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A Difference of Opinion on the Classics

By ndtamblyn 2 years ago

Usually it is good or wise to keep your negative opinions to yourself. Even with beloved classics, among the limited books that scholars or the public have deemed eternal. It is even better, when you know that someone is expecting your opinion, to find the good in something and share it lest they assume you don’t like it overall (the aspects that you dislike outweighing those you do). Creativity becomes painful through palpable reactions and through words, but it can be even more painful through the silence of those whose nearness (as distinct from their opinion) matters most to us. It is not wrong to assume the worst, but the forced and seemingly unnecessary mystery is the worst part.

Given how we are forced to learn about them in school, it is not surprising that many people have a bad opinion of the classics. It is fair to say that the books of old are slower or, through their language or size, more impenetrable than most works today. Most of the classics are left up on the shelf, even by those who are proud to call themselves bookish.

As the authors are long dead, and because it can be consoling for jealous artists to delight in not liking the works of others, the purpose of this post is to discuss classics that either I did not like in subject matter or style (but kept very brief because it is unpleasant for the most part to talk about these things publicly). Often I can see why others enjoy them or allocate them a rarefied place on the shelf of classics, but sometimes the estimation is so high that I can’t help but take a step back and think that all of the professors (as separate from the general reader and the general public and what they have said about it) have mislabelled the book.

The biggest example of this is, for me, Moby Dick. I enjoy Melville’s writing and think that many parts of his most famous work are just as well written as many others, but the book—in my opinion in forcing myself to read all of it—is meandering, predictable, stylistically inconsistent or incoherent, and sometimes nonsensical. Its opening pages are written in an excellently flowing style (after pages of unneeded quotations), but the urgency disappears, pages are spent on blubber and algae and, towards the end, the book becomes a play temporarily for no reason whatsoever. A sole survivor survives in order to write the book, and a slight, vengeful, unlikeable main character loses his battle in killing a whale he suspects has personally done him wrong.

Some books assume a stature that (we may feel) do not deserve them, and if many label this the greatest American novel ever then I do not agree with that assessment. Similarly, as Tolstoy famously did, it is possible to go against an almost universally assembled establishment and dislike Shakespeare—or some of his poems or plays. No one has had a talent for words like Shakespeare, so for others that don’t totally agree with Tolstoy (who said that his style and subjects were not engaging and simply lacking) it is more a case of disliking certain melodramatic elements or a lack of pacing in certain plays. Most people born in the internet age have shorter attention spans, and it is difficult to welcome the pace of a theatre born of hifalutin words; it is not surprising that even those who love Macbeth will still have a hard time sitting through (the less engrossing or successful) Measure for Measure or Titus Andronicus.

I promised this would be a short post, because it is an awful feeling sharing negativity knowing how harsh it is to receive it—even directed towards those long dead. So that readers are not disappointed, some other classics I did not like (talking only about books written originally in English)—As I Lay Dying (it moves all over the place in its story and perspectives, and of Faulkner’s books I greatly enjoyed only The Sound and the Fury), Bleak House (it begins with wonderful writing, then drags on for a huge length and, again, changes perspective in my view unsuccessfully), Tender Is The Night (it is a small story of indifferent characters), Sons and Lovers (the writing and the subjects are not engaging), and Jude the Obscure (Thomas Hardy is a writer I have always found it hard to enjoy, because his choice of words seems so foreign to me—I did however enjoy the stories of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Return of the Native).

It was a relief and indulgence of sorts to write this post, but honestly I just feel terrible about the whole thing. On the other hand, what can we help our preferences, and forming an honest opinion about the lasting works of those who are now long dead?

  Book Review, Books, Creative Process
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