I was recently browsing through Twitter and a particular thread caught my eye. It was a post asking readers to give their most unpopular, even sacrilegious, literary opinion.
In the comments below was a cacophony of spicy takes: fan fiction and Young Adult literature are as important as classic novels! Ebooks are better than paper! Dog-earing pages is fine! Some films are better than the book! As I scanned through, I found myself nodding in agreement with some, while others made the colour rise in my cheeks as I struggled to contain the urge to reply with a tirade about how unbelievably wrong they were.
The majority of the posts, though, were almost confessional in nature, as though the writer were finally revealing a terrible, long-hidden secret. In my mind, I read their tweets like hushed whispers that could never be admitted to the outside world. Things like…
“I think The Great Gatsby is overrated.”
“Holden Caulfield is an awful protagonist.”
“I’ve never been able to get through The Lord of the Rings.”
But despite their almost ashamed tone, beneath each post was a deluge of likes and a throng of commenters clamouring to voice their agreement. “Yes, I hated that book too!” “It was so boring.” “The writing is so pretentious.” It was like each response was a therapy session that had allowed the writers to unburden themselves, finding kindred spirits for opinions that they thought they had held alone. It got me thinking: why is it controversial to say that you simply didn’t enjoy a book just because it’s a ‘classic’? Why are some works elevated to ‘the canon’, presented as objective examples of Good Literature to the point that people can only criticise them to anonymous strangers on the internet?
The fact is, all of us have started a book because it’s something we feel like we’re ‘supposed to have read’. All of us have struggled through a novel that we found boring or long-winded or uninspired because of the FOMO of not reading it. All of us have seethed with resentment at a book for decades because we were made to read it at school.
So why is there such a stigma around disliking a book when we wouldn’t feel any embarrassment about disliking a movie or a band? Part of it has to come from how we treat literature in schools. We present our students with Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen and proclaim them to be the greatest writers in the English language, as though that title is set in stone. At the same time, it’s an inescapable fact that some of those students will just never be on board with the Bard, no matter how hard we try. What are we saying to them? It reinforces the feeling that if they don’t enjoy a work, they’ve failed to understand it; that it’s their fault for not getting it when everyone else does. It creates the feeling that admitting to disliking a classic work is like admitting your own stupidity.
In truth, there’s a million reasons why we might dislike a book. Maybe the setting doesn’t resonate with our interests; maybe we don’t identify with the characters; maybe it seems too unbelievable or too real. These things are as subjective as liking hip-hop or avocados. What we should be doing is encouraging students to think about why they don’t enjoy a work. What was the author trying to achieve, and what features did they use to try and accomplish it? Where did they succeed and where were they less effective? By presenting works of literature less as paragons of genius and more as constructs to be analysed, we can break the chain between understanding a text and liking it. That way, we can help our students realise that there’s no shame in simply reading what you enjoy.
With that out of the way, it’s time for our own controversial confessions. I’ll start: Frankenstein is a properly tedious read! What’s yours?
Subscribe to Twinkl from as little as £5 per month, giving you access to a range of resources. That’s £5 for as many resources as you can download with no limit! A bargain and a time-saver all in one! If you want to see what we offer first, sign up for a free Twinkl account here and take a look around at our free resources.