Bookish Topic Tuesday
Great Book Dissonance
Inspired by a comment by Kirk, I want to discuss what he calls the ‘Great Book Dissonance’, where there are books (and movies) which are widely acclaimed and lauded and said to be great, and yet, often they don’t quite meet expectations. And he says that with regards to these great works, “it seems like people are only supposed to like” them rather than actually like them. I’ve discussed this somewhat before in ‘Tough Books’ after watching a book special on just that by Jennifer Byrne (on the ABC – the Australian variety). And I talked about how with some of the tough books which are classics and seemingly popular, you almost feel stupid if you don’t like it, because maybe you just aren’t smart enough to appreciate it. For some people they just end up saying that they did like it anyway, especially in conversation, to hide the fact they didn’t like it. So what is it with these great books?I think in part our expectations are to blame. These books are put forward as being classics and revolutionary and life-changing, which are all some very big claims. So when we actually read them, we have such loft expectations of what lies within, and that may be our downfall. The talking up of the books may be leading to expectations of grandeur, and if that isn’t met, the book doesn’t seem to be as good as we were told it was. Now, the book may actually be quite good, and if we didn’t have the prejudices to begin with, we may have come out saying, yes, that was quite good. Instead, we come away thinking that it didn’t live up to the hype, so maybe it isn’t that good after all.
Of course, personal taste plays an important role. If you read a lot of YA novels, swapping to read something from the 1800s is going to be quite a change. Writing styles change, pacing changes, vocabulary changes, all can make you feel like you are reading something foreign. So as you start reading this ‘classic’ it can be quite a struggle to get used to the writing style, and then that means you are already negatively biased towards the book. Which is a slippery slope as you then go through the book with a negative attitude, and probably a more critical eye.
Even if your attitude isn’t negative, the mere fact that the book is said to be a classic will probably make you a harsher critic. After all the book is supposed to be amazing, so you should hold it to high standards. You’ll be looking to see what makes this book so good, and some us will be purposely looking things to dislike to lower these books from their high standing. I do think that some people most likely go into the books seeking to dislike them.
So are these books actually that great? Many of them have literary merit. But what does that mean? Wikipedia suggests that literary merit is some sort of aesthetic value, which is so vague. I take it to mean that they are well written with a good message or were in some way changing the face of literature because of some new way of storytelling or new theme or as an author it was unexpected (i.e. a female author breaking into the male dominated market many years ago). But because aesthetic value is very subjective, it can definitely mean that great books maybe aren’t so great. Maybe they are great because they are put into the curriculum and then fiercely studied and then people find some meaning which might not have really been there, and the hype builds, and then it becomes ingrained? Or maybe these books simply are great, and it is with age that we come to love them too just as many have loved it before us? I don’t know.
So what are your thoughts on the great books? Are they great? Are they over-hyped? Is it simply a matter of ‘not getting it’?