I love books. I love reading books, reading about books, and collecting book accessories.
I even majored in English Literature at university.
I’m the first one to admit that I’m a bit naive, but I was really surprised about the sense of superiority around Classic books.
Classic books can be wonderful. I’m a big fan of Jane Austen and some early Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but I encountered people who considered any books that were “popular” to be a waste of time to read. Many thought that if a book was difficult to read or understand, then it was a good book. Which is fine; if someone only wants to read books that challenge them, then that’s wonderful. But that isn’t a reason to disparage the reading habits of people who read books that don’t challenge them.
My experience at univeristy
What I took issue with was that they thought any other books were trashy and that the people who read them were unintelligent. Considering that I mostly read books that were widely read (and enjoyed!), I felt intimidated and like I was in the wrong place to talk about books. I particularly enjoy SFF and Romance books, so that didn’t help either as they were regarded as the lowest of the low.
One of the strangest occurrences of this I experienced was in a creative writing class. We had a guest speaker who proudly stated that she “only wrote creatively for academic circles, and she was aware that this limited her audience.” The way she said it felt pretentious. I think that that is one of the things that bugs me the most about it, other than all of the gate-keeping that those views can perpetuate. It was only a class, not a program, and certainly not a part of a bespoke creative writing program. A lot of us were writing casually and that distanced her from us.
This wasn’t prevalent throughout my entire university experience, and I’m probably remembering the instances of it happening with more clarity than other times that we discussed more popular books. I met other students and professors who loved a wide variety of books and enjoyed talking with them. And I was extremely lucky to be able to take classes in Science Fiction and Fantasy literature respectively, but my time at university was still overshadowed by a sense of pretentiousness for the Classics.
How judging a genre, and its readers, can be harmful
I think having a specific genre of writing, or writing from before a certain time period, lauded as objectively superior to all other types of literature is a double-edged sword.
Firstly, it can turn people off reading the Classics to begin with. They can already be intimidating because of the language and style of writing used. The authors and characters can feel so far in the past that, at a first glance, they might not feel particularly relatable. It can be helpful for readers to have space to read, or start, a book. There are Classics that I revisited or read for the first time outside of school and I enjoyed them a lot more than in classes. (My enjoyment of pre-1900s literature in classes tended to depend heavily on how the teachers/professors taught them).
Secondly, the people who only purport to read Classics are missing out on a lot of great contemporary literature; complex and simple. Casting a blanket judgement over all recent literature, or all “simple” literature, will mean that they’re missing out on a lot of great books.
Let people read what they want. Criticism is great and it can be important, but if it doesn’t have any real motivation behind it other than “this isn’t Faulkner,” then that isn’t productive criticism and it does more harm than good – for everybody.
Literature has multiple purposes, all of which are valid.
Art can be complicated and wonderful. It can be easily understood and wonderful. Books help evolve cultural thought, comfort us after a long day, and entertain us when the world feels like it’s on fire. Every single book, line of poetry, and short story contribute to this discourse. It’s normal to have preferences for types of literature, but it’s equally important to remember that other books exist and that other people exist.