Discussion Post: The Pressure of Reviewing Classics

Discussion Post Stars
I’ve been blogging over nearly four years now, and I have a general sense of how I like to review books.  I talk about the prose, the characters, the world-building, the pacing of the plot, any themes that stand out, and so forth.  If I’m adopting a more conversational tone for a specific review, I’ll note how I felt about certain plot events, whether the characters resonate with me, whether I was left dissatisfied by the ending of a story.  Yet, in spite of all my experience, I’m intimidated by reviewing classics.  For some reason, I feel there is a “right” way to review classics that doesn’t apply to contemporary literature.

At times, I think this pressure comes from my academic background.  I have a degree in English literature, and I’ve been trained to read classics a certain way: readers are supposed to look for themes and interesting formal features.  They are not supposed to walk into a literature class and say, “I think Moby Dick is really boring.  The pacing is horribly slow and the characters are stereotypical and unrealistic.  I didn’t relate to them or their problems at all.”  (Disclaimer: I do not actually feel this way about Moby Dick.)  That is the “superficial” way of reading books, not the academic one where the audience makes astute observations and appreciates the aesthetics and underlying meanings of a work, regardless of whether that work is “relatable” at all.

Now that I’m in grad school, I have been enlightened to the fact that “affect theory” or the study of how an audience responds to a text is actually a field.  I am heartened by the idea that the academy can officially recognize, on some level, that readers do have personal reactions to books.  However, the point of the field is still not for students to come to class and say what they personally felt about a novel; there is still the expectation that students make more removed and academic observations about the book’s nuances and meanings.

This expectation brings me to my second difficulty with reviewing classics: We have a popular conception that classics are thought-provoking and generally of a “good” quality.  Sure, some books (like Moby Dick) do have a bit of a reputation for being dull or difficult.  However, our society considers it a marker of culture or intelligence when someone “properly understands” a classic enough that her or she can profess to like it.  Publicly proclaiming that you think a novel like Middlemarch is so terribly written you couldn’t even make it to the end of the book is, in some circles, like saying, “I’m not insightful enough to see the genius of this book.”

Yet even if I do see the genius of a classic work of literature, and I like it, and I have decided my review will be more about themes than about my personal reaction, I struggle.  Again, maybe it’s my academic background coming through, but I just have a sense that “everything has been said about this book.”  There are lots of scholarly articles, particularly about the “big” classics.   I also wonder, “What’s the point of reviewing it anyway?  It’s still a classic.  Everyone’s going to keep reading it.  What does my voice add to the discourse?”

Frankly, I don’t know how to overcome these doubts.  I do, of course, frequently review classics on the blog, and I do often have a mix of personal reaction along with literary analysis in those reviews.  However, I don’t review those classics because I’ve come up with a grand answer about what my reviews are “doing” either for me or for the classic.  I review them because I like to record my thoughts about books, and I hope my review will open a discussion with others who read (whether they like or dislike) classics.  In the end, I suppose that’s all I can hope for: that all readers will feel they have something to say about great works of literature, and that there’s really no “wrong” thing to say, even if we sometimes feel that there is.

Do you review classics?  Do you feel pressured to review them differently from “popular” fiction?

Advertisements

24 thoughts on “Discussion Post: The Pressure of Reviewing Classics

  1. Brian Wyzlic says:

    I often feel the same way. Not necessarily in reviewing classics or not, but just in talking about them. Just like with contemporary fiction, I have things I like and things I don’t like (I love Shakespeare and Twain, but don’t care too much for Dickens, for example). Does saying that in the right company earn me looks of shock or derision? Yes, sometimes. But does that stop me? Well, yes, sometimes. I try not to let it, though. It’s easy to dismiss those who don’t like the classics as stupid or vapid. It’s important that people hear from educated minds that taste and preference exist even among the books considered to be in the canon. And since a lot of YA reviewers don’t often talk about the classics, it can be a nice inroads for those who find the classics daunting. “Well, Briana liked it, so maybe I’ll give it a shot.” Adding to the discourse? Who knows. Helping someone try something they may not have before? Definitely.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      Yes, thinking about audience helps me a lot. There’s definitely a difference between writing a blog post targeted primarily toward the YA blogging community and writing an academic blog post for my coursework. I like the idea that more casual blog posts might be a gateway for more people to try classics. I’ve seen far too many people say they don’t like classics or that classics are “hard” (which is obviously a big generalization since a “classic” can be so many things!), and I’d like to the think that if more people read classics “just for fun” and showed that it’s fun to discuss them casually too, that fewer people would be intimidated.

      Like

  2. Small Review says:

    I like your last line about how there is no wrong thing to say. The thing I don’t understand about classics is the mystique. When they were originally published, they were just books. A lot of them were “just novels” and looked at as frivolities. Or for women and children! We put so much weight on them, but I don’t think that’s entirely justified. (Which is not to say I don’t think they have merit, because I do enjoy a whole lot of them).

    Sure, the books are saying something, and sure you can analyze themes, etc, but you can do the same thing with modern books. Modern books are no different from classics, with the exception of age. But, a number of the modern books we read now will be the classics in the future. So why is it ok to speak a personal opinion of a book now and be ok, but if you speak a personal opinion about the same book in fifty years, suddenly you’re made either brilliant or a dullard by that same opinion? I’m not really posing that question directly to you, but rather to the community of academics you alluded to (Middlemarch).

    I love Twilight for these examples. It has themes, character motivations, “messages” that can be read, and certainly it has been analyzed and debated as much as any classic. In fifty years, will Twilight be a classic? Will we all discuss the author’s message and anyone who says “I just don’t like it” will be considered horribly low brow? I’m giggling at the idea, but why not? After all, how much of Pride and Prejudice’s popularity is because of strong feminist ideas and scathing remarks on class, and how much of it is really driven by the Darcy/Elizabeth “shippers”?

    Nice topic!

    Like

    • Briana says:

      Yes! That’s always my line of reasoning with “reluctant readers” of classics: that a “classic” can be a book of practically any genre or time period, and that a lot of classes were basically the pop fiction of their time.

      I also like your point that some of today’s fiction will eventually become classics, and that in many ways we can’t really predict what those books will be. Possibly not some of the books the “expert” critics are extolling!

      It is interesting how some classics have both what some academics would call “elite culture” readers and “pop culture’ readers. I’ve been reading a lot about Shakespeare adaptations, in particular, and how some are supposed to appeal for to the “masses” than Shakespeare’s plays themselves. That makes a lot of intellectuals nervous that something is being lost or that Shakespeare is being “dumbed down.” I imagine some of them would feel the same way about the Darcy/Elizabeth shippers, though it is encouraging that some scholars are starting to pay more attention to “pop culture.”

      Like

      • Krysta says:

        I am always somewhat confused by the idea that Shakespeare is only for highbrow readers, considering that the theatre of his day was packed with common people fighting in the pit and that academics frequently cite the raunchy jokes, for example, as included specifically for their benefit (though the idea that commoners only went for crude jokes while those in the galley were the only ones who understood the “big” ideas presented is also a form of elitism). This is another topic for another day, probably, but it is interesting to look at how we read literature and how less savory elements (sexism, anti-Semitism, or, less seriously, a lowbrow joke) are often tacitly ignored in a work of “great literary merit” while the same would not be tolerated in another work.

        Like

  3. Small Review says:

    “Possibly not some of the books the “expert” critics are extolling!” Haha probably not! It will be interesting to see.

    ah, readers are such a judgmental crowd. Forget the YA isn’t good enough debate, it’s not even enough for a person to like a classic if they don’t like the classic for the “right” reasons. *sigh* I think it’s nice that a book or play can be enjoyed and appreciated on multiple levels. To me, I think that expands the work’s value, not diminishes it. But what do I know? I’m no scholar 🙂

    Like

  4. Small Review says:

    That is a great point, Krysta! Shakespeare’s raunchy jokes were always presented to me by professors with a wink wink nudge nudge kind of thing. Like it gives Shakespeare extra cred for being able to toss in a joke like that. Had a modern author done the same, they would certainly not have received the same response!

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s true. For some reason it’s more acceptable to enjoy a raunchy joke from the pen of Shakespeare. Unless, of course, you are reading a modern “edgy” writer. But do the jokes make the writer edgy in the first place or something else? The more you think about it, the more random the distinctions begin to appear.

      Like

  5. DoingDewey says:

    This might be different for me because I don’t come from an English background, but choosing to just write about what I like about a classic is enough that I can ignore the feeling that everything has been written before and that my review needs to be smart. I feel like the analysis really has been done, but everyone has a unique reading experience to share.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I love this point of view! I’d like to always keep this in mind, and not get too mired in an academic world where having a personal reaction to a book doesn’t “matter” in some sense. 🙂

      Like

  6. Krysta says:

    A lot of the discussion here is making me think another post in this series might be interesting–one that asks “What is a classic anyway?” ;P

    Like

  7. jessicarainbowinspiration says:

    I don’t really dare to review classics. Firstly, I’m not a literature major so I don’t have any background in analysing texts. So I already feel very troubled when reviewing normal books. I always wonder if I’m doing it right. For classics, the pressure is even more because these are supposedly the jewels of literature. So many people say they are good. If I don’t like them, I must be wrong. What kind of review can I write to do such a jewel justice? I guess, the thing impeding me from writing a review of a classic is my self-doubt.

    Like

    • Briana says:

      I have a background in literature and have the same self-doubt! I attribute it in part to years of classes where talking about your personal opinion of a book was not “allowed.” So there really were “right” or at least right-ish things to say. But I agree with you so much that there’s just a general cultural pressure to “like” classics. Even if it’s not on a personal level, you’re supposed to be able to recognize and appreciate the genius of them somehow. It seems like the blogosphere, if not academia, is open to blogger’s personal opinions, though, so maybe you and I should start writing about more classics! 🙂

      Like

      • jessicarainbowinspiration says:

        I’ve read an opinion piece, by a blogger if my memory serves me right, that we should be able to differentiate between books we like and books that are good. So we can like a book but the book is not good, we can dislike a book but the book is good et cetera. Logically, I understand. But I find it difficult to practise, perhaps due to my lack of literature background.
        And yes, I think we should! We are entitled to our opinions and feelings of a book and express them! I would love to read more of your thoughts and reviews of classics 🙂

        Like

        • Briana says:

          That’s basically the view espoused in some of the criticism I’ve been reading recently. That people engrossed in “elite culture” can appreciate a book on its aesthetics, while the “masses” engaged in “pop culture” need to like a book or find it “relatable.” My main issue is the implication that one way of reading books is “better” the other. I would just say that they’re different.

          Most recently, I think I would say Chaucer’s “The Book of the Duchess” is something I’ve run across that I can recognize the “value” of, while not really liking it. I’ve read it a few times now, and, frankly, I think parts of it are boring. I also think the way it jumps about is confusing, and would not appeal to a first-time reader. (It certainly didn’t appeal to me.) I can appreciate now that the time jumps are supposed to imitate the fact that the book relates a dream, and that dreams often change suddenly and arbitrarily. However, that doesn’t mean I enjoy the experience.

          Liked by 1 person

          • jessicarainbowinspiration says:

            I totally agree with you! Why should one way be better than the other?

            In my opinion, the reading experience should engage both the mind and the heart.

            Like

    • Briana says:

      Yes! I’m not exactly sure who or what I’m afraid of. Certainly no one has ever come to the blog and commented, “You clearly just don’t understand this great work of literature.” 😉 But for some reason that slight anxiety is in the back of my mind.

      Like

  8. arenda says:

    I review classics from time to time, and have struggled with some of the same questions you have: hasn’t everything been said already? what does my voice add? (And sometimes I feel like reading the book through once isn’t enough to get a full grasp of the novel.)

    Susan Wise Bauer (and other fans of classical education) talk about reading great works as being a dialogue with great thinkers . . . so I tend to think about reviews being further conversation on those discussions . . . you know? 🙂

    Like

    • Briana says:

      That’s very true! I always discover new things while re-reading classics, and often come to appreciate them more than I did the first time around. I think that layers, or the ability to be re-read, is part of what makes something a classic. But I also think there’s something to be said for writing a book that people like/appreciate the first time around. Why would anyone re-read a book they didn’t enjoy?

      That’s a great point of view!

      Like

  9. Lianne @ eclectictales.com says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post Briana! 🙂 I didn’t study English lit that much in uni (only one course in first year) but having studied history I do find myself thinking about classics in terms of the period they were written in: how does this story or these actions or behaviours inform the times they lived in? What ideas were espoused that day or what ideas were the authors trying to prompt through this novel (a question I ask especially when it comes to Russian classics)? That’s awesome that you can apply the theory you learn in class to the books that you read (always the fun part, I find, haha) 🙂

    It’s interesting that you mention these doubts re: going about typing up these reviews on classic titles. I find some of my personal best/favourite reviews (and often the more lengthier ones!) are the reviews I’ve typed on classic novels (which also happens to be a mix of thematic ponderings & personal reactions (e.g. Henry James tends to provoke a lot of personal reaction out of me 😛 ). They don’t necessarily always get much attention (*le sigh* lol), but like you, I like to record my thoughts on the books and hope that someone would like to talk about it or be interested in picking it up at some point 🙂

    Thinking on it now, I don’t feel any pressure per se when typing up my reviews of them (or perhaps no more so than a contemporary novel? Or perhaps having studied in a different-but-related field, it’s never crossed my mind?), but when it comes to rating, I do find myself pondering a bit whether I’m rating based on its merits as a classic or if I’m rating based on my personal opinion/reaction to the novel. It’s usually the latter, lol, but I do try to I mention somewhere that I recognise its merits somewhere, even if I don’t feel like I’ve grasped the nuances of why it’s considered such a classic (if that makes any sense…realised I’ve been typing this Tolstoy-long response for some time now and I don’t know if I’ve digressed from the point of your post! 😛 ).

    Like

  10. Jillian says:

    I feel like if we talk about the classics in a personal way, they won’t seem so distant. That’s the point. That’s what your voice can do. If people read your remarks on Moby-Dick and think, “Eh! That doesn’t sound half bad! I might enjoy it,” and then they pick up Moby-Dick and read it, and then realize the classics might be their thing, well then, you’ve changed a life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Briana says:

      That sounds lovely! I think a personal touch can be what really persuades someone who’s reluctant to read the book. After all, they’re already aware it’s supposed to be “great” and have “literary merit” or whatever. So if that’s not convincing or just not catching their attention over all the other “great” works of literature, then something else has to.

      Like

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s