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?