When People Call Classics “Irrelevant,” They Only Reference Classics by Men—Why?


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.

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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 SoldierTo Kill a MockingbirdEthan 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.

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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.


19 thoughts on “When People Call Classics “Irrelevant,” They Only Reference Classics by Men—Why?

  1. Krysta says:

    I think people’s perceptions of classics are largely influenced by school reading lists, as possibly most people will not go on to read classics for fun. Because the canon in particular is still male dominated, I can readily imagine that many people were not assigned as many female authors in school, and so people do not immediately think of female authors when they think of classics, even if they do enjoy some of those authors’ works.

    In the same vein, I think there are more diverse classic writers out there than most people realize. The problem is, these authors–Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Rudolfo Anaya, Ralph Ellison, etc.–are not typically assigned in high school or middle school. And so the list of classics seems dominated by white men when, I would argue, it doesn’t have to be. We just have to get other authors to be recognized and promoted in schools more.

    Going back to your post, it is interesting to look at the Great American Reads finalists. The top four books are by women. Eight of the top ten are by women. People voted for these books, so they must like them!


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I think there is conflation of “classics=things I read in school=boring,” when it’s clearly the case there are a wide variety of classics and…even the people complaining that “ALL classics are boring” actually like some of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. PerfectlyTolerable says:

    Of the 24 books I remember reading in High School only 4 of them were written by females: Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Wuthering Heights. To this day Pride and Prejudice is still my favorite book! I know in my 4 years of High School I had a woman one year and a man another and I don’t remember the gender of my other two teachers. I know I read Pride and Prejudice, and Wuthering Heights with the male teacher. Though there is a chance that it was a school set curriculum and not set by the teachers themselves? Interesting topic!!


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      24 books! I’m sort of jealous. My high school classes seemed to shy away from assigning long works under the assumption no one would actually read them, I guess. (Studies on students’ doing/not doing assigned reading suggests this is true…) We mostly read novels for summer reading and then maybe one or two during the actual school year.

      And now that I think of it, my male high school teacher was forever recommending Phillipa Gregory, so apparently he doesn’t unilaterally hate books by women or something, but most of the time they didn’t make it onto the syllabus.

      My schools seemed to mostly function on having lists of recommended books and teachers could pick from them, though I got the impression from some other teachers’ comments that my middle school teacher was going a bit rogue with The Count of Monte Cristo and whatnot. Not really a common choice for middle school, though I enjoyed it.


  3. marydrover says:

    I never quite thought about the fact that almost none of the “classics” I read in school were written by men. In fact, if I really think about it, there were really only two–To Kill a Mockingbird & The God of Small Things. I read Frankenstein on my own in college, and am currently working my way through all of the Austens & Brontes, but I can’t think of a single other book that’s considered a classic that I read by a female author, and that’s a little scary. But generally, I think you’re right–when people “hate classics,” they’re almost always by male authors. Huh. Food for thought. Thank you for making me thinking!


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Though I also think my perception of this is shaped a bit by the online book community. The people saying they hate (male) classics are frequently women bloggers, women authors, women teachers, women writing online think pieces against classics, etc. Many of them dislike works by men but do enjoy, say, the Brontes; my issue is they never mention this as an exception or as a nuance to the “all classics are boring and irrelevant” argument. However, I DO know plenty of men in real life who like classics by men. But I don’t see that perspective in the book community online because there aren’t many male bloggers, booktubers, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

      • marydrover says:

        That’s a good point, too! I think it’s definitely influenced by who the teacher is/who the person saying they hate classics is. But it does seem strange that “all classics are boring and irrelevant” is then followed up with a like of Bronte because that lends the question of if there’s some kind of subconscious sexism happening. It’s a very interesting question, and one I’m going to be thinking about for a while.


  4. Jackie B @ Death by Tsundoku says:

    This isn’t something I’ve considered before. In school, the only classics by women we read were Wuthering Heights, To Kill a Mockingbird, some Emily Dickinson poems, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Atlas Shrugged. I took quite a few literature classes, so this surprises me when I think back. Though, I probably forgot a handful of books, too.

    Honestly, I never considered what made a book a Classic until I started blogging. I guess I just thought that the books I read I school were all Classics by default. Looking at the Common Core standards list, there are certainly more male authors listed than female authors. So, that’s another thing that will influence the focus of what is considered a Classic, if there are students who think the way I did in school. For example, 5 of 16 books on the 9-10 Text Exemplars list for Stories are written by women. Only 1 of 6 plays and 3 of 13 Informational Texts are by women. If the Common Core doesn’t start to balance things out in their curriculum, we will stay biased towards studying male authors in America.


  5. Elspeth says:

    No, I think you may be off base here. In fact I think that this is more of a discrimination against men (smash the patriarchy!) than a denigration of classics authored by women.

    Every where you read and listen, there is an onslaught of criticism against “old white men” as if they are the source of all the world’s ills rather than the builders of Western civilization. In fact, even if some classics authored by women really are bad or irrelevant, they wouldn’t be included in these discussions. Because they are authored by women, they are protected works.

    By the way, as a black woman, the only dog I have in this hunt is a profound wariness of the witch hunt against some groups and protected extolling of others.

    Very few things are people are assessed on their individual merits anymore.


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes, I think this is also part of it. Books by “dead white men” (or even living white men) are considered boring and irrelevant and “not worth reading” by a certain segment of people. However, my concern is the conflation of “books by dead white men” = classics, so therefore classics are boring and irrelevant. There are plenty of classics by women and POC!

      I also think there’s something to the fact that the online book community (bloggers but also YA authors, people I see writing “classics are stupid” think pieces, etc.) tend to be women. These people frequently seem to think classics by men are not worthwhile but DO like classics by women; they just don’t mention that in their posts. On the other hand, I know plenty of men in real life who like classics written by men. So there’s this sense online that “no one likes The Great Gatsby” when maybe it’s more like “many women bloggers don’t like The Great Gatsby, but plenty of male readers in high school enjoy The Great Gatsby.”


  6. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Brilliant discussion! I do worry when people equate classics to being *by men*- partly cos how did they not get the memo about so many incredible female authors? Are they missing out? And also cos it suggests that people are deliberately ignoring the work of women and thinking it’s not as important- which really bothers me. I’m quite familiar with the national curriculum here (at least for the last decade probably) and there are plenty of female authors on there. So I do think this runs the risk of devaluing work by women.
    Bit off topic, but I have also always chafed at the claim that Rowling was the first properly famous female author (and that’s why she had to obscure her name) it undermines the success of other women. And I think there’s a similar problem here.
    Thanks for linking to my post!


    • Briana | Pages Unbound says:

      Yes! It’s so telling when all the “examples” of classics people come up with are by men. Did they not read any by women? Or do they “not count:” for some reason? I agree, too, that even official school lists are including more women authors, so it seems weird that I still don’t see them mentioned in blog posts or even professional articles that discuss classics.

      Do people really say that about Rowling??? I heard it was just a marketing thing to appeal to more male middle grade readers, but I have no idea if she felt like she “had to” or if Harry Potter really would not have sold if she put her full name on the cover. I’m pretty sure people figured out she was a woman fairly quickly?

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        Yeah it really bothers me! I feel like it’s so selective and obviously wrong… and yet people believe it?

        Yes- I have heard that (and I’ve heard that too- which I would also disagree with cos there were already female MG writers like Diana Wynne Jones, Cornelia Funke and Enid Blyton selling to boys!) I don’t know if she had to either, but regardless of whether it was the publisher being wrong at the time or people being wrong about it now, I just don’t agree with that argument (and yeah, it’s not like it stayed a secret).


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