In my post about 1984 by George Orwell, I mentioned that I don’t much like reviewing classic novels as I get very nervous about missing important themes or just not ‘getting it’. There seems to be an air of untouchability surrounding classic novels that only the best and most experienced literary scholars are qualified to pass judgement on them.
I follow a lot of bloggers and am always updating my GoodReads page (plug). Whenever I finish a book I read through reviews on GoodReads of all different star ratings. It’s not because I don’t know what to say myself, I’m just interested to see if my views meet up with fellow readers. What I’ve noticed recently, is that reviews on classic novels are almost always rated four or five stars. Those reviews that are rated lower are often met with a barrage of comments about misunderstanding the text. I have to admit, I’ve been guilty of this before. I can remember hearing somebody say they found Pride and Prejudice boring. My instant reaction was to think they clearly hadn’t read it correctly (as if there’s a right and a wrong way to read books!) or they just hadn’t understood what Austen was writing about.
Of course, books are given the title of classics for a reason, literary scholars have deemed it to have exceptional qualities. However, that doesn’t mean that everyone has to enjoy it. It seems so obvious to say – even as I’m writing this post I’m thinking ‘Do I even need to say this?’ – but there still seems to be a certain tradition of judging people who do not enjoy classic books. As though they are not ‘smart enough’ to appreciate them. This attitude is exclusionary and frankly, snobbish. Books are open to everybody – it’s why I love reading so much. Writing is an art form and I think it is widely agreed that art is open to individual interpretation.
Novels can be ‘good literature’ whilst still faults, particularly in regards to the portrayal of minority groups. For example, ‘Jane Eyre’ is my favourite classic yet the way it portrays race is troubling. Of course, these things should be viewed within the context of their time but age should not exempt anyone or anything from fair and honest criticism.
Over the past few years, I have tried several times to read ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte but no matter how hard I try, I just can’t get on with it. Something about Bronte’s style and the way most of the speech is written in the Yorkshire dialect puts me off, every time. That’s not to say ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a bad book, far from it! It is often regarded as being one of the greatest novels of all time and it is impossible to ignore the way Bronte’s writing changed the face of British literature, particularly gothic literature. Regardless, I did not enjoy reading it and, as I often say when I feel pressured to finish a book, life is too short to read books you don’t like. Just because I didn’t enjoy a book, doesn’t make it bad, and just because a book is widely regarded a classic, that doesn’t mean that everybody has to like it.
What are your thoughts on the way we treat classics? Let me know what you think in the comments!