue and the whole thing floats along in a miasma of thoughts and observations. It's part of the Modernist movement, which saw various types of artists, including painters, writers and architects, attempt to break with established ways of expression, partly as a reaction to the carnage of WW1. I found it to be a self-conscious experiment, tedious and mannered. Woolf's stream of consciousness style reminded me of being trapped in a railway carriage with a mad woman talking to herself.

Recent Booker Prize winner Milkman by Anna Burns is also written in a stream of consciousness, which I found challenging, but I was carried along by its hectic pace and strong sense of atmosphere. Incidentally, Anna Burn's success is heartening, considering how impoverished she's been. Instead of some literary luvvie winning yet another prize, someone working-class fought through to achieve recognition. This article offers encouragement to us all:

Anna Burns’s Man Booker prize is more than a fairytale – it’s a lesson | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Calling Harper Lee's Go Set A Watchman a literary curiosity, which many critics did, is being kind. I acquired a copy for £1 from my local charity shop and soon found out why the spine wasn't cracked. The story is a bloody mess, poorly written and it flops around like a dying fish. It should never have seen the light of day.

Go Set a Watchman: Why Harper Lee's new book is so controversial

It damages Harper Lee's reputation, and its publication came at a time when she was incapable of making wise decisions after suffering a stroke and being stricken with dementia. Someone made a lot of money. As P.D. James observed: "Publishers don't nurse you; they buy and sell you."

There's a problem in judging classic novels by 21st-century standards, including pacing, length, language and morals. I borrowed Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes from the library, which I'd read as a teenager, but gave up on its 900 pages. Originally published in the early 17th-century, making it one of the first novels, it's reckoned that it may have sold 500 million copies. If so, that's a lot of people who've gone to sleep reading it! I've seen paint dry quicker. It contains some fun passages, but they're miles apart.

I've nothing against long books. I enjoyed the 736 pages of Annie Proulx's Barkskins last year, and I'm girding my loins to tackle another Neal Stephenson or China Miéville doorstop. I wonder if writing long books makes a man's hair fall out, for they're as bald as bowling balls.:rolleyes:

Are there any classic books that you think are overrated?

Have you ever revisited a story and seen it differently?

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I'm rubbish at reading Modernist novels, but that doesn't mean I don't admire what they're trying to do. I like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Woolf's A Room of One's Own is both funny and important.
That link you posted made my blood run cold though. If we dismiss past literature on ideological grounds, there won't be much left.
Anyway, I know we're not supposed to be political on here, so I'll shut up. But couldn't let that link go without comment.
 
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I agree there are sacred cows. Some readers like to admire what is considered safe to admire. I have seen it in certain reading groups, everything that comes up for oohs and aah and 'yes, quites' is 20th C or older, but where are the new future classics going to come from?

Re a previous removed comment. Anyone campaigning to get books banned in this day and age on the grounds of them knowing better than everyone else what should and should not be stocked in a public or university library

is a puffed up, ignorant vandal and zealot, and of such I'd like to say. Alexandria. And. Hypatia.
 
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Silly. They're not wrong but so what? What does it matter? They're not classics because they're perfect. They're classics because they spoke to people and we continue to find value in them. Being a classic doesn't mean a book is perfect.

Margaret Mitchell does come off to people as racist. But her characterization .... honestly... the BEST. I'm not talking about her general characterization of white people or black people but the main characters ... and there were some black main characters. She gave them dimension. Anyone who says differently hasn't read the book twenty times. It's a beautiful novel.

Pride and Prejudice... they need to step off. Jane Austen had such wit and style.

I adore Lolita. Why would fiction need to be appropriate? The archetypes depicted in Lolita are alive and well.

I've read several of the others but don't have strong feelings about them.

Are there any classic books that you think are overrated?

I don't care for Hemingway. But overrated? I suppose if I thought the ratings given to books by others was a dependable thing to begin with ... there might be some I'd be disappointed in. Having not relied on them to begin with ... don't really care.

Have you ever revisited a story and seen it differently?

Sure ... that's part of the fun. How we are is always the filter we see things through.
 
Don't agree with much on that list. Am I the only person who actually sympathises with Holden Caulfield?

Moby Dick is overrated, a spectacular short story interspersed between the pages of a gigantic whaling manual. The manual is fascinating for a while, until you lose the will to live.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is worth it for the goat alone, but Victor Hugo does love to go on tangents that have little real bearing on his plots.

But Don Quixote! There isn't a dull moment, though the trick is to read it in two parts, as written. It also contains one of the best proto-feminist speeches - written 400 years ago, by a bloke! It's spoken by a beautiful noblewoman who flees to the hills and disguises herself as a shepherdess to escape shallow men from falling 'in love' with her (this kind of 'love' is satirised throughout the book). But a poet kills himself when she rejects him, and all the men in the novel blame her.
 
I sympathise with Holden Caulfield. Though it's not much fun being inside his head, not because he is grieving and struggling, but it's so flat and monochrome in there....so little space or light. No way of knowing what it's like in there when he's happy. He soars free of that tether just once that I remember...to say that he wishes he could be the catcher in the rye.

I enjoyed pretty much any classics in my teens but I have to confess to not reading James Joyce. Mea Culpa. But I do NOT repent my omission sufficiently or sincerely enough to rectify it and find out how wrong I might be about that.

Bring to me instead the extraordinary Joyce Cary (who happens to be a he)
 
but I have to confess to not reading James Joyce. Mea Culpa. But I do NOT repent my omission sufficiently or sincerely enough to rectify it and find out how wrong I might be about that.
I tried. I felt my mental health was worth more, though. They just didn't grab me in the first 700 words. Or lines. Or pages. I'm also unrepentant.
 
I sympathise with Holden Caulfield. Though it's not much fun being inside his head, not because he is grieving and struggling, but it's so flat and monochrome in there....so little space or light. No way of knowing what it's like in there when he's happy. He soars free of that tether just once that I remember...to say that he wishes he could be the catcher in the rye.

But depression can be flat and monochrome. The catcher in the rye analogy is heartbreaking.

Can't manage Joyce either. Got through Portrait but tried and failed a couple of times with Ulysses. Maybe one day. Woolf is another one I know I should persevere with, but she's just too depressing. Managed Mrs Dalloway; gave up To the Lighthouse and Orlando.

DH Lawrence's Women in Love is surely another overrated book. It's populated by the most shallow, tedious narcissists, and as for their 'suave perfect loins and thighs of darkness' ... no, just no. John Galsworthy and W Somerset Maugham were of that era as but aren't as celebrated any more. Too enjoyable?
 
There's a bunch of classical authors who produced 'slice of life' stories in which (generally) characters lead disappointed lives and eventually die in conventional ways. Sometimes these stories are enlivened by other characters being somewhat callous or somewhat disappointed in response. I have to confess, these stories don't do too much for me, even when the prose is elegant. They're like mildly depressing documentaries without any particular point.
 
It's easy for someone to sit here 50 years later...100 years later... 200 years later... and pick apart books which have endured. Armchair critics are everywhere. But every author dreams of writing one of those books. ;)

They're classics because they have endured, not because they're perfect. One hundred years from now that list will have grown to include books published in our lifetime. And someone will write a blog post on them, pick them apart, and debate their worth. Bottom line: this is all subjective. :)
 
They have resonate deeply enough with enough people and for long enough.

That's exactly it @Susan. The penumbra is so deep, it is like the ironic tragedy of a deeply depressed person becoming more and more difficult to reach, so utterly sunk in on themselves, unresponsive, that they can drive people away just when they need them most. Even those who deeply love them. Salinger's done a kind of method acting in writing. Which is a masterpiece of empathy on his part, but as in real life, readers may turn away, helpless.
 
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Always took the notion of 'classic' to be a label that required challenging but have recently had to accept that my tastes change. Remember sitting down to read 'Ulysses', taking an instant loathing to it almost from the start, giving up before I had even reached the 20% mark. It was the first book I read that made me realise that life was to short to waste time on reading what you did not enjoy.

But, and it is thanks to Twitter delivering me the book in smaller, far more digestible, chunks, via an account that I follow, I have changed my mind completely and now relish it. I could never write like that, nor would I want to, but there is something about it that has taken me decades to appreciate. I cannot pretend to understand the whys and the hows, but I know it is worthy of much of the adulation it receives.

So never say never. Might even give 'Catcher in the Rye' a go again, having loathed that whiny, bitching little gimp Holden the first time around so perhaps my hard-gained, and still dubious, maturity might allow me to be a little bit more sympathetic than my much younger self.
 
But depression can be flat and monochrome. The catcher in the rye analogy is heartbreaking.

Can't manage Joyce either. Got through Portrait but tried and failed a couple of times with Ulysses. Maybe one day. Woolf is another one I know I should persevere with, but she's just too depressing. Managed Mrs Dalloway; gave up To the Lighthouse and Orlando.

DH Lawrence's Women in Love is surely another overrated book. It's populated by the most shallow, tedious narcissists, and as for their 'suave perfect loins and thighs of darkness' ... no, just no. John Galsworthy and W Somerset Maugham were of that era as but aren't as celebrated any more. Too enjoyable?

I'm pretty sure every high school student in the United States has to read Catcher in the Rye. I was glad it was short. I didn't find it that complicated or that interesting. It was what it was.

I also had to read A Separate Peace, which I enjoyed much more.

I loved the Bell Jar. If we're going to read books about depressed teenagers, I think The Bell Jar should be included.
 
So many of the 19th century classics were first published in instalments, whether written specifically for that format or not. I often wonder if some of the doorstoppers might be best appreciated that way, but you might forget subtler twists and turns if you were reading a book for a year or more.
 
So many of the 19th century classics were first published in instalments, whether written specifically for that format or not. I often wonder if some of the doorstoppers might be best appreciated that way, but you might forget subtler twists and turns if you were reading a book for a year or more.

I think breaking a larger book into a smaller book and releasing them that way is one of the smartest things people could do right now.
 
At school we had to read George Orwell's Animal Farm. At the time I was too young, I think. I thought it was just a funny story and at that time didn't fully understand the brilliant irony and his parodying of Russian politics.
 
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