Complaints that classics are irrelevant and boring and possibly single-handedly responsible for making students loathe reading have been around seemingly forever. I responded to this a couple months ago by explaining that classics actually fostered my love of reading, and the Orangutan Librarian recently argued that classics truly are relevant—and that doesn’t need to mean the same thing as “relatable.”
However, as the claims that classics are dull and fun-squashing and have no value continue, something pops out at me from the conversation: Every single example I have seen of a boring classic that someone hated reading in school has been written by a man. While this could be a positive sign (people actually like classics by women?), I’m worried that something more negative is going on, that perhaps people are not thinking of literature by women as counting as classics at all.
Maybe Classics by Women Are Actually Good?
When I see people mention classics they do like, they often are books by women. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is incredibly popular. There’s a whole book blog community event, Austen in August, devoted to the works of Jane Austen. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was recently named The Great American Read by PBS. Movie and theatre adaptations of all these works are perennially popular, and, of course, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is having a moment in mainstream media due to Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated adaptation.
So it seems clear that people don’t actually unilaterally “hate classics.” There are some classics they love! Yet when people dismiss classics and explain how they hate F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Shakespeare or Ernest Hemingway, their claims are rarely qualified with even a quick admission of, “I guess I do like Jane Eyre,” or an explanation of why some classics might have more value or be more interesting than others. Why?
Are Women Missing from the School Curriculum?
Perhaps this is partially because women writers are often missing from official school curricula and syllabi (though hopefully the tide on this is changing). When I think back to the books I read for literature classes in middle school and high school, only a few by women come to mind: Summer of My German Soldier, To Kill a Mockingbird, Ethan Frome, and Frankenstein. I’m sure we read short stories and excerpts of longer works by women, but these were the only major novels I can think of in seven years’ worth of schooling. If I didn’t go on to major in English in college, my knowledge of classics purely from schoolwork (not books I read on my own time), would certainly have been dominated by men.
My position might be slightly unique. I went to smaller schools, which means I had the same literature teacher for sixth, seventh, and eighth grade, who was a man. I had a female English teacher my first year of high school, but I had one male teacher for the next three years. This means not just that the books I read were largely chosen by men; for six years of school, exactly two men had control over my reading list, and I know for a fact that their personal reading preferences did influence the syllabus. In fact, Little Women used to be assigned in my middle school—before a female English teacher left, and her replacement decided that it was a girl book that the boys wouldn’t want to read (or maybe he didn’t want to read).
However, I think it’s fair to say in general that male authors are probably being assigned more than female authors, so when people think of classics, or think of just “required school reading,” books by men come more immediately to mind.
Does This Devalue the Work of Women?
I worry, however, that the frequent citation of classics as works by men and the complete omission of any mention of books by women means that people are not considering work by women as classics at all. Perhaps these readers find Pride & Prejudice and Jane Eyre interesting…but they’re somehow categorizing them as separate. They’re “just” romances or “just” books about the narrowness of women’s experiences, not sweeping narratives like the Iliad that deal with themes of the world and war. This ties into the trend that today’s authors have noticed where books by women are frequently assumed to be young adult novels, even when nothing about the books’ descriptions, plots, or marketing would suggest they are written for younger readers rather than adults.
If people actually do enjoy some classics by women, I would like to see that reflected in the continued conversation about whether classics have value/should be taught/are all boring and stifling a love of reading. It makes sense to me to argue that a particular book is a bit dull or should be replaced by another in the classroom; it makes a lot less sense to me to imply that are classics are by and about men (particularly old men, which I point out is not true in this post). Classics by women exist, and the question of whether they should be taught in the classroom deserves a lot more attention than it’s currently getting.