Bookish Topic Tuesday – Great Book Dissonance

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.

There’s even a collection of books titled ‘Great Books’, now that certainly raises them to a high pedestal.

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’?

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3 thoughts on “Bookish Topic Tuesday – Great Book Dissonance

  1. Quality is subjective, and there are many reasons why the so-called “great books” achieve that reputation. I have read few of the so-called “great books”, and the only one I disliked was The Swiss Family Robinson.
    Certainly, they are over-hyped and this is true of movies, as well. The Apartment is praised as a great movie, and when I sat down to watch it I did not even expect much of anything from it. I expected it to disappoint me and be at best decent, and perhaps this alternate strategy worked because I was shocked at how much I enjoyed it and by how great it really was.
    It is often a matter of “not getting it”, as they can often be hard to appreciate without considering their time period. A lot of why I disliked The Swiss Family Robinson was the episodic structure, pretentious writing, and the random animals from every continent showing up to be pointlessly killed, and I suppose these are all products of the time period. Perhaps back then people just enjoyed the adventure and imagining they were stranded on an island, and of course people didn’t know whether those animals were native to only one continent, but I don’t think there is much of a message that has survived throughout the generations.

  2. Water for Elephants is a very popular book I hate, but no one is really calling it a “great novel”. But there are many books that are popular right now that are being seen not only as unworthy of the hype, but horrible. Act’s chapter-by-chapter demolition of The Fault in Our Stars on Dragon Quill (http://dragon-quill.blogspot.com/2012/04/fault-in-our-stars-chapter-1.html) is a good example, so obviously it is more than just a failure to appreciate the work in the context of its own time period.

    1. I find the ‘negative review’/sporking blogs interesting. Because, I can read something about TIFIOS or Harry Potter or Hunger Games and the plot holes and bad writing, and love the review (obviously they are good writers). I can agree with everything they are saying about why it is a bad book, and yet still love the book anyway. The same goes for CinemaSins who reviews movies on Youtube. They go through the book critically and find things which most people gloss over, but are sometimes quite glaring. So I think it all depends on your attitude. If you’re going in wanting to tear a book apart, you’ll find what you are looking for. If you’re going in to enjoy yourself, you are likely to (though here it might not happen, whereas the other case it’ll probably happen). And as you said above, if you go in without too much expectation you can be surprised and really enjoy yourself. Which is why I do enjoy going into a book spoiler free, and not being told that this chapter is really good, or it’s super exciting later on.

      I think there is a distinction to a great book which was enjoyable and a great book which can stand up to critique. The former can have flaws, but as a reader you don’t care, and that doesn’t mean that you are ‘reading wrong’ or ‘ignorant’ or ‘uneducated’, you’re enjoying your reading experience. The latter I’d say is going to be rare because critique is subjective so I might think one thing is completely unacceptable while you are fine with it, but I’m not certain that a ‘perfect’ book equals the most enjoyable. But of course perhaps enjoyment is not the main purpose of reading.

      I have to agree with your other point above, that when it comes to classics you really have to consider context. There’s likely references you don’t get, words which don’t have the same meaning, stylistic things which are unusual, but for the time that was what people liked, and they got it. It’s like reading Shakespeare, there’s lots of comedy in it, but for Modern readers a lot can be lost, which is why I like having a guide/notes to go with the text.

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