About disliking a ‘classic’ novel

When we don’t like something that a friend likes a great deal, they may be surprised—even shocked. I know I’m often surprised when I share a book or movie or series that I think is the coolest thing I’ve experienced in years with a friend and they can’t stand it. How can they not see how amazing it is? I ask. And sometimes I ask far too emphatically and make them feel defensive.

It’s one thing when a single friend is disappointed that we don’t like something they’ve shared with us. It’s quite another when it seems the entire world thinks some book is one of the greatest novels ever written, but you think it’s mediocre at best. You wind up feeling more than just defensive. Especially when the people going on about how good it is are writers whose work you love, or teachers that you admire. You wonder if something is wrong with you. Did you miss something when you read it? Are you not quite discerning enough to recognize its nuances? Are you simply not smart enough to understand it?

Sure, we all understand that people have differing tastes. But when a specific book evokes labels like “great” and “a classic” from the sorts of people who should be good at spotting greatness, we expect to at least be able to recognize why the other people liked it more than we did. Part of the problem is, of course, that significant doesn’t always also mean engaging.

For instance, I was in middle school and high school in the 1970s, when The Catcher in the Rye was one of the most-banned books in the U.S. I read and listened to a lot of arguments about why it should or shouldn’t be banned, including descriptions of the subject matter of the novel, with debates about what it meant. When it first came to my attention, I remember trying to find a copy in both the school’s library and my local library, and coming up empty handed. The book had been described so vehemently as immoral by a teacher who happened to be the husband of one of the librarians at the public library, I decided not to put in an inter-library loan request. I didn’t want to deal with awkward questions. Being anti-censorship from a young age, this left me with the feeling that someday, when I was no longer trapped in the boonies, I would read the book for myself.

I didn’t actually get around to reading it until my mid-twenties. I was a bit underwhelmed. It isn’t a badly written book, by any means, but I’d been led to expect something mind-blowingly good and life-changing. I found it fell far short in both respects. Maybe the subject matter and style, which had been innovative and edgy when it was published in 1951 was simply too quaint by the mid-80s. Or maybe I had read too many books and stories and seen too many movies and plays that had been influenced by it.

The “Tales of Passing Time” blog posted a great description of the phenomenon:

A classic novel isn’t good because it’s a classic, rather it is a classic because it was important to the development of the art. And that certainly doesn’t mean that any given person, on any given day, will enjoy reading it. It means that, as a writer, I should be aware of what the classic novel changed in the historical progression of novel story telling. Some classics are pretty terrible, even unreadable, but they are still important.

I would rephrase that just slightly: sometimes a classic novel isn’t called a classic because it was good, but rather because it had a significant influence on the development of the art.

Sometimes a novel was the first one to introduce a particular idea, and that idea was mind-blowing and life-changing. It was so life-changing, that hundreds of novels since have taken the idea and developed it in different ways; each author putting their own spin on it. The idea becomes part of the fabric of literature after that, so that a reader born decades later will have encountered that once mind-blowing notion hundreds or even thousands of times. By which point, if we read the original, which might have contained no redeeming qualities other than this one idea, it feels derivative of all this other stuff we’ve experienced. We may intellectually know that the “classic” inspired all the other instances or variants of the idea we encountered. Emotionally, however, it strikes us the other way around, because we have already internalized the once mind-blowing idea.

The fact that the idea has become ubiquitous is a testament to the significance of the classic in question to literature and the culture in general. It doesn’t mean that everyone is going to love it’s original package.

3 thoughts on “About disliking a ‘classic’ novel

  1. You might call this the “Hamlet is a bunch of quotations strung together” effect. 🙂

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