In the footsteps of many fellow book lovers, I have fallen into the trap of becoming an English Literature major at my university. But I did this because: 1) I like books in general, 2) I want to write books in my future, and 3) there was literally no other choice.
While, I call this a “trap”, it’s… more of a never-ending cycle of reading books by old white men who have long passed away, and being taught by old white men about why these books are the best books in the entire universe. *sarcasm*
I would like to preface this argument by saying: I have nothing against Classics, or older novels. It’s just not my preferred genre or time period to read from! I prefer to read books, usually YA, written more recently. I hold no grudges against the authors of older books, because during their time, these books were probably fantastic and all the rage! This argument is not against the books, but against the school system for making me read them, and for not teaching me to read them properly. 😌
As someone who just loves books so much, I wonder why I have such a strong distaste for the literature novels I read in school. I rarely enjoyed these books, in high school or college, and it makes me sad to say so. About 45% of what I have studied in these courses has been poetry, and if there’s anything I dislike more than these 200-year-old novels, it’s 200-year-old poetry.
Whenever people over the age of 50 learn I like to read, they assume I mean Agatha Christie and Jane Austen. Why? And when professors over 50 learn this, they assume I mean Shakespeare and Chaucer. Why??
I’ve recently learned that some professors and scholars don’t like or don’t know about YA, and while I can see where this is coming from (and I don’t like their taste in books either), I still wonder why they consider Young Adult books invalid to the reading community. I think they even feel this way about modern Adult literature, as well. Apparently, anything written within the past 50 years doesn’t count as actual literature to them?
The Difference Between Modern Fiction and Classics
The major difference between these books is that the Classics have had more time to be read and appreciated by their audience. Older novels also tend to be more story-based, and how those stories appeal to life from back when the book was published. Many of the older novels we praise today are more about the story than the characters. Although they may have complex characters, I personally do not connect with them at all, and the characters are not always likable (to me, anyway).
Modern books, particularly in YA, seem to be more character-based. They tend to focus on character motivation, why and how the characters do what they do, and the overall “like-ability” of these characters.
Of course, this is not true every book in these two categories, but these are just my general observations. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I’ve always been a more character-based person (as long as I love the characters, I’ll love the book, no matter how bad/strange the story is!), and I think that has a something to do with my distaste for older novels. It’s just the style of writing the characters.
Why I Dislike (some) Classics
These are just my preferences more than anything else!
1) Many of these books have elements which would not, usually, get them traditionally published today.
For example, I’m currently reading a “classic” wherein many of the paragraphs are just a single run-on sentence, with a heavy amount of commas. Not only are modern-day students taught to avoid writing these sentences at all costs, but extremely long sentences make me loose my train of thought. The sentence will start with one subject, and then go on to four other ones before explaining what the point of the sentence was to begin with.
Other publishing no-nos they often include:
- constant info-dumping,
- not getting to the plot until half-way through or later,
- introducing too many characters at once,
- page-long paragraphs,
- page-long sentences,
- long/detailed character descriptions for every introduction,
- vague plot points which don’t matter until the last chapter,
- overly-poetic paragraphs about nothing in particular… etc.
2) I dislike the story structures.
Some older books are 500 pages, but nothing happens for the first 200, and even my professors will acknowledge this. “Just get past the first 200 pages, and the rest will ~enthrall~ you” they say, as if that makes it any easier. And no, the rest did not enthrall me. It gave me a headache.
Other books will be structured… differently. I recently read a novel wherein the main couple fought and made-up consistently over the course of 20 pages. One moment, they were staring at each other with fury, and then, after thinking they wanted to kill each other, they kissed and suddenly the world opened up to them, and they were so deeply in love, and nothing could keep them apart… but then they wanted to burn the other with the fire of the sun! And it just went on and on like that! I firmly believe that this is something most agents and publishers would not allow today.
3) My main issue: More often than not, I have absolutely no idea what is going on, or about the purpose of the story.
Most of the time, I will finish the book and say, “So this man died and everyone was sad… but what was the significance of the story? What was I supposed to get out of this?” And usually, there are a lot of things I missed about the story. Then, the professor will spend about 4 hours lecturing about all of the things none of us understood when we actually read the book ourselves.
But that’s the problem! If the professor has to tell us about the author’s intentions and hidden meanings, but we didn’t understand this from the book at all, then why didn’t the author give us this information in the first place? I would have very much enjoyed these books if I had actually cared about it while reading, using my professor’s info.
For example, my professor will say, “This passage replicates the heart beat, what the characters were feeling in their ~lust~,” and then proceed to read the passage aloud, breaking it down in a way which would not be natural to reading. Even when he read it to us, I did not understand the heartbeat thing. I never would have read it like that without his prompt to do so.
If a scholar must explain everything the author wanted me to know about the story, and I am physically incapable of figuring any of this out on my own by reading the book as it was intended, then what’s the point of publishing it? Wouldn’t it have been easier if the author had found a way to explain these things in the text, or make them clear enough for the reader to understand?
some classics i do enjoy, just to make myself feel better about this
(i’m just boosting my self-worth)
Click here to see the list! No pressure!
Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
I liked Frankenstein, and I’ve read it twice. Not for fun, though – both times I read it for a class. Still, I did enjoy the plot and the character arcs as well, although it was hard to get into at first.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson
I read this about 4 years ago, but I remember really liking it, compared to the other Classics I read for class. It was short, creepy, and kept me thinking.
Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
I read this one last year, and I was surprised to like it so much. It was a short novel, and I enjoyed the connections between the main characters, although they never actually met. I also liked the message, and I understood what was going on the whole time.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (?), by Shirley Jackson
I’m not sure if this is considered a “Classic”? But it’s over 50 years old, and I happened to like it. It was strange and creepy, and had a few twists. It was also a little difficult to understand at times, but I was still satisfied.
What’s “Wrong” with YA?
We all have our reasons for liking YA and modern novels. I love reading YA because I connect with it well enough! But why might people outside of the YA readership (and scholars in particular) dislike YA?
The Birth of YA
The main problem I see is YA’s beginning in the literature community. The YA section of bookstores began about 20ish years ago, when people needed to market Twilight on an acceptable shelf (which I believe is actually true, or at least, the increase of books with Twilight-like content caused this). Books for teens, and older teens, were on the rise, but where to put them? YA as a genre has not been around for very long, which also means that there are no 200 or 100 year old YA books. *dramatically sad sigh*
Of course there are old books about young people! But these are not classified as YA, and they are typically still as complex as the other novels of the time.
Okay, I’ll admit that YA books are often “more simple”, or less complex, than Adult books. A lot of the YA plots are formulaic, as in “girl meets bad boy, they fall in love, they kiss, the end!”, (and YES of course most YA books are not that bad, but you get my point) compared to Adult complexity, which I assume is more like “his wife died in a tragic accident, those government people are out to get him, will he possibly survive this deep deep travesty??“.
Hopefully you can tell that I’ve never read an Adult Contemporary book, haha
When I say YA books are “simple”, I mean they usually include topics teenagers (and not adults) would deal with, because… they’re about teens. I guess adults just don’t find that exciting enough.
Recently, I believe the YA genre has expanded to discussions about a wider variety of real-life issues, but the language is also what makes some of it simple. The paragraphs are to-the-point, the characters have clear motivations, and the prose is often easy and fun to read.
But does a lack of explicit content in YA make it less complex? Absolutely not.
(I can tell you right now that I once accidentally read a very terrible page in The Casual Vacancy, and it was just about the least complex thing I’ve ever read 😂)
Outside of the book community, YA doesn’t exactly have a gorgeous reputation. When you look at some popular adaptations of YA books (such as 13 Reasons Why, Divergent, and The Fault in Our Stars), these are not always the best representatives of the YA genre we know and love. However, they are some of the most marketable representatives, usually because they have some kind of major romance plot.
But keep in mind, these adaptations are the only bit of YA that people outside of the book community know about, and so, that’s what they think of when they hear about the “Young Adult” genre…. The major flops and the problematic, angsty teens of literature. (I’m lookin at you, Tris)
Some YA adaptations are great (like The Hunger Games #1, and… idk, The Book Thief? The Perks of Being a Wallflower?? I can’t think of any “great” ones 😅), but that doesn’t erase the other adaptations, which are only okay or even bad, from the minds of the public.
What is the Future of Today’s Literature?
One of the scariest things I’ve heard on my English major journey was when my professor, who is about 70 years old, said he read the same old books we read today in our class, back when he was in college. 50 years ago!
I mean, I get it, these are revolutionary novels. But… what about my future children? What about my future grandchildren? Are you telling me that everyone will continue to read these same books forever more? The preferences of young readers are going to change even more over time, and these novels will just continue to be confusing.
When will students begin to learn about more modern literature? And does this mean that YA isn’t “good enough”? Sometimes, the answer is yes, because some YA is just for fun. But some YA novels and topics are more important and really need to be read!
“But Xandra, I’m busy. Can’t you just tell me what the purpose of this post is?” you, the ever-questioning reader, ask me again.
I would like to say that I understand why we have to read these books in school. They paved the way for our current literature, and that’s awesome.
But from my perspective… I’m very tired. My brain hurts, and I’m stuck between loving YA (because I write YA and I grew up with it) and constantly reading 100+ year old books which are not enjoyable to me, a mere inexperienced young person in 2019. I wish that we read books which fit my preferences better, but alas, that is not the case. I understand that I can’t possibly enjoy everything, and I have accepted that as my fate. My literary destiny, if you will.
Not everything is fun to read, and we just have to live with it, and learn from it as well. It may not be fun, but that doesn’t mean it is not important to learn about.
PS: I’m sorry if you saw this post a few days ago, when I accidentally posted it! (It’s honestly still so embarassing, even though we all know I do this every other week. 🙈)
What say you? How do you feel about the books we typically read in school? Do you like reading books from the 1800s, and why? Are you an English Lit major? Or are you… a literature scholar?
I want to hear all of your thoughts! 😊
Happy reading, everyone! 😀